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Separating Fact from Fiction Online

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The internet can be a great source of news, but just because someone says something online doesn’t mean it’s true. Michael Miller shares tips for recognizing fake news and how to avoid spreading false information.

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This chapter is from the book

No doubt you’ve seen them online: headlines, news stories, links to web pages that make claims that don’t feel quite right. Maybe it’s something about the behavior of a given politician, or the details of some supposed new law, or even some wild claim that sounds more like a conspiracy theory than a news headline.

Chances are that what you’re seeing isn’t factual. It’s what some people call “fake news”—a bunch of lies and hoaxes fool the public into believing the unbelievable. And, if you’re not careful, you can easily be duped by the latest round of falsehoods circulating on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

(WARNING: This chapter contains multiple examples of fake news, conspiracy theories, urban legends, and other unsavory topics. I apologize in advance for any offense these items may cause, but they’re all to be found in social media online.)

Why False Information Flourishes Online

Just because someone says something online doesn’t mean it’s true.

That last sentence is important, so please read it again:

Just because someone says something online doesn’t mean it’s true.

If you remember nothing else from this chapter, remember that. Although the Internet can be a great source of news and information, it can also be a breeding ground for misinformation, lies, and propaganda. In fact, social media such as Facebook and Twitter exacerbate the problem, making it easier than ever before to spread rumor, innuendo, and plain old lies.

Spreading Lies—Online and Off

People have been spreading lies and propaganda forever. It’s just that this sort of thing spreads faster today. It used to be that misinformation like this would be spread by word of mouth; a friend would tell another friend about some supposed thing happening, then that friend would tell somebody else, and eventually you’d hear about it. It took some time for the rumors and such to make their way throughout even a small community.

Today, however, all someone has to do is post the latest piece of misinformation on Facebook or Twitter, and literally seconds later it can spread around the entire planet. One influential person makes an ill-informed tweet and hundreds of thousands of people or more hear about it—and take it as the gospel truth. It gets even worse when some of these people pass on the original post to their online friends; pretty soon millions of people worldwide are exposed to the misinformation, and the original falsehood takes on a life of its own that is now difficult to dispute.

This is how fake news becomes a real issue. It’s especially prevalent in the world of politics, but it can permeate rational discussion in all fields of interest.

A Few Examples...

When we say fake news, what exactly are we talking about? There are variations on the theme (which we’ll discuss later in this chapter), but I’m mainly talking about made-up, phony news stories, the kind you used to read in the weekly tabloid papers in the check-out lanes at your local grocery store. Now those fake stories are posted on fake websites and then shared on Facebook and other social media.

What kinds of fake stories are we talking about? Well, here are some of the top fake news headlines shared on Facebook in 2016, in no certain order:

• “Obama Signs Executive Order Banning the Pledge of Allegiance in Schools Nationwide”

• “Brad Pitt is Moving to Morganton, NC”

• “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide”

• “Clown Kills 3 Teens in Oak Ridge, TN”

• “Ireland is Now Accepting Trump Refugees from America”

All of these stories were totally fake. Not a drop of truth in any of them (which means if you saw and believed any of them, you got taken).

Let’s look at one such fake story in more detail. During the 2016 presidential election, a white supremacist Twitter account made the claim that the New York City Police Department had discovered the existence of a human-trafficking ring operating out of a Washington, DC-based pizzeria named Comet Ping Pong. This ring was supposedly tied to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her chief of staff, John Podesta.

This claim was, of course, totally fabricated. Although there is a pizza joint in Washington named Comet Ping Pong, it is not the headquarters for any human-trafficking operations, and Clinton and Podesta are not tied to the pizza parlor or any such unsavory operations.

The truth of the matter didn’t stop the original tweet from being passed around online from person to person, and eventually being picked up by multiple right-wing message boards, Twitter feeds, and Facebook feeds. It even got top billing on many so-called fake news websites, which helped the unfounded rumor to spread even further and faster.

Before long, “Pizzagate,” as the ruckus was ultimately dubbed, had to be addressed in the mainstream media. Many unwitting individuals believed what they heard and took to harassing the owners and staff of Comet Ping Pong online and in person. One such true believer even took it upon himself to personally visit the pizza place and fire off three rounds from an AR-15-style assault rifle. (He was arrested—and apologized—for that.)

And all this happened because one person posted something totally fabricated to his Twitter account. That’s how fake news and innuendo spread and become truly dangerous online.

And a Few More...

The Pizzagate situation is just one (very prominent) example of fake news, and how it impacts people in the real world. I could cite hundreds of other examples, many of them political in nature, but many more related to other hot- and not-so-hot-button topics. Fake news sites have sprung up to muddy the waters about climate change, genetically modified food, gun violence, space travel, computer technology, racial issues, you name it. (And that’s not counting the almost constant barrage of UFO and Bigfoot conspiracy theory sites.)

On the surface, much of this fake news is relatively harmless. (I mean, Bigfoot? Seriously?) But some of this false information could be deadly.

Take, for example, the topic of fake medical news. Yes, there are websites dispensing bogus medical advice, oftentimes pushing naturopathic and alternative cures in lieu of proven medical solutions. Fake news stories emanating from these sites have oozed across the Internet in recent years, many promising miracle cures that the medical establishment is, for some reason, hiding from the public.

If you’ve been on Facebook for any length of time, you’ve probably seen a few of these articles. Some of the more popular ones purport to offer a true cure for cancer, typically via some form of naturalistic treatment. One of my favorites has the headline, “Dandelion Weed Can Boost Your Immune System and Cure Cancer.” Which, of course, it can’t.

In every instance, the claims in these fake medical news articles have been discredited by doctors and healthcare researchers. Yet the fake stories persist, and people persist in reading and sometimes believing them.

This is not harmless folly. If you are a cancer victim and take these articles at face value, you might think you can stop your current expensive and often invasive treatments and switch to one of these holistic (and wholly disproven) solutions. Abandoning traditional medicine in favor of fake solutions could literally result in death.

Why Do People Believe Fake News?

On the surface, the claims that drive most fake news seem totally outrageous. Why, in the Pizzagate scenario, would a presidential candidate be involved with a human-trafficking operation—and from a small pizza joint, at that? Why would doctors knowingly squelch a miracle cure for cancer—and why would such a cure come from a common garden weed?

First, people tend to believe what they read online. We’ve been conditioned to trust the information provided by traditional newspaper and magazine journalists, so we don’t automatically question similar information presented online. We want to believe what we read; we don’t want to have to question everything.

Then there’s what experts call “confirmation bias,” which we all have to one degree or another. This is the tendency to interpret new information as confirmation of our existing beliefs. If we see something that aligns with what we already believe, we take it as further proof—whether it’s true or not. Put another way, when someone introduces a new fact, we try to twist it around so that it seems to support our prior opinions. And if we can’t, then we discount that new information as being somehow fake or illegitimate.

People also want to believe that there’s hope. If you are the victim of a serious disease, you want to fervently believe that somewhere out there exists a pill, a treatment, an elixir you can take that will cure you. If you’re deep in debt or can’t find a job, you want to believe that the latest work-from-home scheme really does pay $40 per hour. We need to believe, and when conventional means offer little hope, we reach beyond. It’s the same desperation that has fueled miracle cures and get-rich-quick schemes for generations.

When you combine fake news with the speed and efficiency of the Internet and social media, you amplify the problem. You see, one of the bad things about social media, and the Internet in general, is that you can filter it so that you only see those posts and stories that you want to see. You only have to visit those websites you want; you don’t have to view any sites you don’t like. The same thing with the news feeds you get on social media; you see the opinions of your friends and the people you follow, and don’t see any the opinions of anyone else.

This also means that you tend to see the same stories and information multiple times. You might read the initial source of the information then see that story reposted by one or more of your friends. The more often you see something, the more likely you are to view it as a fact—even if it isn’t.

This all creates a kind of echo chamber, where you only hear from people and sources like you, and never get exposed to any opposing views. The echo chamber reinforces your existing views and never challenges them. You keep hearing more and more of the same thing, and less and less of anything remotely different—which makes you even more susceptible to fake news that buttresses what you already believe.

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