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How to Recognize Fake News, Propaganda, and Opinions Online

So far we’ve discussed “fake news” in very general terms. In reality, there are many different types of false information disseminated online, and not all for the same purpose or effect.

Fake News

Let’s start with fake news itself. Fake news is literally news stories that are deliberately false. These fake news stories are filled with lies and made-up “facts” about a particular topic. They describe events that didn’t happen—or didn’t happen the way the story describes.

In other words, fake news is fiction, in the form of a purportedly (but not really) real news article.

You find fake news stories in people’s social media feeds, and on fake news websites. These are sites that exist purely to disseminate fake news articles—hoaxes, disinformation, and propaganda. The stories posted on these websites then get shared via social media, which is why you see them posted by your friends in your Facebook and Twitter news feeds.

The intent of these sites is to mislead people into thinking they’re reading real news articles. They’re neither satirical nor accidental. The writers are purposefully crafting believable-sounding but totally fraudulent articles, typically for their own financial or political gain.

Because of the outsized influence of these fake news sites, especially during the 2016 presidential election, many view this sort of propaganda as a threat to democracy. If enough people believe the fake news, not only are voters misled but genuine news is delegitimized. It becomes more and more difficult for people to determine the real from the fake, and that shakes everything up.

Outright Lies

Not all of the untruths spread online come from organized fake news sites. Some of what you read on Facebook and other social media are plain old lies. You know, when someone deliberately says something that they know isn’t true.

For some reason, some people have trouble calling a lie a lie. In the mainstream media, you’re more likely to hear that someone “misspoke” or told an “untruth” or “falsehood.” Sometimes a person is said to have “distorted the facts.” And some politicians now refer to “alternative facts.”

Whatever you call it, a lie is a lie, and the person telling it is a liar. But what if a person doesn’t tell the original lie, they just pass it on via a social media post? The person sharing the lie has the excuse that someone else said it, and they’re just relating it without judgment. This might technically absolve the second person from the original sin, but passing on a lie as if it’s the truth is just as good as lying, if you ask me.

In any case, be on the lookout for people lying or sharing lies on Facebook and other social media. Again, just because someone (even someone important) says something doesn’t make it true. It may not technically be fake news, but it’s just as false.

Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories have been around as long as anyone can remember; some people want to believe that certain events are much more complex than we are led to believe. There are people who believe that JFK’s assassination was part of a nefarious plot, or that the moon landing was faked, or that Elvis Presley faked his own death. Despite facts proving otherwise, these conspiracy theories persist.

In fact, conspiracy theorists have become more emboldened in recent years, thanks to others sharing their theories over the Internet. Social media makes it easier for those of like mind to pass their theories back and forth and to gain additional exposure to the previously uninitiated. If you haven’t yet seen a particular conspiracy theory, it might look reasonable when you see it in a friend’s news feed.

Social media has also helped spread newer conspiracy theories, often immediately after some tragic event in the news. More recent conspiracy theories have sprung up around climate change (it’s a hoax perpetuated by greedy scientists), the 9/11 attacks (a “false flag” event planned by the U.S. government), vaccines and autism (the first causes the second), and Beyoncé (apparently she’s been replaced by a clone). None of these theories has any amount of truth to them, yet they persist, especially in social media.

Why do some people believe these wild claims? For some, it’s a way of trying to make sense out of seemingly random events. It just doesn’t make any sense that a lone gunman could slip through the cracks and shoot a president, so there has to be more to the story. Hence the creation of a conspiracy behind the whole thing; that’s somehow more comforting than acknowledging that random events sometimes just happen.

In any case, social media is rife with conspiracy theories of all shapes and sizes. Don’t believe them.

Propaganda

Some of what people call fake news is actually propaganda—disinformation used to mislead or promote a particular point of view. Propaganda is particularly popular (and particularly potent) in politics, where one side spouts selective facts in an effort to promote its cause or disparage the opposite side.

We’re all targets of propaganda—from one or the other political parties, from our government, even from foreign governments. For example, China has built a multi-billion dollar media empire to spread pro-Communist propaganda around the globe; Russia has similarly been accused of using propaganda to influence elections in several countries. And some claim that the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television network is being used to spread Islamic propaganda throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Political propaganda isn’t new, nor is it limited to foreign actors. No doubt some people abroad see the broadcasts of Voice of America as a form of propaganda. For that matter, some right wingers in our country see certain news media as spreading left-wing propaganda—just as some left wingers view other news media as spreading right-wing propaganda.

The fact is, big players—political parties, governments, and movements—have always used propaganda to influence the masses and will undoubtedly continue to do so. What’s changed is they’re now doing it via social media.

Biased News

Listen to some people in the political sphere, and you’re bound to hear that this or that particular news outlet is fake news. Although this can be the case, in most instances the person talking simply doesn’t like the viewpoint espoused by that news outlet. That doesn’t make the news from that outlet fake, but it could make it biased.

Let’s be honest here. We live in a politically polarized society, where one side doesn’t trust the other and few want to work together for the common good. This polarized environment spreads to news outlets big and small, with those of a particular viewpoint claiming that media with a different view are biased and not to be believed.

It is true that some news media strike a bias to the liberal or conservative side of things. For example, it’s fair to say that Fox News is somewhat biased in a conservative direction, whereas MSNBC holds somewhat of a liberal bias. (Compared to these two outlets, CNN lies somewhere in the middle.) This can be seen by the stories they choose to cover, the “experts” they choose to interview, even the slant they put on their coverage. That doesn’t mean their coverage is fraudulent, just that it comes from a certain viewpoint.

Ideally, you know the political bias of a certain outlet and take that into account when reading something from it or watching it. I always think it’s good if you can avoid getting all your news from outlets that share the same bias; you want to get a variety of viewpoints to avoid creating your own echo chamber.

Opinions

When I was a youngster, our household watched the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Mr. Cronkite spoke with an authority and engendered a level of trust not seen in today’s generation of newsreaders. We watched CBS because we trusted Walter Cronkite.

Several days a week, at the end of the newscast, Walter turned the desk over to Eric Sevareid for two minutes of analysis and commentary. We knew this wasn’t news reporting because the word “Commentary” appeared at the bottom of the screen. Mr. Sevareid was voicing his opinions, and they were clearly labeled as such. You could never question what his colleague Walter Cronkite said because it was hard news, but you were free to agree or disagree with Mr. Sevareid’s opinions.

Fast-forward half a century and take a look at today’s media landscape, where there are more opinions than facts being broadcast, whether on cable TV news networks or on talk radio. Much of the programming on MSNBC and Fox News is pure opinion, dominated by a coterie of talking heads and their slates of like-minded guests, and CNN isn’t much better. Turn on the radio and all you hear are the Hannitys, Limbaughs, and Becks, and the occasional left-wing variation. It’s all talk, all the time, with very little news to break up the conversation.

There’s nothing wrong with espousing one’s opinion—over the airwaves or online—as long as it’s clearly understood as such. The problem comes when viewers, listeners, or readers take these opinions as facts, and view the commentators as reporters. They’re not. Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow, as much as you might like or dislike them, are not journalists. They’re commentators, offering their own opinions on the day’s events. What they say may be interesting—and it might even be true—but it’s always served up with that person’s own particular brand of biases. It’s not news, it’s opinion—even if it’s not always identified as such.

Fifty or so years ago, during the Cronkite/Sevareid era, television news belayed any potential confusion by clearly labeling the opinion pieces as “Commentary.” You couldn’t easily confuse fact with opinion when that one word was emblazoned across the screen during the latter segments.

Today, however, opinions are seldom labeled or presented as such, especially online. Some people hear Hannity or Maddow and take their words as gospel—and share them on social media as such. That’s not a good thing. Opinions are fine as long as we know they’re just opinions. We cannot confuse them with facts.

So when you see someone quoting their favorite left- or right-wing commentator, know that you’re hearing that person’s opinion. The facts of the matter may be different.

Satire

Don’t confuse fake news stories and websites with satirical articles and sites. Quite a few websites manufacture humorous stories in the name of entertainment, and it’s easy to mistake some of these sites with honest-to-goodness news sites or their mirror-image fake news cousins.

Take, for example, The Onion (www.theonion.com). This site started out in 1988 as a satirical print newspaper, akin to National Lampoon and similar rags of the time, and it eventually made the transition to an online publication. It has an established reputation as a source of humorous made-up news stories, with headlines like “Winner Didn’t Know It Was Pie-Eating Contest,” “Drugs Win Drug War,” “CIA Realizes It’s Been Using Black Highlighters All These Years,” and “People Far Away from You Not Actually Smaller.”

Most of what The Onion publishes is quite silly and wouldn’t be taken seriously by anyone paying attention. But there are other satirical sites out there that use actual events as the basis for their content, thus creating satirical stories that may be confusing to people reading them out of context.

In other words, not everybody gets the joke.

Here’s an example from the parody news site The Daily Currant a few years back: The headline read “Sarah Palin to Join Al Jazeera as Host.” The story was pretty funny but, as I said, not everybody got the joke. In this instance, the esteemed Washington Post got confused and cited this satirical story as fact in a profile of Palin. Whoops!

Other legitimate news organizations, both here and abroad, have been fooled by this type of satirical news item, as have millions of individuals who unwittingly repost the fake stories on Facebook and Twitter. I guess parody sounds all too real to some people, who then pass it on to their friends and family.

So satirical news stories aren’t really fake news, but they’re certainly not real news, either. They’re meant to be funny and not to be taken seriously. If you run into one of these articles in your Facebook news feed and feel the urge to laugh, it’s probably satire.

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