Last March, a fake news website called the Boston Tribune ran a story that went viral: It said the federal government was secretly tracking Americans using computer chips in credit cards. In August, another bogus news site, the Political Insider, had thousands of people sharing a false story that Hillary Clinton had been caught selling weapons to ISIS. And in October, the Free Thought Project got more than 28,000 Facebook users to share its made-up claim that U.S. Marines were heading to Europe to battle Russia.
These invented stories are part of a disturbing trend. Fake news websites—many of which have official-sounding names and professional-looking designs—are multiplying. Also, such sites have begun to play a role in real-world events. Some political analysts say that fake news stories spread on social media may have helped tip the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump.
Now experts are warning that fake news sites are weakening the public’s ability to distinguish between fact and fiction. Meanwhile, Facebook, Google, and other tech companies are struggling with how to deal with fake news.
Easy to Do, Hard to Spot
Part of the problem is that fake news can be hard to identify. A recent study from Stanford University in California found that more than 80 percent of middle school students couldn’t distinguish between real news stories and ads disguised as news. (See “How to Spot Fake News,” at bottom.)
Many hoax stories are obviously untrue, but some contain partial truths or distortions of fact that make the falsehoods harder to spot.
Because the internet provides anonymity, anyone with a computer can launch a news site and pass it off as legitimate. That includes a person trying to help or harm a candidate, an amateur blogger, or someone just trying to make money by posting paid ads on his or her fake news site.
Take, for example, the 17-year-old from the European nation of Macedonia who founded DailyNewsPolitics.com and began inventing stories about the U.S. election. “I started the site for [an] easy way to make money,” he told BuzzFeed.
Fake or highly distorted news is nothing new. The earliest American newspapers were often used by political parties to spread lies about opposing candidates.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that objectivity and accuracy became the standard for professional news outlets. But those standards have weakened in recent years with the huge growth of the internet, social media, and cable news. All three make it easier to target audiences with news that’s skewed toward one political viewpoint, may not have been fact-checked, or was simply made up.
Should Tech Police News?
After last fall’s presidential election, many people called for social media companies and search engines to limit or ban questionable news sites. Some companies, including Facebook and Google, have vowed to stop fake news sites from advertising on their platforms. But so far, they haven’t banned fake news articles from being seen and shared.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in November that the company was researching ways to make it easier to detect and report fake news. But he also said that Facebook should remain an open forum: “We believe in giving people a voice, which means erring on the side of letting people share what they want whenever possible.”
Should tech companies decide what is and is not legitimate news? That raises concerns about free speech and censorship.
Legally, such companies can limit what we see on their platforms. They don’t have to comply with the First Amendment’s free speech protections, which prohibit only the government from censoring speech. But some media experts believe tech firms shouldn’t be the ones that control what their millions of users are able to read and share.
Most people can agree on this: It will take a concerted effort by the public and the media to fix the problem of misinformation and slow the spread of fake news.
“Users on social media need to call out people who are sharing this stuff, and journalists need to continue to adhere to professional standards,” says Anthony Adornato, a media professor at Ithaca College in New York. “It’s a team effort.”
How to Spot Fake News
- Be skeptical. Just because you see an article online, don’t assume that it’s factual—not even if a friend sent it to you.
- Verify. Make sure that what you’re reading—and sharing—was published by a reputable source.
- Look for clues. Carefully noting the sources cited in articles and even ads on the page can reveal a website’s hidden agenda.
Get help. Independent verification can often confirm whether something you see online is true. Nonpartisan fact-checking sites, including Factcheck.org and Politifact.com, examine news reports and their sources, point out untruths, and cite evidence for what is true.