The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.
—Count Leo Tolstoy
Fake news isn’t a new problem; it’s a catchy buzzword for what happens naturally when we socialize. We share stories. While sharing, we may exaggerate the tale or invent details or recall details incorrectly; we might give our story a twist or surprise ending to persuade others to take action or react a certain way. Sometimes, we tell untruths with every intention of deceiving our listeners. It’s a very old problem. One can imagine that while cave dwellers spoke around the campfire about their hunts, some-one was painting an exaggerated number of mastodon kills on a cave wall.
As for using a campaign of disinformation for political advantage—just one of several distinct types of fake news—that deception dates as far back as ancient Rome, when a campaign of false stories spread by Octavian influenced public support away from a popular and well-respected military leader by the name of Marcus Antonius.
In the 1940s, the spread of fake news was thought to have a broad and negative influence on American society. In the book Race and Rumors of Race: Challenge to American Crisis, author Howard W. Odum examined how rumors among both whites and blacks led to mistrust, violence, and elevated racial tension during a period of social change. Considering this history of misinformation, the spread of fake news was a problem for the digital age.
The Survey Says…
The influence on society regarding the spread of rumors and disinformation are still a concern today. A Pew Research Center survey discovered that Americans believe fake news on the web is “sowing confusion,” and 23 percent of those surveyed admit they have either knowingly or unknowingly shared a made-up story.
Interestingly, in the very same survey, Americans claimed they personally thought of themselves as good at detecting fake news. (Read the survey results at bit.ly/JA17Pew.) Unfortunately, those surveyed are probably overly optimistic when it comes to judging their skills at detecting fake news. In truth, we are horrible at spotting the difference between what’s real and what’s fake, which is why society could benefit from instruction on this issue.
In a recent Stanford Study that tested students from middle school, high school, and college to measure how effective those groups were at evaluating information, they found that students lack the necessary skills involved to recognize the difference between what is real and what is fake on the web. The researchers summarized their results in one word: “bleak.” (View the survey results at bit.ly/JA17Stanford.)
Would older adults fare any better? Probably not without assistance. Adults may be just as blindingly unaware of this defect in their critical thinking skills. This is because our confirmation bias may lead us to block out any information contrary to our belief. According to the editor of Buzzfeed, Craig Silverman, “What happens is a completely fake idea suddenly becomes the reality for a lot of people.” None of us are immune to bias when researching, which is why it’s important to evaluate what might contribute to a specific result, and to examine the source of the information when reviewing or searching for facts.
Verifying the Fact
The desire to search for facts is connected to how humans learn. In the book A Field Guide to Lies, author Daniel J. Levitin tells us, “We have three ways of acquiring information. We can discover it ourselves, we can absorb it implicitly, or we can be told it explicitly. Much of what we know about the world falls into this last category.”
It’s that third category that’s causing all the trouble. It isn’t that students aren’t as smart as past generations. It isn’t that older adults are better or worse at critical thinking than younger people. The Stanford Study focused on youth, but there isn’t a “fake news” generation gap. Any one of us can unknowingly fall for a false story.
The reason is simple: Most of us can’t check every fact, so we learn to trust our sources. But as we take this shortcut around the hard work involved in discovering knowledge for ourselves, we often fail to recognize our own biases and can be led astray by the very sources we trust.
For legal professionals, finding trusted sources is especially important because it’s necessary to ensure we are working with verifiable facts. We must have dependable data and we need to be able to read that data correctly. In the past, print resources reassured us that our information had been through a fact-checking and editing process. Retrieving information online doesn’t give us the same guarantee, so we have to pay attention to details about the resource: When was it published? Who published it? Is this a primary or secondary source of law? Who is the author and what are his or her qualifications? We routinely ask many of these questions while researching the law, but in an era of fake news and instant sharing of information, we should include online strategies to sort the real from the fake.
LIBRARY GUIDES FOR DETECTING FAKE NEWS
- American Library Association bit.ly/JA17ALA
- Bowdoin College Library bit.ly/JA17Bowdoin
- Harvard Library bit.ly/JA17Harvard
- Hillsborough Community College Libraries bit.ly/JA17Hills
- Indiana University East bit.ly/JA17IU
- Pace University Library bit.ly/JA17Pace
- Penn State University Libraries bit.ly/JA17Pace http://bit.ly/JA17Pace
- The Public Library of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County bit.ly/JA17
- Toronto Public Library bit.ly/JA17Toronto
- University of Michigan Library bit.ly/JA17Mich
- University of Oregon bit.ly/JA17Oregon
- University of Virginia Library bit.ly/JA17UV
- University of Wisconsin College Library bit.ly/JA17Wiscon
- Valencia College bit.ly/JA17Valencia
Defining Fake News
How do we define fake news? When people talk about false stories in the media, they are actually talking about several distinct types of fabricated news:
- Stories that are completely false or intentionally false. Hoaxes and stories made from whole cloth. Pizzagate is a good example of this.
- Satire, humorous stories, and pranks. Jokes that are usually not intended to be taken literally, sometimes get confused with real news. The Onion, SNL Weekend Update, and The Daily Show are familiar examples of satire and humor, based on the news premise.
- Biased stories and propaganda. Usually these stories have a partisan point of view that may include some real facts that serve to draw readers in and mislead them to form false conclusions. Often these stories include text formatted in all caps, overuse of exclamation points, and other attention-grabbing devices.
- Lies with statistics. Falsified data, cherry-picked numbers, creative graphics, or small survey sample sizes, are just a few examples of misleading information that is present in fake news stories. When using statistics, check who has produced the data. Are they experts in this field of study? Did they use the proper research methods? Do they tell you how the study was prepared and what methods were followed? Checking and verifying this information will help ensure your data is reliable.
- Marketing and advertising as fake news. This occurs when an advertising campaign mimics the style of a real news story. You’ll often see this type of fake news in promotional pieces for vaguely defined pharmaceutical products, as well as diet and herbal cures. These stories often include a fake doctor or celebrity endorsement to push the product.
- Factual stories that have errors or mistakes. These types of stories can include sloppy reporting, misquoting of a source, or wrong attribution of a primary source. A good example of this is the 2006 Sago mining accident in West Virginia. Initial mainstream news of the accident reported that 20 miners were found alive. Later this news had to be corrected, when it was discovered that only one man had survived the accident. Haste, distance from the primary source, and misinformation were blamed for the reporting mistake. To avoid these types of mistakes, it’s important to get as close as possible to the primary source. You should also look for agreement among sources. Are several news sources citing the same information, or is what you found an outlier?
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES FOR SPOTTING FAKE NEWS
- Fake News: A Library Resource Round-Up bit.ly/JA17Resource/li>
- How To Spot Fake News bit.ly/JA17IFLA
- Information Literacy & Fake News bit.ly/JA17KVL
- Q&A With Rutgers Law Professor Ellen Goodman About Fake News bit.ly/JA17Rutgers
- The News Literacy Project bit.ly/JA17NLP
The UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism Panel Discussion bit.ly/JA17Berkeley
- Troll Hunters (TV show in the Netherlands) bit.ly/JA17Troll
- Truth, truthiness, triangulation: A news literacy toolkit for a “post-truth” world
Fake news is a problem that requires us to review our assumptions about information literacy in America. Our institutions are trying to find a solution to the problem as well. We’ve already begun to lean on technology giants such as Google and Facebook to fix the problem on their sites. They have responded by investigating their role in the spread of fake news. Facebook has developed tools and alerts so their users can report sites they suspect are false. Google has attempted to block fake news sites from profiting off advertising by changing how advertising revenue is generated in addition to developing a fake news tool. Similarly, programmers are fixing an algorithm flaw that gives too much importance to popularity ranking rather than validity on the search engine.
Law and Litigation
Legal professionals have their part to play in stopping the spread of fake news, but considering the nature of the law, a legal solution probably won’t be enough. New laws move too slowly and fake news websites are being created and shared too quickly—so quickly that many of these sites already look like real news sites.
There are lawsuits that are attempting to define fake news as harmful. Examples include: the case filed by Scotty Pippen, who sued NBC Universal when it suggested he had filed for bankruptcy; the case against Facebook by a Syrian refugee in Germany who filed after a picture he took with German Chancellor Angela Merkel was repeatedly used in hoax news reports that accused him of being a terrorist; and finally, former beauty queen Laura Hunter, who filed against a fake news site in Texas for inventing a fake biography using her name and image without permission, and misrepresenting her political views; all to push people to their website. These suits may help individuals harmed by fake news, but individual case law won’t be enough to solve the problem.
The Last Trusted Profession
In a keynote speech by Librarian of Congress, Carla D. Hayden, she said, “In this time of wondering who can we trust, we are the most trusted source you can get …That very trustworthiness is our strength. That’s what we should revel in and be confident in.”
This may be why librarians are enthusiastically creating fake news detection resources and why those resources are multiplying on websites. According to an article in American Libraries magazine (published by the American Library Association) “Librarians can play a vital role in helping everyone, of any age, become critical and reflective news consumers. One positive outcome of the current furor about fake news may be that information literacy—for media and other types of content—will finally be recognized as a central skill of the digital age.”
Fact-checking skills alone may not be enough to stop the spread, but librarians do have a lot to offer. Our weapon of choice for teaching others how to spot fake news is library research guides. These guides are multiplying across the country, and a few of the libraries that provide them are listed on page 23 as examples. Each guide provides solid advice on detecting fake news.
When it comes to stopping the spread of fake news, there is some hope to be taken from our history. In the 1940s, the newspapers and authorities of the day asked the public to stop spreading rumors that were causing their communities harm. The social groups involved with the spread of fake news listened and made an effort to address the problem. The rumors began to dissipate shortly after this. Despite the bleak conclusion arrived at in the Stanford Study, our profession may be able to help prevent the spread of false information online in a similar fashion. We’ve already earned the public’s trust; now we can share our expertise to provide a valuable service for those who seek information in the digital age.
LIBRARY GUIDES FOR CHECKING QUOTES
When verifying information, don’t forget about quote-checking tools. Quotes have a way of drifting in people’s memory toward celebrities who may never had said what people think they said. It can be difficult to find the right attribution. These tools can help:
- Bartlett’s Quotations bit.ly/JA17Bartlett
- HathiTrust Digital Library bit.ly/JA17Hathi
- Library of Congress Digital Collection Library bit.ly/JA17LOC
- Oxford Dictionary’s Respectfully Quoted bit.ly/JA17Respect
- The Quote Investigator bit.ly/JA17Quote
Editor’s Note: This article was first published in the July/August 2017 issue of AALL Spectrum.