The rise of fake news literally is a threat to democracy.
The founders were clear in saying that an informed electorate is the key to democracy. That is why the very first amendment to the Constitution involves freedom of press, religion, assembly and speech.
And that is why every demagogue starts by shutting down any possibility of criticism.
It may not be fully appreciated today just how rowdy the press was at the founding of the country. Much of the press was backed by political parties; there was no pretense of ethics or objectivity.
But as much as some of the Founders complained about the press, there was agreement that it was necessary.
The Internet, however, has changed everything. While it has not only made huge amounts of information available to everyone with a smart phone, it has empowered purveyeos of deceit.
Russians, using disinformation techniques they weaponized during the Cold War, are sowing confusion and division.
Credible fact checking sites like PolitiFact, Factcheck.org and Glenn Kessler at The Washington Post often deal with political exaggerations and distortions. It used to be rare to discover total fictions that have entered the public domain. But now the fictions are so common they need to be combated.
So what do we do?
FIGHTING FICTION WITH FACTS
We use information to fight disinformation.
PolitiFact, the Pulitzer-prize winning fact checking operation, has partnered with Facebook to identify and root out the news fakers.
Facebook has provided a link at the top of its News Feed titled “Tips for spotting false news.”
It’s a worthy public service because at times the fake stories are more popular than the real ones because the fakers tell people what they want to believe.
Sometimes it’s difficult. Some of the fake news sites use techniques of the scam artists.
They may make their sites look legitimate. Sometimes the fake news stories start with a legitimate news report and then move into fiction.
But if the fiction involves something the reader wants to believe, the story can spread faster than wildfire.
As of April 18 PolitiFact has written more than 80 fact checks about fake news stories.
PolitiFact has compiled a list of the deliberately false news stories — 156 at last count. You can find the list at this site: bit.ly/politifactfakes.
If you look at the source of many of these fake stories, they often come with deceptive names, such as PunditFact.
While the fact checkers provide a good public service, it’ only a start. Schools at every level as part of their civics education need to teach students how to recognize fact from fiction, to become smart shoppers for information in the information age.
It’s not easy because the fake sites work hard to fool people.
HOW TO SPOT FAKE NEWS
Here are a few ways to spot the fakers:
• If a news story looks too good or too bad to be true, it probably is. If no other news source is reporting an outlandish story, that’s a good clue it’s fiction. Even if it wanted to, the mainstream media can’t suppress big news stories.
There is a conservative news media universe now that exists and profits by not conforming to the mainstream media. Most conspiracy theories depend on the presumption that the mainstream news media is suppressing a legitimate story. That’s simply not possible in this day and age.
• Look for a name of the writer of a news story found on the Web. If there is no name, that’s a major warning flag. If there is a name, do a Google search on the name to see if there appears to be a real person there.
•Look at the Web address. The fakers often take a respected name and change it a bit. For instance, BostonTribune.com looks real enough except there is no such newspaper. Or ABCNews.com.co — the extra “co” is the giveaway that it’s not really ABC News.
• Some fake web sites toss in a number like CNNews3.com.
Despite all of its human failings, at least the mainstream news media employ professional journalists, publish corrections, employ ombudsmen (New York Times and Washington Post) and remain committed to the principles of journalism ethics: Report accurately, act independently and minimize harm.
But the readers of news have an obligation, too, not to be faked out by the news of deception.