Fighting fake news

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)- “Post-truth era” and “media illiteracy” are phrases that have become quite popular in 2016.

We have more access to information than ever before, yet some argue as a society, we are widely less informed.

Fake news isn’t just irresponsible, it’s also proven to be dangerous.

According to federal prosecutors, the father of a Sandy Hook shooting victim was told “you’re gonna die soon” by a woman convinced the 2012 mass shooting that killed 20 children was a hoax.

Lucy Richards pleaded not guilty to the threats in federal court December 19. She allegedly made them in January of 2016, after prosecutors said she spent time on the Internet, looking at conspiracy websites. The sites pedal the false idea that Sandy Hook and other mass shootings were made up.

Richards is out on bail, but federal prosecutors successfully got her banned from visiting those conspiracy websites.

“Fake news, false news, crazy stories, rumors, have been around forever. Social media has just revved up the spread of them throughout society,” journalism professor at Buffalo State, Annemarie Franczyk, told us.

Franczyk said while misinformation isn’t new, it’s spreading at a rapid rate.

“It’s diluting the actual news out there.”

And once it’s out there, psychologist Dr. Jennifer Hunt told us the damage is done.

“People don’t necessarily pay as much attention to the “this was said and it’s not true,” and tend to remember over the long term “this is what was said,” Dr. Hunt said.

A pizza shop in Washington was also the target of fake news this year.

28-year-old Edgar Welch showed up there armed with a rifle this December, claiming he was there to “self investigate” a child sex ring which didn’t exist.

Pew Research found almost a quarter of American adults report they have shared a made-up news story. 14 percent said they did so knowing it was fake.

“We didn’t have the benefit of the Internet and social media before. But I think anybody who ever got an email from a Nigerian prince must realize there are a lot of people out there who are trying to pull the wool over your eyes,” Franczyk said.

Most of us, research shows, are at least somewhat confident we could spot fake news if we saw it.

We showed some Buff State students two articles.

Article A is written by an Associated Press photographer following the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey.

Article B is from a blog called 70News. It wrongly stated Donald Trump was ahead of Hillary Clinton in the popular vote during the 2016 Election. Despite the information being wrong and poorly sourced, it was one of the top search results for “final election vote count 2016” on Google.

It took recent graduate Terrence Thomas only about five minutes of comparing the stories to spot the fake.

“Automatically within the first couple sentences they starting to show where they lean,” he said of the 70News story.

Junior Brianna Matheis did nailed the test also.

“I would say talking to witnesses is much more legitimate than Wikipedia and Twitter,” she said of the 70News story, which used the websites as sources.

Sophomore student Aierfan Maierdan was also able to spot the fake.

All three of  students we spoke to they said search independently to confirm information they see on Faceook or Twitter. That’s where most of their news comes from, they told us.

“A lot comes from social media. When something happens people just post it,”  Maierdan said.

Dr. Hunt said social media has created little bubbles.

“We tend to trust information more when it comes from sources we trust, when it comes from people that we like, and when it’s consistent with our pre-existing beliefs.”

It’s also created a false sense of action, she told us.

“A phrase that’s often used is “slacktivism.” Activism that’s very easy to do because it just involved liking or tweeting or sharing or something like this.”

That’s not to say signing a Change.org petition can’t do any good, it’s just not as effective as canvassing or attending community events, Dr. Hunt said.

We asked her if she considers fake news to be propaganda.

“I think if we think about propaganda as kind of a continuum, it’s certainly along that continuum.”

Social media websites are joining in on the fight to bring legitimate news back to the forefront.

Facebook has started to experiment with ways to flag false news. The company would partner with groups to help fact check stories. If an article seems phony, it will carry with it a “disputed” flag, to warn users it could be fake.

Twitter and Google have also taken steps to lessen the impact of false stories.

So what can you, the news consumer do, to make sure what you’re reading is true?

  • URL: Some fake sights will develop a page that resembles a legitimate news source, but unless it’s a URL you recognize, steer clear.
  • Photos: Are they visibly Photoshopped or manipulated?
  • Sources: Are sources in the story backed up? Can you trace the information used to an original source?
  • Does this seem crazy? Take a moment and consider what you’re reading. Does it make sense, does it follow logic? Are you finding this information confirmed by other legitimate news agencies?

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