The Quick Guide for Spotting Fake News

There’s a reason why Dictonary.com named “misinformation” last year’s Word of the Year. It’s because there’s been a dramatic influx of misinformation. Misinformation is defined as, “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead” (Dictionary.com).

The internet is riddled with misinformation. Whether it be a lone individual, Russian shills or bots, political operatives, or politicians themselves: misinformation is everywhere. And with social media, a fake story –pushing the right buttons with the right audience– can quickly go viral.

The 2016 presidential election brought the term “fake news,” a form of misinformation, into the public’s consciousness. Donald Trump began calling any critical story about his campaign or himself, “fake news.” The audacity and irresponsibility of Trump dropping “fake news” into the American lexicon has served no one but himself. It distracts and misdirects the public’s understanding since he labels any critical story as “fake news,” which in and of itself, is fake news.

Strategies for spotting and avoiding fake news


Here are some simple strategies for detecting and avoiding misinformation:

  • Always get your news from trusted sources

There are many well-established news organizations that serve the public by providing fact-based information. The following news organizations are examples of trusted sources: The Associated Press (AP), PBS, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, BBC, Reuters, USA Today, among others.

  • Get your news from more than one source

The best way to consume a news story is to read the story from more than one source. See how different news organizations are framing a story. Using multiple sources is the best way to feel confident that the story you are reading has been effectively investigated, analyzed, and vetted.

  • Understand the difference between news and opinion

In the news media world, there’s news and there’s opinion. The news is objective and based solely on the facts. Opinion pieces are subjective, but base their opinions on the facts.

  • Use fact-checking websites to discern fact from fiction

These sites are dedicated to taking a story and vetting it for factual information. If Donald Trump makes some kind of radical or ridiculous claim, you’re more than likely to find a fact-based analysis of the claim on these sites. They give you a full breakdown of the validity of the claim. They’ll provide you with an analysis of the statement, usually with a truth-scoring system (e.g. true, mostly true, mixed, mostly false, false). Some examples of fact-checking sites are: PolitiFact.com, Snopes.com, and FactCheck.org.

  • Be very wary of information on social media

This truth is under assault on social media more than any other place on the internet. You may see a news story on social media with a lot of likes or shares, which may lead some to assume the story is safe. This isn’t always the case. In fact, more often than not, people only read the headlines and like and/or share the story based on how it makes them feel. So, they’re sharing a story without ever reading it for themselves.

Twitter is generally a safer place to consume news since news organizations have their own verified accounts and promote their articles on the platform. Facebook, however, is a much darker place for getting solid information. This is why Facebook was a ripe target for Russia’s cyber attack during the 2016 presidential election, which was uncovered by journalists, American intelligence agencies, and the Mueller Report.

  • If you see a meme or inforgraph from an unknown source, it’s best to disregard it.

Social media is flooded with memes and infographs based on shaky facts if not outright lies. These “picture stories” are usually created in hybrid form of a meme and infograph. Unfortunately, it’s how a lot of social media users become misinformed on these platforms. The problem is compounded by the sharing feature: someone sees a provocative or sensational picture story, then shares it to all of their friends or followers, turning the victim of misinformation into a disseminator of misinformation.

  • Pay attention to the details

If you’re accessing a story from somewhere other than a news organization’s website (e.g. social media, text message, email, etc.), always check the URL. Make sure it’s not a cloned version of a website. If the URL says “.co” instead of “.com”, assume it’s suspect. If something feels off about the website, don’t take the risk. You could always verify the story is coming from a legitimate source by going to the organization’s website on your own.

Conclusions


Fake news is not a trend. It’s something we’ll all be dealing with for the rest of our lives. The genie is out of the bottle and it cannot be put back in. It’s possible to suppress fake news, but it’ll never be eradicated.

The United States House introduced legislation to deploy strategies for combating fake news (e.g. House Resolution 284), but the Republican-controlled Senate hasn’t cooperated with the resolution’s authors and it’s unlikely to introduce it to the Senate.

Without any regulation, we’re on our own. It’s therefore the responsibility of the news consumer to be aware of fake news on the internet. If there’s anything worse than ignorance, it’s misinformation. Not knowing a thing is better than being misled. Since fake news is the new normal, citizens must do their due diligence when consuming information. We all must be our own gatekeepers of information.

The Weapons of Propaganda

For as long as our species has been exchanging information, propaganda has been a tool used by the powerful to manipulate the people in order to push a particular agenda. The advent of the internet has been both a blessing and a curse to those subjected to propaganda campaigns. The Information Age spawned out of the worldwide adoption of the internet has given ideal platforms to peddlers of propaganda, but on the flip side has also given people a means to distinguish fact from fiction –people have the ability to do their own fact-checking if they’re willing to take the extra step.

Disinformation and Misinformation


At its core, propaganda is founded on the dissemination of disinformation and misinformation. In common language, disinformation and misinformation are often used interchangeably, as if they’re synonyms. While they both stem from the spread of inaccurate or misleading information, the difference between the two lies in the intent of the person or entity spreading it.

Disinformation

The basis of a propaganda campaign is founded on disinformation. Dictionary.com defines disinformation as, “deliberately misleading or biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda.”

Disinformation is intended to deceive the public in order to strengthen or weaken a person, institution, or issue. The intent is malignant and the objective is nefarious. Disinformation can be completely fictitious or a fabrication (e.g. mixing factual information with false information).

Misinformation

While disinformation and misinformation are two sides of the same coin, misinformation is different since it isn’t necessarily spread with malicious intent. Dictionary.com’s Word of the Year for 2018 was granted to the word “misinformation,” which is a testament to the times we’re living in. They define it as, “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead.”

Misinformation could be something as innocent as a journalist making an honest mistake about something they reported in a story. They may have gotten a date or detail wrong, but since that information is inaccurate, it can still be considered misinformation. However, once the journalist or editor realizes the information isn’t accurate, reputable news organizations will immediately post a redaction or correction.

The act of spreading misinformation also comes to fruition on smaller scales. The average citizen may be explaining a subject to someone, but their explanation is inaccurate. The person spreading the misinformation doesn’t think it’s misinformation; they think it’s fact-based information. Their intent wasn’t to misinform, but the result of the exchange was misinformation, nonetheless. We’ve all been guilty of spreading misinformation in one way or another.

The Impact of Spreading Misinformation


There’s undoubtedly a dark side to misinformation: when a person is subjected to disinformation and they absorb it as factual information. When that person spreads the disinformation to others, they’ve unwittingly become a vehicle for disinformation. If their intent is sincere –they believe the information to be accurate– they’re spreading misinformation. However, they’re nonetheless carrying out the objective of the propagandist who peddled the disinformation for nefarious reasons.

It’s similar to the way contagious diseases are spread. A virus (i.e. disinformation) has infected a person, and then that person begins unwittingly spreading the virus to other people (i.e. misinformation). Therefore, a sneeze or a cough is akin to a tweet or a post on social media. This is how any kind of information is spread. It’s why we say a story or video has gone “viral” when it has reached a critical mass of shares or views, allowing it to quickly spread across the internet.

The Russian government waged a “sweeping and systematic” (as described in the Mueller Report) attack on our democracy during the 2016 presidential election. A part of that attack was posting fake news stories on social media platforms. They posted these stories from imposter accounts. They concealed their true identities by creating accounts that, on the surface, seemed like it was just another American sharing a news story. The profiles were carefully created to resemble the profile of an American citizen. Some of these accounts were controlled by actual Russian operatives (e.g. shills), others were autonomous (i.e. Russian bots).

Depending on the group they were infiltrating, they would modify the profile accordingly. For example, if they wanted to spread a fake story that once Hillary Clinton took office, she secretly planned to sign an executive action that would take firearms away from all Americans, the Russian propagandist’s profile would reflect the profile of the average NRA-affiliated American. If they took the story at face value, they would more than likely share the story with all of their friends or followers. So, in this case, the Russian propagandist was spreading disinformation; the unwitting American reader was then spreading misinformation.

The Russian propagandist planting a seed of disinformation in the right social media habitat could yield a massive harvest for the propagandist. Once the disinformation has been planted, it’s the unsuspecting Americans who share the information to their network of friends and followers –and so on, and so on.

In a research study commissioned by the Knight Foundation, an American non-profit organization, it was discovered that more Americans spread Russian disinformation than the Russians themselves. They found that Americans spread millions of tweets and posts containing misinformation, all of which originated from Russian disinformation campaigns.

Where We Are Now


The Russians succeeded in their disinformation campaigns. The Russian attack was insidious since it used American social media companies and American citizens to do most of the work for them. They understood the power of social media as a near-perfect vehicle to spread disinformation. Their objective was to sow the seeds of discord amongst Americans, amplifying an already polarized society. The Russians played a significant role in dividing us and therefore weakening our democracy.

The Russian’s other objective was to interfere in the political discourse in the country by using their disinformation tactics. Putin had contempt for Hillary Clinton and thought Trump would serve Russia’s interests better than Clinton. A significant portion of the disinformation spread by the Russians was to strengthen the Trump campaign while also weakening the Clinton campaign.

The term “fake news” entered the American lexicon with the rise of Donald Trump. Fake news is a real thing, however Trump re-coined the term for his own benefit. Instead of using its true meaning –news stories drenched in disinformation– he applied it to any news story that wasn’t favorable to his own self interests. In doing so, it discredited the free press in the minds of his supporters and has created confusion amongst the general population.

In calling the free press “the enemy of the people,” it has led his supporters to distrust reporting from some of the most well-established and most-respected news organizations in the country. This is dangerous because if Americans don’t have access to factual information, they’ve been robbed of the ability to make informed decisions.

Russia’s attack on our democracy during the 2016 presidential election wasn’t a singular event. Their disinformation campaigns have never stopped. They’re still engaged in spreading disinformation through social media. The Trump administration, however, has been silent on the issue, which leaves us vulnerable to continued efforts to crumble our democracy from the inside out.

The fate of our democracy, in respect to the disinformation flooding social media feeds, has essentially been left for the social media companies to figure out. Most of them have taken measures to prevent, as well as to identify and remove disinformation from their sites, but it’s not enough. The Russians, and other foreign adversaries, are simply adapting to their countermeasures. They need a central governing body to consult and assist them. There needs to be a combined public and private effort to subdue Russia’s cyber war against us.

The most unsettling facts concerning Russia’s attack on our democracy is the fact that Trump has refused to meaningfully acknowledge it’s even happened and is happening.

When Trump spoke privately with Putin during a summit in Helsinki in July 2018, Trump, responding to a question from the press on Russia meddling, said he “doesn’t see any reason” for Russia to have meddled in our election. He went on to say, “I have great confidence in my Intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”

In early May 2019, Trump had an hour-long phone conversation with Putin. When he was asked by the press if he warned Putin about interfering in future elections, he said, “We didn’t discuss that.”

Final Thoughts


Disinformation and misinformation are toxic to any democracy. We all depend on reliable information to give us the facts we need to form our own opinions and make informed decisions that affect our lives. When the information being spread is false or misleading, it inevitably leads us to make decisions that aren’t in our best interest.

It’s a fact that Putin’s Russia engaged –and is still engaged– in a widespread social media campaign to sow discord and misinform Americans. Yet, the person sworn to protect and defend us from all enemies has treated Putin with adulation, and in his mind, has turned our adversary on the world stage into his personal ally.

This raises puzzling and concerning questions. Why is Trump so fond of Putin? Why hasn’t Trump initiated a strategic plan to protect us from the ongoing attacks from Russia? What does Trump have to gain or lose by siding with Putin against the interests of his own country? What’s his motive for remaining silent and refusing to take action?

There will come a time when we have a true understanding of Trump’s motivations. Until then, we’re left to fend off the rotten fruits of Putin’s nefarious labor on our own. We must be our own guardians against the Russian government.

A Brief History of How the Republican and Democratic Parties Swapped Ideologies

There has been much discussion regarding the Republican Party’s ideological transformation from its inception in the mid-1850s to its modern ideological platform. Unfortunately, most of the discussion comes from the misinformed, painting the Republican Party with a Lincoln-like grandeur while painting the Democratic Party as a historical villain.

In fact, much has changed from the time the party was established to the Republican Party we know today. There are some people in our country who push the false narrative that the Republican Party is still “the party of Lincoln.” This false narrative also serves to stain the modern Democratic Party with our greatest national sin and our greatest internal conflict: slavery and the Civil War, respectively.

ORIGINS OF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY


In 1846, the United States was split in half over slavery: it was illegal in the thirteen northern states and legal in the thirteen southern states. The southern economy was completely dependent on slave labor; the northern economy was fueled by the Industrial Revolution.

Since abolitionists didn’t yet have the power to take on the slave states, they tried to ensure that the U.S. territories would remain free. However, with the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, slavery was now an option for the territories. This was the event that led to the founding of the Republican Party.

The Republican Party was founded on being anti-slavery, pro-civil liberties, as well as being in favor of economic reform. Within a few years of its founding, the Republican Party had its first president: Abraham Lincoln.

Before he even took the oath of office, slave states were already succeeding from the United States. They feared Lincoln would not only prevent the expansion of slavery into other territories, but that he would seek to abolish it all together. Once the slave states started succeeding, they had crossed the proverbial Rubicon. Lincoln had to fight to keep the Union intact, which led to the deadliest war in American history.

SWAPPING POLITICAL IDEOLOGIES


The Republican Party, originally a party in favor of a large and powerful federal government, would become the party of limiting the power of the federal government. The Democratic Party, in the Civil War and Reconstruction Era, opposed a large and powerful federal government and supported states’ rights.

This sounds strange to us today because it’s exactly the opposite of the modern Republican Party’s and Democratic Party’s respective ideologies. How did this happen? Well, as with any study of history, it’s complicated.

The following events played critical roles in completing the ideological swap:

  • During the Reconstruction Era, the Republican Party, which had always been a supporter of big government and big business –the two not necessarily being mutually exclusive– broke into different factions. Some Republicans had greater interests in big business than others, leading to more alternative viewpoints within the party. The factions within the party were at different ends of the political spectrum; some more progressive, while others more conservative.  
  • Around the turn of the century, William Jennings Bryan, a powerful Democrat, muddied the political waters between the two parties. He was in support of giving the federal government more power when it came to pursuing social justice. This gave the Democratic Party a more progressive faction, which was one of the first steps in its transition.
  • In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt (R) became president. He was a more progressive member of the Republican Party, at least as far as big business is concerned. He imposed sweeping regulations against massive business trusts, such as John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. After serving his two terms, Roosevelt tried to make a political comeback, leaving the Republican Party and founding the Progressive Party (also known as the Bull Moose Party). While he didn’t succeed with his run, it did have consequences. The progressives Republicans in the party lost their influence and power within the party, which led to the Republican Party taking on more conservative leadership.
  • The ideological swap made a quantum leap when Franklin D. Roosevelt (D) became president in 1933. When he took power, the country was in the throes of the Great Depression. FDR created the New Deal, which was his strategy for economic recovery. It used the power of the federal government to impose regulations on banks and big business, financial protections for citizens, and created numerous federal programs to promote economic recovery. He also initiated a second wave of the New Deal which focused on social safety net programs, such as establishing the Social Security Administration.
  • In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson (D) is president and civil rights is a major social issue. Johnson, being a Texan, was a southern Democrat. The southern Democrats (known as the Dixiecrats) were a powerful faction of the Democratic Party. They were pro-segregation and therefore opponents of civil rights. Johnson pushed for, and finally signed, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This was the final shot across the bow for most white southern Democrats. As a result, the party was losing the support of white Americans in the south, but at the same time had gained the support of black Americans since the Democratic Party was now seen as the party leading the fight for civil rights.
  • With the democratic fallout in the south from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Republican Party initiated the Southern Strategy. It appealed to the racist sentiments of southern whites –angry that their society was changing since black Americans now had the protection of civil rights, backed by the federal government. This paved the way for a mass exodus: turning southern Democrats into southern Republicans.

CONCLUSIONS


The ideological swap didn’t happen in one fell swoop. The swap wasn’t nefarious or conspiratorial, but simply a reflection of changing attitudes over long periods of time. It was a slow, incremental process swayed by the winds of history.

There’s a significant amount of misinformation and disinformation on this historical topic, which has been confusing the public’s understanding of the history of America’s two preeminent political parties.

The topic has been misunderstood for some time, but with the ascension of President Donald J. Trump, millions of Americans are operating under a different set of facts –“alternative facts,” as one Trump advisor put it. And it’s become a ripe source for propaganda peddlers who argue the Republican Party is still “the party of Lincoln,” the Great Emancipator and Savior of the Union. And using this faulty logic implies the Democratic Party is forever branded as the party of slavery. These are troubling times we live in when propagators of disinformation seek to distort history for their own personal or political gain.

So, the Republican Party being regarded as “the party of Lincoln,” while technically true since he was a republican, is nonetheless a misleading and manipulative statement. Lincoln’s ties to the modern Republican Party exists only in name and not by any meaningful ideological or rhetorical virtues.

“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Abraham Lincoln

Importance of a Free Press

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution gives American citizens a variety of protections, focusing on the freedom of speech and expression.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

First Amendment to the United States Constitution

The First Amendment grants the following protections:

  • Freedom of religion
  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of the press
  • Freedom to peaceably assemble
  • Freedom to petition the government to address grievances

HISTORY


When the Constitutional Convention convened in 1787, the idea of constitutional amendments were proposed as a way of protecting the civil liberties of American citizens. The first ten amendments became known as the Bill of Rights –amendments specifically drafted to guarantee the civil liberties of American citizens.

Initially, there was some debate as to whether or not it was necessary to even include amendments. Some founders didn’t think the federal government would ever become big enough to warrant them, believing the constitutions of individual states would suffice. However, there was significant opposition to the proposed constitution from the states, which was a problem since the federal government needed state governments to ratify the constitution.

James Madison, revered as “the father of the constitution,” was initially in the no-amendments-necessary camp. His mind was changed by his mentor, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was famously wary of a powerful, centralized federal government. Amending the constitution with a Bill of Rights would ensure the civil liberties of citizens were protected at the federal level. So, in 1789, when the constitution was submitted to the states for ratification, it included the Bill of Rights.

FREEDOM OF THE PRESS


‪The very fact the founders decided to grant protection to the free press is indicative of the value and importance they attributed to it.‬ The constitution was created as a blueprint for how to best deploy a representative democracy. It was critical that the constitution would not only provide a framework for governance, but also to embed protections to ensure its survival. The freedom of the press is the most important protection since without it, citizens wouldn’t be informed that their other liberties were in danger.

IMPORTANCE OF THE PRESS


The power of the government comes from its citizens: government by the people, for the people, and of the people. It’s the people who elect their representatives, senators, and president. And it’s therefore imperative that the people are well informed to make the decisions that affect not only their lives, but also the lives of their fellow Americans. It’s the press who’s tasked with gathering, vetting, and delivering information to the people.

We have the three co-equal branches of government and each is responsible for checking and balancing the others. The executive, legislative, and judicial branches are the pillars that hold our democracy in place. The press –that is, the summation professional journalists– serves as the fourth pillar of our democracy. The press is sometimes referred to as the fourth estate for this very reason. It’s not an official branch of government; it’s an independent institution. Calling it the “fourth branch” would be unfitting, but calling it the “fourth estate” is a way of equally conveying both its importance and independence to our democracy.

The free press is the guardian of the people. It keeps a watch on the corridors of power, ensuring those who wield the power are holding true to their oaths of office. We, as the people, need to know when an individual or institution is not acting in our best interest. The press doesn’t have the power to dispense justice, but it does have the power to investigate immoral or unethical actions. They report their findings to the people, which includes the people who do have the power to dispense justice.

It’s our civic duty to stay informed by using reliable press sources. If we’re not getting reliable information we cannot make reliable decisions. And it’s our decisions that shape the future of our democracy.


Quotes on a Free Press


“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

Thomas Jefferson

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

James Madison

“Freedom of conscience, of education, of speech, of assembly are among the very fundamentals of democracy and all of them would be nullified should freedom of the press ever be successfully challenged.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt

News versus Opinion

In order for a citizen to make informed decisions, it’s critical to understand the difference between news and opinion. The unsuspecting news consumer could easily be confused by the two. Some news and media organizations have clear designations between the two, while others don’t. News is an objective process; opinion is subjective.

News


News is the reporting of objective, fact-based information by journalists. They investigate a story using tried and true methods –citing public records and documents, interviewing persons relevant to the story, and corroborating the facts between their sources, among other processes. Once enough information is gathered, a news story is produced. The report is then scrutinized editors and by a fact-checking process. When a story is green lit, it’s then released to the public.

While the vast majority of news stories are factually solid, journalists aren’t immune to making the occasional mistake. If a mistake is made, a correction or retraction is published to reconcile the integrity of the reporting.

Opinion


Opinion is a subjective interpretation of a particular story or topic. The opinion piece is produced by someone knowledgeable of the story or topic. In print media, it’s typically done through columnists, editorial boards, and Op-Ed (i.e. opinion editorial) contributors. Newspapers clearly identify the opinion section, ensuring the reader doesn’t confuse an opinion article for a news article.

On television news, the line between news and opinion can be blurry, sometimes very blurry. It’s very easy for the uninformed news consumer to mistake an opinion show for a news program. The viewer tunes into a “news” channel, sees an anchor, and then assumes they’re receiving a rundown of cold-hard facts. Some shows are entirely opinion-based –taking current events and then sermonizing on them through the lens of their own worldview. Other shows have a mixed format: an anchor will report on a fact-based, objective subject, but then turn to a panel of pundits (e.g. analysts, experts) to share their personal opinions on a story.

The difference between news and opinion


It’s incredibly important to understand the difference between news and opinion when consuming media. If someone doesn’t understand the difference, it could potentially lead to becoming misinformed. For example, watching a strictly opinion-based show doesn’t necessarily give the consumer all of the relevant facts. It’s as if you’re listening to a one-sided debate, but never getting the opportunity to hear the other side of the debate. This is akin to reading a review of a horror movie by someone who detests horror movies. It’s highly unlikely that you’re going to walk away with a well-rounded review.

The best approach to truly understanding a story is to always start with the news. The news will give you the facts, the context, and any other relevant information required to understand a story. Moreover, it’s always a healthy practice to use more than one news source. From there, you can then –based on the facts– form your own opinion. If you want dive deeper into a story, you could read or listen to qualified pundits to find out their take.

It’s important to remember that we’re all entitled to our own opinions, but we’re never entitled to our own facts.


Note: this article was edited for grammar, as well as providing some additional content.