The New Media Landscape: Fake News

During the first Chapel of each semester, I encourage our school community to recommit ourselves to being people of education, enlightenment, and good character. I use a quote from Martin Luther:

The prosperity of a country depends not on the abundance of its revenues, nor on the strength of its fortifications, nor on the beauty of its public buildings; but it consists in the number of its cultivated citizens, in its men [and women] of education, enlightenment, and character; here are to be found its true interest, its chief strength, its real power.

This semester, I tied that encouragement to our need to navigate what some are calling a “post-truth” and “post-fact” world filled with fake news. Fake news is nothing new; in fact, every time the world has seen a new technology capable of spreading information and knowledge, it has also seen a proliferation of fake news—usually used to demonize minorities or opposing groups for political or economic gain. However, the current landscape seems much more dangerous, perhaps because of the powerful technologies available to us that enable the rapid spread of news. In this environment, the need to be Luther’s people of “education, enlightenment, and character” seems particularly acute.

A few years ago, I was shown an example of how insidious internet sources could be. In a workshop on technology integration in education, Alan November showed how, if a student wanted to find information on Martin Luther King, Jr., but only typed in “Martin Luther King”, one of the first sites to come up in a Google search (based on Google’s algorithm) was martinlutherking.org. Once a student clicks on that site, they are greeted with a scandalous detail, purportedly from the January 18, 1998 issue of Newsweek, that depicts Dr. King in a very negative light. The landing page of martinlutherking.org also proposes to repeal the King holiday and contains other unflattering information about Dr. King. Why, one might ask, would a website dedicated to Dr. King and whose domain name contains his very name, have so much negative information about him?

If the student checks out the Newsweek source, he or she will discover that it is actually a quote from a book review in which reviewer Jon Meacham quotes from the book Pillar of Fire by Taylor Branch. The alleged scandalous acts portrayed in the quote have been debunked by Ralph Abernathy (a close companion of Dr. King) and though there are some negative stories that Abernathy does share about his friend in his autobiography, this front page story has been refuted. So why is it in such a prominent place? The answer is in who sponsors the website martinlutherking.org.

If you use the helpful website easywhois.com and look up the King website, you will find it is registered by Stormfront, Inc., a white supremacist group. How many sixth graders doing a research project on Martin Luther King Jr. this month will run across this website and be able to tell that it is run by a white supremacist group? And how many will take the time to find Abernathy’s refutation?

As such misleading internet sites and fake news proliferate, especially as people share news and views over social media, and as people start making lots of money by publishing “clickbait” (fake news that earns those who publish money each time someone clicks on it), this problem has exploded. A recent Stanford University study found that our young people are not well-equipped to navigate this brave new world. Here are some of their findings:

  • Most middle school students can’t tell sponsored ads from articles.
  • Most high school students accept photographs as presented without verifying them.
  • Many high school students couldn’t tell a real and fake news source apart on Facebook.
  • Most college students didn’t suspect potential bias in a tweet from an activist group.
  • Most Stanford students couldn’t identify the difference between a mainstream and fringe source.

There are excellent teaching tools like the Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Fake News Edition published on onthemedia.org, and new media literacy tools are being developed and published daily. The first thing we as parents, educators, and responsible citizens need to do is to take advantage of these tools and become more literate. I shared the following list (from onthemedia.org) in Chapel:

  1. Big red flags for fake news: ALL CAPS, or obviously photoshopped pics.
  2. A glut of pop-ups and banner ads? Good sign the story is pure clickbait.
  3. Check the domain! Fake sites often add “.co” to trusted brands to steal their luster. (Think “abcnews.com.co”)
  4. If you land on an unknown site, check its “About” page. Then google it with the work “fake” and see what comes up.
  5. If a story offers links, follow them. (Garbage leads to worse garbage.) No links, quotes, or references? Another telltale sign.
  6. Verify an unlikely story by finding a reputable outlet reporting the same thing.
  7. Check the date. Social media often resurrects outdated stories.
  8. Read past headlines. Often they bear no resemblance to what lies beneath.
  9. Photos may be misidentified and dated. Use a reverse image search engine like TinEye to see where an image really comes from.
  10. Gut check. If a story makes you angry, it’s probably designed that way.
  11. Finally, if you’re not sure it’s true, don’t share it! Don’t. Share. It.

This list is only one approach, but in this new media landscape, we need to use all of the tools at our disposal to help combat this growing problem. As people of “education, enlightenment, and character,” we need to work harder than ever to discern the truth.

About The Author

Tom Lovett