Were there any doubt that fake news is having its moment, Macquarie, an Australian dictionary, made the term its “word of the year” for 2016.
The Oxford dictionary chose “Post-truth.”
And the Pulitzer Prize-winning website PolitiFact chose fake news as its 2016 Lie of the Year.
Many worry for the future of democracy if fake news, which ascended to primacy during the 2016 presidential election, takes an even stronger hold. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell fake from true, or advocacy from propaganda, and therein lies perhaps the greatest challenge of our time,” columnist Kathleen Parker wrote.
So, why has fake news become so popular? And what can be done about it?
We asked three UAlbany alumni journalists: Paul Grondahl, M.A. ’84, director of the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany and a former reporter and columnist at the Albany Times Union; Tarryn Mento ’09, a reporter at KPBS in San Diego; and Azi Paybarah ’01, a senior reporter with Politico New York.
None of the three said they had ever been fooled by fake news.
“I’m old school; I make sure I get confirmation of everything,” said Grondahl. “I don’t tweet first and ask questions later.”
Which leads to one major contributor to the rise of fake news: the rise of social media. When our news intake came from spreading a newspaper out on the table, we knew where our news was coming from, even if it wasn’t easy to share. Now news articles, or articles masquerading as news, often come via Twitter or Facebook. The sources and the vetting of the articles aren’t always clear, even if a website looks legitimate. But sharing the articles is so easy, even if we haven’t gotten much past the click-bait headline.
“The mainstream press was always kind of the gatekeeper, and there was a certain acceptable standard of operation and professionalism that’s kind of gone out the window when everyone considers themselves a journalist and a publisher,” Grondahl said. “Anybody can be anything on Facebook.”
Said Mento: “You can just easily grab somebody’s attention with a tease and get them to click. You could see that that’s where a lot of the fake news stories get their popularity.” People share articles without reading them closely. And “if the post is feeding a belief you already hold, you might click the headline just because it affirms what you believe,” she said.
And before you know it, you’re sharing the article with friends far and wide.
“The rapid change of technology,” said Paybarah, “has outpaced our ability to figure out best practices for it.”
That was especially true during the presidential campaign, when the country was so sharply divided between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. “You have a more polarized and partisan consumer base that now has the tools to dispense what they’re seeing and reading and thinking in a way that you just couldn’t before,” Paybarah continued. “My dad yelling at the TV in the ’90s, it sort of didn’t matter. But if he had Twitter and Facebook, he could now be sort of a mini-publisher.”
During the campaign, dads, moms and others also were more likely to consume and share articles of suspicious origin if the stories supported their side, making fake news that much more powerful.
“More people are getting more information thrown at them, and anyone that can explain it to them gets an audience, even if their claims are dubious, because people in complicated times look to people to explain things,” Paybarah observed. “And when they explain it with moral clarity, it’s like a recipe that draws people in, even if it’s not entirely based on fact.”
Put simply, said Grondahl: ”I think people who aren’t trained as journalists or aren’t very careful or sophisticated readers tend to take everything that washes over their Facebook news feed as truth.
“Technology and attention spans are so hyper-warp speed,” he added. “People don’t really take their time to click through and find out where this information is coming from. There’s so much out there. It’s just a torrent, minute by minute.”
At the same time, some fake news succeeds because it’s developed in ways that appeal to readers’ emotions.
“There are some really smart, sophisticated people who have figured out how to game this thing,” Grondahl said. “There’s a psychology with what your friends like. That’s part of the issue. And today, nobody’s really listening; they’re all in an echo chamber. You’re getting a very thin slice of reality. The far right is getting what they want to hear, and the far left is getting what they want to hear.”
Trump helped fuel interest in fake news by criticizing traditional media, Grondahl added.
“He has taken a more belligerent, antagonistic tone than previous presidents. ‘The enemy of the people’ is a very calculated term,” said Grondahl.
But that doesn’t mean the media don’t also share responsibility for the rise of fake news. For one thing, financial struggles have left many newspapers with less than half the staff they once had.
“Obviously you can’t cover as much or be as thorough or do the investigations you could,” Grondahl said. ”It’s like cops on the beat. If your city suddenly laid off 50 percent of the police force,” you can imagine that crime would fill the void.
It’s also no secret that much of the mainstream media didn’t see a Trump-over-Clinton victory coming. That was an indication they weren’t covering all segments of society – again, creating an opening for fake news.
“Many people might not have felt that their views were adequately covered by the mainstream media,” said Mento. “That’s something worth listening to.”
So, what can be done? Media literacy can help consumers discern what’s real and what’s fake, as would a redoubling of the efforts of legitimate journalists. Both efforts could converge, too.
Mento said there are simple steps readers can take to protect themselves. Be wary if headlines are screaming and punctuation is incorrect, or if the writing is poor or even profane. Ultimately, if you’re not sure about an article, Google the topic and the word “debunk.” It doesn’t take long. “We Google things all day long,” she said.
Paybarah agreed. “Part of the answer has to be people being more attentive to their news consumption, just the way that you would like to think people are conscientious about their food consumption. Where did this story come from? What are the sources? Has a bit been verified?”
But news organizations can help by explaining more about what goes into the stories they publish and then engaging readers on social media, when necessary.
“The policy of explaining why sources are granted anonymity: It’s because they’re not authorized to talk about something, or it was a closed-door meeting and attendees were told they can’t share information,” Paybarah said, citing a couple of examples. “Small steps like that can be incredibly helpful. It shows readers a little bit more about what’s happening.
“It also means not being passive observers with regard to what happens on social media,” he added. “There may be a need to react to tweets and Facebook posts that mischaracterize my reporting, similar to [the way] organizations used to monitor their ‘Comments’ section on blogs. It may also require spending ad dollars to promote tweets or video explainers to accompany longer investigative pieces, so readers aren’t hearing synopses from talk radio and cable news, as good as some of those voices may be.”
Mento said the presidential election has left media re-examining how to cover campaigns and trying to understand why so many of them expected Clinton to win. “What did we do in our coverage that might have been a contributing factor” to the rise of fake news is a common reflection. She said she has recommitted herself to seek a variety of sources and viewpoints on her stories, partly as a guard against missing angles on a story that might invite more fake news.
Grondahl said he hopes that readers become more discriminating and that traditional media continue do more fact-check reporting as part of keeping government accountable. While he worries about the power of fake news, he also sees social media as a means of extending the reach of traditional media.
“I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom and all bad,” Grondahl said. “People thought with Watergate the country was coming to an end, in a certain way. We got through that. We got through other dark periods. I don’t think fake news is going to bring down our republic. But it’s a time for serious reflection.”
Tom Kertscher is a PolitiFact Wisconsin reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. His reporting on Steven Avery was featured in “Making a Murderer.” He’s also the author of sports books on Brett Favre and Al McGuire. Follow him at TomKertscher.com and on Twitter: @KertscherNews and @KertscherSports.