The Internet’s Fake News Problem

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The Internet’s Fake News Problem

by Michael Gariffo

Docid: 00021053

Publication Date: 2012

Report Type: TUTORIAL


In an ideal world, it is the media’s duty to provide the public with
the whole truth and nothing but the truth. People turn to various news
sources looking for information on everything from global politics and
economics to sports scores, expecting that the facts they receive are
real and verifiable. However, a problem has begun to emerge as more
people turn to the Internet, particularly to social media, for their
news. In a venue where literally anyone can be a news source by posting an
article or story claiming the source as valid, what is truth and what is
fiction is becoming continually less clear. Humans have dealt with the
proliferation of lies for nearly the whole of their existence, but the
massive audience that today’s fictional news writers can reach – as well
as the ongoing political polarization in the US – have combined to create
a perfect storm of divided ideals and growing tensions in which fake
news writers can thrive by pandering to the hopes, fears, prejudices,
and hatreds of one side or the other. Signs have even emerged that fake
news stories on the Internet, which many might dismiss as harmless
idiocy, can have an impact on something as important and world changing
as a US presidential election. This report will examine the nature of fake news on the Web; analyze the impact it has had
and continues to have on the US political landscape; detail what some of
the Internet’s most important players are doing to fight it; and provide
advice on becoming a more savvy news reader in order to spot fake news.

Report Contents:

Apple Company Profile
Google Company Profile
Self-Driving Vehicles

Definition and Explanation

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It may seem silly to start this report by defining the concept of "fake news." However, the
type of fake news that will be covered here is a very specific variety and is
almost never benign. Unlike well-known parody news sources like The Onion
or its many imitators, the Internet’s current fake news crisis originates with
news sites and sources that are specifically designed to appear real. This means
that they are written in order to fool the reader into believing that their
words are taken from real events and that their facts have been
verified and proven to the author. Unfortunately, this is very often not the
case. Many news readers, particularly those from older generations, were brought
up to believe whole-heartedly in what print media told them. This trust is
often, undeservedly, transferred to news reporting from the Web and
social media. While there are many, many excellent news sources on the Internet
that do everything in their power to ensure that their sources are honest and
correct, there are others that – through laziness, bias, or simple malicious
intent – will report lies as if they were gospel. This is where the danger is.
When supposedly legitimate news sources begin spreading false facts, they stop
being disseminators of information and become, instead, dangerous fonts of

The motivations for spreading fake news are myriad. Nations have been
doing it for millennia in the form of propaganda. This has become an expected and well known tool of governmental regimes
during war time, but it
can also be used on foreign citizens during times of peace. The current situation in the US is,
however, very much a domestic problem. Unreliable US-based "news" sites are
reporting on domestic issues, while foreign actors create seemingly legitimate
news sources to further skew the public’s views. Unfortunately, the strong focus on political and
socio-economic items from these malefactors can greatly influence the public’s ideas of what
is true about
political parties, candidates, legislation, and literally any other aspect of
the American political machine. This is being done, in some cases, to help one
side or the other in a given election, to tilt public opinion in a way that aids
a given party or special interest, or simply to sow chaos. In any case, the
effect is a misinformed public that can very quickly become a danger to itself
and others by acting on these false facts. The danger can come in the form of
something as relatively banal as a misplaced vote due to a lie about a given
candidate, or escalate to something as extreme as an armed individual storming a
business due to a report on that location being used in human trafficking. Both
of these examples have verifiably occurred, and both will be covered in more
depth later in this report.

How Can People Be So Naive?

This is the first question asked by many individuals on finding out
that someone was wholly taken in by a fake news story. Ironically, the question
itself shows a certain level of naiveté to how easily most human beings can be
fooled by a supposed "authority" on a topic, if just a few tricks are
employed. These tricks leverage what some may consider the less attractive parts
of human nature to bring the reader to a place where they are suggestible
to the falsehoods in a given news article. While there
are a diverse number of avenues through which this goal can be
accomplished, the list below takes a look at the most commonly used tactics
employed by fake news sources to sway a reader’s confidence.

  • Misplaced Respect for the SourceThis is the most common issue at
    work. Simply put, there is a
    tendency in many readers to automatically believe what they read. This can be a result of the trust that has been put into print
    media sources for decades or it can simply be a result of the misplaced
    notion that any facts that have gone through an author, proofreader,
    and editors, and printer must be true. The second scenario obviously does not
    apply to much of what is published to the Internet, as an individual can
    very easily self-publish anything they choose with little or no oversight,
    often making it seem just as legitimate as something written by a journalist
    at a well-known newspaper. This particular weakness for fake news does not
    exist in all readers and is generally an issue that can be ameliorated with
    just a modicum of skepticism on the reader’s part.
  • The Hunger for Sensationalism Newspapers have been accused of practicing "yellow
    journalism" for more than a century, being called out for playing up
    the most tawdry and seedy aspect of a news story to appeal to readers’
    base desires for scandal and drama. However, fake news takes this one step
    further. Rather than exaggerating the events of a news story, it simply
    creates an event from whole cloth. Unfortunately, real news stories,
    particularly those in the political arena, can often be boring. How your
    candidate voted on a given tax bill might sway your ultimate decision to
    vote for him, but it is not going to be fodder for a juicy read. Conversely,
    hearing about how that same candidate was involved in a scandalous affair
    or how he is a traitor to his country due to illegal business dealings with foreign powers is very attractive. While
    neither of these more outlandish stories may end up being true, it is the
    possibility that they are true that draws readers in. Everyone wants to be
    the one at the water cooler who is the first to say, "Hey, did
    you hear what Trump did now," or "Have you heard the latest on Putin…" Fake news sources can use this human tendency to
    prefer the sensational to take in readers by making them not only discount the concept of
    these facts being untrue, but making them willfully wish for them to be true. This
    latter point leads to the next tool in the arsenal of fake news sites.
  • Confirmation Bias – Psychology Today defines confirmation
    bias as "a direct influence on desire or beliefs. When people
    would like a certain idea/concept to be true, they end up believing it to be
    true. They are motivated by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual
    to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the
    views (prejudices) one would like to be true."1 The
    application of this human tendency to the political arena should be obvious.
    In this space, humans very, very much want to take sides. As with all arenas
    where a side is chosen, the opposite side is typically seen as the enemy,
    serving as an anthropomorphized allegory for all that is wrong and broken in
    the world. Right-leaning conservatives might point to the loose morals and
    laziness of the left that has led our country into ruin, while left-leaning
    liberals may call them out for backwards ideals and a fear of diversity.
    Too often, neither side has a clear, logical view of the opposing faction but
    instead creates a sensationalized, tilted view of those with different
    beliefs than their own. This, of course, makes each side feel better about
    itself as it is on the "right" side. It also pushes the sides further
    apart and creates unnecessary friction between the factions, making it more difficult for
    opposing viewpoints to come together on a given issue even if
    it is something both factions should logically agree on. This partisanship is a
    fact of the US’ two-party system and is a mighty tool for the purveyors of
    fake news. After all, many Democrats know that Republicans are horrible
    people, so why wouldn’t they believe that a high-ranking GOP official went on
    a racist rant, even if it never actually happened? Similarly, many Republicans
    absolutely believe that Democrats are morally bankrupt, so why
    ever doubt that they were involved in shady dealings with a Middle East
    regime, even if such a thing never occurred. The fact is, most human beings
    are guilty of allowing their own personal beliefs to influence their ability
    to tell the truth from a lie, for no better reason than deeply wanting to
    believe that every negative thing they have ever suspected about their enemy
    is true. It is within this prejudiced space that fake news sites can do their
    most effective work, leveraging humanity’s own tendency towards bias to
    peddle their lies. 

As stated above, these are just a few tools in the arsenal of
psychological manipulation that fake news sites can employ to bamboozle a
reader. However, eliminating just these three tentpole factors in the
production of fake news would go a long way towards crippling the
ability of illegitimate journalists to convince readers of their lies.

The Impact of Fake News

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How much of a problem has fake news become? While this report will
provide details and statistics to analyze the question and provide an
answer, the best answer may well be the fact that
the Pope of the Catholic Church himself felt the need to issue a formal press release comparing the
publication and consumption of fake news to "coprophilia," or an
obsessive and unusual interest in … excrement.2 This
rather atypical condemnation, especially from the Pontiff, is based on a
tendency that Pope Francis sees in fake and real news providers alike
as "wanting to cover scandals, covering nasty things."3
The fact that the head of the Catholic Church felt the need to register an
opinion on the topic at all should delineate just how global the
controversy of fake online news and its impact on the real world has
become. How, then, have we gotten to this point? What catalyst turned fake
news’ existence on the Internet from a minor nuisance into what some
consider a full-blow information cold war happening on a global scale. The
simple and potentially obvious answer is the 2016 US Presidential

All elections are contentious to a certain extent. However, the 2016
Presidential election was one of the most aggressively and hotly contested
political showdowns in the history of the country. This began during the primary
season and grew exponentially the moment Donald Trump entered the
race. It reached its apex when, to the surprise of most of the mainstream
media, Trump emerged from a crowded field as the Republican candidate for president and
began his campaign against Hillary Clinton. This was the beginning of a
new rash of what The New York Times called "hyperpartisan news."4
Essentially, this refers to news stories and sites that make no mystery of
their political leanings. Some news outlets, including the Times
itself, have long been accused of being biased for the left or right.
However, this election season raised such speculation to a new level, with many
non-mainstream sites actively trying to seek out the most salacious news on each
candidate, regardless of hard evidence for such stories.

The majority of these false stories come from sites that are designed
specifically for the purpose of spreading fake news. That is not
to say that some very partisan "mainstream" news sites have not
been found to have reported false items, but these are generally
unintentional and are corrected or retracted by any news outlet with even
a modicum of integrity. On the contrary, the Internet’s true fake news
problem exists with sites that actively and willfully attempt to mislead
their readers into thinking that they are reading the truth, while being
fully and completely aware that the "news" and
"facts" they are disseminating are actually just works of fiction. Although there were
potentially hundreds of sites of this nature operating during the
election, a few gained notoriety in a very negative sense for spreading
some of the most successful fake stories of the election season. They
included sites like "Ending the Fed," "The Denver Guardian," and "The
Political Insider" as well as sites that are actually created to fool
people into thinking they are visiting legitimate news sites such as fake
duplicates of MSNBC and ABC News.5,6 Every one of these sites
posted stories that were proven to be false, were outright fabrications,
or cited sources that did not exist.

The motivation of sites such as these could be as simple as spreading false information
to help the political party of their choice, or as mercenary as collecting
revenue from the advertising space they sell alongside the fake
news items that they post. In fact, one
report from Buzzfeed News claimed that a town in the former Yugoslav
Republic of Macedonia played home to a collective of teenagers who were
making a significant income by posting "thousands" of fake news
stories about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton across a collection of
sites that had been set up for the purpose of generating ad revenue
through Google’s AdSense network.7 In other words, the production of fake
news reached such a peak during the 2016 election season that it actually
became something of an industry. The aforementioned town in Macedonia, Veles, was found to have more than
one hundred such sites run by its
citizens.8 While many of the sites had only a
handful of visitors, a few were frighteningly successful and can serve as
perfect examples of our next point: the role of social media in
spreading fake news.

Social Media’s Role in the Success of Fake News 

Of the sites being run out of Veles, several had more than 100,000
Facebook followers, with the most successful effort, a page called USANewsFlash,
having several hundred thousand.9 The question that begs to be
asked is why social media became such a hotbed for the spread of fake
news. The answer to this is more complex than it may seem at first and
includes several characteristics that contribute to the overall success of fake
news stories.

  • Social media is a place for political discourse – One of the primary roles of social media is to serve as a place where
    people from around the world can discuss topics of their
    choice. This, of course, often includes political views and
    opinions. As the 2016 presidential election became ever more
    contentious, so too did the political conversations on sites like Facebook
    and Twitter. Individuals that were once cagey about their political
    leanings were suddenly very open about their hatred for the right or
    distrust of the left. This provided an atmosphere in which the
    discourse became adversarial and a venue in which one of the
    aforementioned factors, confirmation bias, could gain great strength.
    Imagine a messaging thread wherein a Hillary supporter argued with
    a Trump supporter over the merits of their respective candidates.
    These combatants both want evidence to back up their claims. Suddenly,
    the Trump supporter stumbles on a news story titled "WikiLeaks
    CONFIRMS Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS … Then Drops Another BOMBSHELL!
    Breaking News." This story is, in case you had not guessed
    already, completely false. It was, however, the second most shared fake
    news story of the election season, according to Buzzfeed’s analysis.
    It rests behind only "Pope Francis Shocks the World, Endorses
    Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement."10 Either of these
    items would seem like a gift to that voracious Trump supporter looking
    for hard evidence that Hillary Clinton was the monster they absolutely
    knew her to be. This would, obviously, lead to that story being
    shared. Now, if all parties involved did their due diligence and
    researched the claims being made in either "news" item,
    lies could have died on the vine. However, social media browsers are
    not exactly famous for their desire to undertake in-depth research.
    Social media is a place
    where many go to relax, to tune out for a while as they browse
    a relative’s latest vacation photos or a cute picture of a friend’s
    new puppy. And that is exactly what makes it so dangerous: sites that do
    such a good job of discouraging the concept of analytical thought in the
    minds of their visitors are also serving as
    their primary source of political news.
  • Social media has replaced mainstream news sources for many
    The final point of the previous entry is not a baseless
    assertion but is actually a verifiable fact according to a Pew
    Research Center Survey. The analytics company found that 6 out of 10
    US adults get at least a portion of their news from social media.11
    Although only 18 percent of those respondents claim social media as
    their primary news source, 66 percent of Facebook users – literally
    hundreds of millions of individuals – say they get their news from Facebook
    friends and connections. This trend gives social networking sites immense power when it comes to controlling the
    flow of information. That said, the ability for unbiased truth to
    penetrate this system of dissemination is flawed from the start. Facebook is, for all intents and purposes, a place where people tend
    to surround themselves with like-minded individuals and
    entities. Users will, as a matter of course, form most of their connections with friends, news outlets, and public figures that
    match their ideals. Because of this, Facebook can serve as the
    ultimate "bubble" in which users can feel comfortable in
    their own beliefs, thanks to the fact that they are
    shared by their connections. This is obviously a falsehood perpetrated
    by the reality that those connections are curated by the users
    themselves. This is not to say that Facebook or Twitter
    users are in any way weak-minded individuals only interested in
    reinforcing their own misled opinion. Rather, human beings, as a
    species, seek out social connections that make them feel good. A
    constant barrage of opposing political and religious viewpoints would
    hardly have such an effect, meaning that most users, consciously or
    otherwise, will form their own "bubble" of like-minded social media
    connections. Today, this tendency is only being strengthened by the
    outgoing President himself, with a constant barrage of extremely partisan tweets
    that are typically devoid of factual basis. This, in effect, normalizes the
    dissemination of misinformation by giving it a very real, official stamp
    of approval. After all, the President of the United States said it, it
    must be true … right?
  • Social media requires no journalistic standards – Today’s
    social media is the 21st century equivalent of the proverbial water
    cooler. It is a place for gossip, sharing personal news, and spreading
    rumors. That said, it is also a place where some
    believe they should turn for their serious, factual news. Because
    these two things are wholly unlike each other, the waters can become
    muddied very quickly, creating an environment where a single user
    is sharing items from a respected news source like The Wall Street
    alongside a wholly false story from "The Denver
    Guardian." That user may or may not know that only one of those
    pieces of media is true, but if a second user that sees both of them
    confuses the veracity of one for a journalistic seal of approval on
    both, then the chain of events that allows a fake news story to
    spread has already begun. This is the result of there being no standards for what news can be
    shared on social media. Implementing standards of this kind would
    quickly lead to a stifling of users’ personal freedom and would
    undoubtedly draw serious ire. However, the need to keep the Web an
    open forum for discourse, which it absolutely should be, places the
    onus for verifying the factual nature of that discourse on each and
    every participant in it. As stated above, not all participants are
    particularly interested in doing their research to ensure that they
    themselves are not furthering the spread of false information when
    they Like or retweet something. 
  • Social media is where things "go viral" – The
    term "going viral" is thrown around so often it may have
    largely lost its impact. However, it refers to the process where a
    single piece of media, news story, or any other individual
    online item has been passed around to so many people that its spread
    resembles that of a particularly virulent contagion. This makes it the
    perfect venue for the spread of actual news, but also the ideal place
    for the dissemination of fake news. Again, this is not a negative view of
    social media or its users as a whole, but simply a factual aspect of the
    nature of sharing that makes social media possible.
  • What happens in social media can quickly spread to the real
    world –
    "Pizzagate." It’s a very silly
    sounding name for a very scary incident that occurred in
    December 2016. Shortly after the conclusion of the Presidential
    election, 28-year-old Edgar M. Welch traveled to a restaurant
    named Comet Ping Pong
    armed with an AR-15 rifle and a handgun.12 Welch journeyed there after reading a fake news story
    that claimed the leaked
    e-mails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta had exposed a child
    sex trafficking ring being operated out of the Washington DC-area
    pizzeria. He claimed that he had gone there to take action for
    himself after the false stories claimed that police were unable to
    raid the location due to political influence being exerted on them by
    Washington insiders. The story had been online since October of that
    year and had
    already been debunked by multiple reputable news outlets long before
    Welch fired his weapon at the restaurant. Thankfully, no one was hurt,
    and the perpetrator was taken into custody without
    any further incident. The truly frightening aspect of this occurrence
    is how easily online "trolling" can quickly spill into the
    real world. Certainly for many of the individuals that had shared and
    perpetuated this story, it was a clear fabrication and was spread as
    a joke. But, for this one horribly
    misinformed and unstable individual, it was the truth
    and needed to be acted upon immediately. This shows how truly
    irresponsible the proliferation of fake news can be when the ramifications
    of its misleading propaganda spill into real life. Sadly, much of the
    public seems to have missed this lesson, as Pizzagate itself was
    quickly, and falsely, called a hoax, with some claiming Welch was an
    actor hired by the mainstream media to distract the public from the
    crimes that continued to occur at Comet Ping Pong. This, of course,
    was also debunked.13
  • Social media can easily be abused by celebrities and
    politicians –
    Social media is all about spheres
    of influence. While most average individuals can have around 100-200
    connections, a celebrity, politician, or other public figure can have
    thousands of times this many. Because of that, the influence
    they wield over a massive number of people cannot be overestimated.
    This means that the sharing of fake news by a public
    figure can prove particularly disastrous. While Donald Trump himself
    has been called out on countless occasions by multiple news sources
    for retweeting or posting fake or misleading information, the most
    verifiably dangerous use of a public figure’s social media accounts may well be
    related to the Pizzagate incident mentioned above.14,15
    Specifically, Michael Flynn, the son of Trump’s original
    national security advisor (who was himself terminated for lying about
    contact with Russian officials) was terminated from his position as
    a member of the president-elect’s transition team when it was exposed
    that he had not only supported the original fictitious story about a
    sex trafficking ring at Comet Ping Pong, but also continued to
    proliferate the lie after Welch’s arrest. Both Michael Flynn and his
    father have a long history of posting false information on their
    social media accounts, even before their significant legal troubles began.16

With all of this said, it is left to the users and operators of social
media to strike a balance between allowing for the continued free discourse
of news and ideas while preventing the Internet from becoming a
propaganda tool for misinformation profiteers and hyperpartisan liars to
use for their own gains. This is where we must answer the question of
whose job it is to police the truth on the Internet. Some would say that
it is up to the individual, with each reader needing to research the facts
they are being fed and make their own determination about them. While this
is a fine ideal, it is almost certainly unrealistic. The more credulous
readers will continue to believe just about anything printed online, while
even moderate skeptics could continue to be taken in by more believable, but
still fake, news. Can we then depend on the giants of the Internet, like
Google and Facebook to do their part in stamping out these falsehoods?
This begs the question of whether we would even want that. After all,
painting the truth with as broad a brush as either online powerhouse
would be likely to wield could very well result in the erasure of
fringe, but entirely valid news items. The best course of action instead
lies somewhere in the middle, with the end user and news providers
working together to weed out harmful and false information before it can
cause another Pizzagate-like incident. The next section will
examine how Google and Facebook are fighting fake news and what the
individual can do to ensure that they are not taken in by malicious

Combating Fake News

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How the Web’s Major Players Are Fighting Back

First, it should be made clear that both Google and Facebook are two of the
largest purveyors of news on the Internet. This means that they are also among
the prime sources for fake news, although this may or may not be any fault of
their own. Until recently, it was assumed that all users of both platforms could
be allowed to freely share, for the most part, any content or news item
they wished with little or no real-world consequences. If the Pizzagate incident
alone were not enough to make many wonder about this fact, claims that the
result of the 2016 Presidential election itself were swayed should tip the
scales in favor of examining just what role these two Web-based companies should
play in policing their platforms for fraudulent journalism.

In the opinion of both companies, it seems the lightest possible touch is
best. This is, of course, understandable for the same reasons noted above: any
infringement upon the user’s freedoms could be considered a violation of their
rights and privacy. As both companies have done their best to avoid any
appearance of participating in constrictions of these sorts, how can they
prevent fake news sites from proliferating? The answer, in their opinion,
appears to be by focusing on fake news peddlers’ wallets. Both Google and Facebook
have changed the way ads are displayed on sites
that are found to consistently post fake news.17 As this duo runs two
of the largest ad networks of the Web, this will strike a serious blow to the
revenue that can be taken in by operations such as those based in Macedonia. 

Facebook’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, continues to protest the
notion that fake news on his site influenced the election, calling it a
"pretty crazy idea." However, this did not stop the company from
undertaking a series of experimental policy changes designed to help stamp out the
spread of fake news during the 2020 presidential election and the ongoing
COVID-19 pandemic.18,19 Google, on the other hand, appears more willing to take some
culpability in the growth of fake news. The company admitted in a statement on
fake news articles turning up near the top of its search results that it
"clearly didn’t get it right," but noted that it intended to continue
"working to improve [its] algorithms."20 Both companies
continue to tweak and test ways of combating fakes news, including verifiably
false stories about COVID-19 and its vaccines. How successful any of
these efforts will be remains to be seen. Unfortunately, it may not be until
after the upcoming 2020 presidential election that we can truly analyze how well
Internet giants like these two can protect us, now that the true scope of the
fake news problem has been revealed.

How the Average Person Can Identify and Avoid Fake News

The following steps should help any news reader verify the veracity of a given news story. They will range from the
potentially obvious to the nearly esoteric. However, using any of these tools when browsing online news will certainly lower the chance
of being taken in by fraudulent stories. 

  • Examine the source – This seemingly simple step is among
    the more obvious entries on this list at first blush. Simply put, checking
    the source of a news story can often immediately reveal whether or not it
    was published to mislead. For instance, a story from the Washington Post
    or the Los Angeles Times is almost certainly published with full faith in its
    sources having been truthful and correct. Conversely a story from an unheard-of news site with an unknown name may or may not be truthful
    and would require further investigation to verify. This is, however, not to
    say that everything in reputable newspapers and on reputable news sites
    should be taken as gospel. Even the most prestigious outlets in the world
    have been fooled by fraudulent tipsters or viral hoaxes that have turned out
    to be false upon further examination.
  • Ensure that the source is what it seems – This one
    relates closely to the previous point, but it adds an extra wrinkle to deal
    with a particularly deceptive form of fake news site: those masquerading as
    legitimate news outlets. This report has mentioned fake versions of
    ABC News and MSNBC, both of which have gone so far as to closely mirror the
    original’s URL. While these fakes are harder to spot, certain clues do tend
    to appear. Imperfect use of the English language is often a dead giveaway,
    as is a seemingly strange suffix being added to the URL, such as
    a .co address. Users can also check to see if HTTPS is in use by checking
    the address bar of any modern browser. If it is not, then there’s a chance
    the site in question is not what it seems. Unfortunately, this last tip does
    not apply to all sites, as some news outlets have yet to switch to this more
    secure version of HTTP.
  • Read the WHOLE Article – This may also seem like
    an obvious step, but it is one too often neglected. In the race to be the
    first to say "Hey, did you hear about the latest political
    scandal?" many individuals can skip the entirety of an article, going
    only on what information the headline has provided them. In the age of
    "clickbait" links, even legitimate stories can have misleading
    headlines designed to bring in more visitors in order to improve ad revenue. These
    misleading headlines can, however, often be debunked by reading the
    article itself in order to determine the source of the information being
    presented, as well as whether any obvious biases are exhibited by the author. 
  • Be on the lookout for parody – As mentioned
    earlier, sites like The Onion have been printing fake news for years.
    However, their intention was never to mislead as they have clearly marked
    themselves as satire. That said, social media’s ability to share massive
    amounts of information often causes individual pieces of media to be shared
    without their original context intact. This has led to several embarrassing
    incidents where legitimate news outlets have run parody stories without
    fully vetting their original source. This can easily be avoided by
    checking the site’s "about us" section, mission statement, or
    whatever similar section that site may have describing its goals and claims to the
  • Beware photoshopped images – Skilled artists can
    make just about anything seem real with the right source material and a few
    minutes or hours spent in Photoshop. This means that even articles that
    claim to provide photo evidence of their assertions must remain suspect.
    Although the details on how to spot a photoshopped image are too complex to
    relate here, frequent telltale signs are distorted portions of the image,
    misaligned shadows, repeating patterns where they should not be, and
    different levels of resolution within a single image. That said, a skilled
    artist can avoid all of these things and create an image that is indiscernible
    from real life to anyone but an expert. In these cases, readers must fall
    back on the other tools to examine the accompanying text and
    other factors about an article. 
  • Beware misleading or mislabeled images – While
    some fraudulent journalists will go the extra mile to use a photoshopped
    image, many will simply use an existing image and label it as something it
    is not. Want to write a false report on a massacre allowed to occur by your
    candidate’s opponent? Just use any
    image of carnage that can be found on the Web and label it as having occurred
    at the time and place of your choosing. If the reader has never seen that image before, it will be very hard to tell it
    isn’t real.
    To prevent being taken in in this fashion, investigation site Snopes
    suggests using reverse image searches to find the original source of an
    image.21 These tools use a type of computer vision to analyze an
    image and look for other instances of it having appeared on the Web. If an
    image in the article purporting to be about the aforementioned massacre
    instead shows up as having originated from the set of a zombie movie, you
    have exposed a fraud. 
  • Use common sense – This last item may seem like
    the most obvious one on the list, but it may also be the most difficult to
    actually get readers to apply. In an ideal world, each reader would maintain
    a healthy skepticism toward what they are reading, using their own
    intelligence to factor in things such as the author’s possible motivations,
    a lack of corroboration from other news sources, or the outlandish
    nature of a given claim. The fact of the matter is that, were most of the
    more outlandish fake news stories true, they would be published EVERYWHERE.
    Anyone that gives it a moment’s thought should be able to realize that
    something as historically significant as Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump
    would have been on the front page of every newspaper, at the start of every
    news program, and talked about incessantly on every form of media coverage.
    However, it was not, because it was a lie. Yet, despite this, that story was
    shared, commented on, and liked more than 900,000 times during its reign as
    the single most shared political item during the election.22 Yes,
    many of those shares and likes may have been sarcastic or comedic in nature,
    but the contents of this report should have more than convinced anyone that
    not nearly all of them were. This is a good time to turn to the old idiom
    "if it seems too good (or bad) to be true, it probably is." The words may be
    old, but they are no less wise for having some gray on them.


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America finds itself at something of a tipping point right now. For the first time in its history a
man that had never held any previous political office managed to serve as its
president. As that history-making tenure comes to an end, many
still believe this individual to have reprehensible prejudices against their ethnicity,
sexual preference, or even their tax bracket. Meanwhile, the majority of
individual voters in the US voted for his opponent, meaning the majority of
Americans (by 2.8 million at final count) are disgruntled at the fact that the
US Electoral College election system denied their choice her seat in
office.23 Even disregarding the election and its legitimacy,
questions continue to swirl among legitimate and illegitimate news sources about
the current administration and its increasingly large number of former
participants that are in legal trouble, or already on their way to jail time.
This is to say nothing of fact that the subsequent election saw the largest
number of votes in history being cast for that man’s opponent, Joe Biden, who
will serve as the country’s next president. Unfortunately for the sake of peace
in US discourse, over 74 million people once again disagreed with the eventual
winner, making it highly unlikely the partisan division of the US citizenry will
die down any time soon.24

Unfortunately, It
is harder now than it has ever been for the average US citizen to know how they
can trust in the media and in the government. The result is a country that finds itself more politically
and ideologically divided than it has been in decades. In a very real way, the US is
currently a nation at war with itself. It is not a violent war – a fact that will
hopefully remain true – but a war of words, of beliefs, and of ideals. It is
during wartime that propaganda flourishes. Every US citizen wanted to believe
that all Germans and Japanese were monsters during World War II, and every
German and Japanese citizen likely wanted to think the same thing about the US.
However, these caricatures and exaggerations often bear little or no resemblance
to the truth. Not every Trump supporter is a homophobic racist and not every
Hillary supporter was an amoral elitist. These are simply stereotypes
that have been perpetrated by the worst aspects of both sides. Good people can exist
on both sides of most conflicts, even political ones. Because of this, we must
examine the facts as they really are, not as we would want them to be. Fake news
loses nearly all of its power when the people being discussed within it are
treated as real-world human beings, not some inimitable super villain or
monstrous miscarriage of justice. 

Ultimately it is up to the individual to provide their own final filter for
what news is real and what news is fake. Hopefully this report has expanded the
tools available to readers to help them determine which is which, and it has
inspired at least a little detective work from the average visitor of news sites
and social media pages. At the end of the day, it is the purveyors of fake news
that benefit the most from a reader’s willing ignorance, not your candidate, not
the opposing side’s candidate, but the person collecting money and power by
profiting from the lies they continue to peddle. There is never a good reason to
be complicit in one’s own deception.


1 Heshmat, Shahram Ph.D. "What Is Confirmation Bias?"
. April 2015.

2 Pullela, Phillip. "Pope Warns Media Over ‘Sin’ of Spreading Fake News,
Smearing Politicians." Reuters.
December 2016.

3 Ibid. 

4 Tavernise, Sabrina. "As Fake News Spreads Lies, More Readers Shrug at
the Truth." The New York Times.
December 2016.

5 Silverman, Craig. "This Analysis Shows How Fake Election News Stories
Outperformed Real News on Facebook." Buzzfeed
. November 2016.

6 Kiely, Eugene. "How to Spot Fake News."
November 2016.

7 Silverman, Craig; Alexander, Lawrence. "How Teens in the Balkans Are
Duping Trump Supporters with Fake News." Buzzfeed
. November 2016.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Gottfried, Jeffrey; Shearer, Elisa. "News Use Across Social Media
Platforms 2016."
Pew Research Center
May 2016. 

12 Kang, Celia; Goldman, Adam. "In Washington Pizzeria Attack, Fake News
Brought Real Guns." The New York Times.
December 2016.

13 Ibid. 

14 Milbank, Dana. "Trump’s Fake News Presidency." The
Washington Post
. December 2016.

15 Toor, Amar. "Trump Fires Transition Team Member for Spreading Pizzagate
Conspiracy Theory." The Verge.
December 2016.

16 Ibid.

17 Kottasova, Ivana. "Facebook and Google to Stop Ads from Appearing on
Fake News Sites."
. November 2016.

18 Perez, Sarah; Taylor Hatmaker. "Facebook Blocks Hashtags for #sharpiegate,
#stopthesteal Election Conspiracies."

. November 2020.

19 "Facebook to Remove COVID-19 Vaccine-Related Misinformation" Yahoo
. December 2020.

20 Ibid.

21 LaCapria, Kim. "Six Ways to Spot Fake News."
January 2016. 

22 Ibid.

23 "Presidential Results."
Retrieved December 2016.

24 "2020 National Popular Vote Tracker."
Cook Political Report

. December 2020

About the Author

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Michael Gariffo is an editor for Faulkner Information Services. He
tracks and writes about enterprise software, the Web, and the IT services
sector, as well as telecommunications and data networking.

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