Worried about ‘fake news’? You should be. Several new studies, including one by the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin, show that for the average person, it’s extremely difficult to recognize incorrect, misleading and outright false stories on the Internet. Even more troubling, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that stories found to be false by six major fact-checking services often spread 10 times faster online than legitimate news stories.
Studies also show that fake news stories with clickbait headlines in many cases are getting more engagement and shares on social media than legitimate news stories. This poses a serious threat to the freedom of the press clause in the First Amendment. That’s because fake news stories are designed to distort public perceptions about real-life events, which has led to problematic consequences such as increased public distrust of media organizations, lower subscription rates for credible news outlets, higher rates of censorship, harassment and even violence against journalists and alarming incidents of people acting upon fake news stories. Remember the “Pizzagate” scandal? In 2016, Russian operatives, Twitter bots and others manufactured the ‘news’ that Hillary Clinton ran a pizza-restaurant child-sex ring. The falsehood went viral, shaping public perception of Clinton. A North Carolina man, acting on the baseless report, went on to fire an AR-15 rifle inside the pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. that was mentioned in the baseless article.
While misleading and false news continues to appear on the Internet, news by legitimate sources continues to be attacked as ‘fake’ news. By dismissing unfavorable news stories as “fake,” individuals, many of whom have large followings on social media and in real life, are contributing to shape negative public sentiment towards journalists and media organizations.
Discrediting legitimate news stories and/or organizations by labeling them as “fake”, combined with the proliferation and increased sophistication of truly ‘fake’ news is making it increasingly difficult for members of society to discern between fact, “alternative facts,” and fiction. This only furthers public mistrust in otherwise highly credible news outlets and allows an individual’s persuasiveness to outweigh factual reporting published by diligent journalists.
To help combat the growing issue of fake news in our society, be sure to read through FactCheck.org’s guidelines for detecting fake news stories before sharing a questionable news story on social media or dismissing something you disagree with as “fake news.”