Fake news has arguably never been a bigger problem than it is today. Misinformation spreads like wildfire online, which can have serious implications if anyone ever acts upon false information, such as the Pizzagate incident in 2016.
To date, search engines and social media platforms have been reluctant to apply more stringent standards for content published and circulated on their websites. Since censorship poses a serious issue for First Amendment rights, how can we genuinely combat the spread of false information without resorting to draconian censorship policies?
The government and tech companies may not develop an ideal solution for a while but in the meantime, here are three strategies individuals like you can try to detect and avoid fake news and reviews online:
Media Bias / Fact Check
One of the most comprehensive news fact-checking websites is Media Bias / Fact Check (MBFC), which is a donation and third party advertising-funded platform “dedicated to educating the public on media bias and deceptive news practices.” They have teams of editors and fact-checkers who evaluate news organizations and stories to determine the credibility of each source; they also have lists for sources categorized by political leaning, as well as “Least Biased,” “Conspiracy-Pseudoscience” and “Questionable Sources” categories.
MBFC employs a rigorous and transparent methodology for source credibility evaluations, making it an ideal resource for anyone searching for easily accessible information about the trustworthiness and potential bias of a news source.
If you cannot find a particular source on MBFC or you want to evaluate the credibility of a source on your own, then your best bet would be the CRAAP test, which stands for:
- Currency: how timely (recently published and updated) is the information?
- Relevancy: how important is this information for your needs and are there other sources with similar information?
- Authority: who is the publisher and what are their credentials and reputation?
- Accuracy: how reliable is the information? (Where did it come from and is the language relatively unbiased and free of emotion?)
- Purpose: why does this information exist and are the points of view expressed relatively objective and unbiased?
With the CRAAP test, you’ll be able to reasonably determine whether an article or publication source is excessively biased or even fake by analyzing the aforementioned most important factors related to a source’s credibility.
Beyond the news, fake information is rampant online – especially on reviews-driven websites like Amazon, TripAdvisor, Walmart.com and Yelp. To avoid getting duped by fake reviews (or companies that use shady tactics to rake in more five-star reviews for their products), copy the web link and plug it into FakeSpot.
FakeSpot’s algorithm will assess a variety of factors for a particular product or business page and produce a grade of A, B, C, D or F based on the likelihood of deception (based on review patterns), quality of review content, percentage of reliable reviews, and other related factors.
Recap: Don’t Get Fooled by Fakes
Whether you’re concerned about reading and inadvertently sharing fake news or you want to avoid buying products supported by lots of fake reviews, we hope you’ll try out any of these three strategies for detecting fake information online so you can avoid the pitfalls of reading, believing and sharing misinformation with your own social network.
On May 31, 2017, President Trump tweeted “Despite the constant negative press covfefe” shortly before deleting it. The misspelling later became the inspiration behind the Communications Over Various Feeds Electronically for Engagement Act, also known as the COVFEFE Act of 2017. It was introduced to the House of Representatives on June 12 and although it has not yet passed, the COVFEFE Act has significant implications for First Amendment rights and publicly-elected officials’ use of social media.
Let’s unpack exactly what the COVFEFE Act was trying to do and explore how it remains a pressing First Amendment issue in 2020 and beyond.
Communications Over Various Feeds Electronically for Engagement Act
The COVFEFE Act sought to revise the Presidential Records Act to require the National Archives to preserve presidential tweets and other social media interactions. Introduced by Illinois Representative Mike Quigley, the bill was designed to prevent current and future U.S. presidents from deleting social media posts (on official channels like @POTUS and personal channels like @realDonaldTrump).
As former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said, President Trump’s tweets ought to be “considered official statements by the President of the United States.” With this in mind, the creators of the COVFEFE Act argued that social media posts ought to be preserved by the National Archives (even if the posts were eventually deleted), per the requirements outlined in the Presidential Records Act.
Is Social Media Legally Classified as a Public Forum?
There are serious First Amendment implications surrounding the COVFEFE Act, including the recent lawsuit, Knight First Amendment Institute v. Trump, in which the plaintiffs successfully argued that the “public forum” nature of social media meant that President Trump blocking users constituted a violation of their First Amendment rights.
In the first legal decision, Judge Naomi Buchwald stated, “This case requires us to consider whether a public official may, consistent with the First Amendment, “block” a person from his Twitter account in response to the political views that person has expressed, and whether the analysis differs because that public official is the President of the United States. The answer to both questions is no.”
The Second Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision in July 2019, which led to new lawsuits against other elected public officials, such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who had blocked some people from viewing her Twitter account at the time.
Although the COVFEFE Act is still just a proposed piece of legislation, it seems important that all citizens – regardless of their political beliefs or affiliations – ought to be able to view every public official’s social media posts. The “public forum” nature of social media is still under consideration in countless legal battles across the country, and regardless of political party or level of public office, our elected officials have a Constitutional obligation to remain transparent in their interactions with the public, even when they would rather block someone who disagrees with them.
A number of new studies show that Americans aren’t very good at spotting fake news. Are you?
Many fake news sites spoof credible ones, using a similar URL and logo. For example, ABC News could appear as abc-news.com with a similar logo, to trick people into believing they are reading credible news. Also, look at the website’s “Contact” and “About Us” pages. If there’s no editorial contact or the description of their purpose and mission is vague or missing altogether, that could be a sign that the site was created solely to shape public perception with misleading or false stories. Do a quick Google search of the website. Is there a history of bad press about the source? Some sites have been outed as venues for foreign governments to intervene in our elections.
Does the article have a byline? If so, does the author have a track record of quality content? Did the writer interview reputable sources and include direct quotes and links to supporting information? Is the writing clean or is it full of errors? All of this matters, because legitimate journalists conduct themselves in a legitimate manner, while trolls aren’t concerned with following journalistic standards and practices.
If you’re on the fence about the credibility of a source, do some research. Are other outlets reporting on the same matter? Do you see recurring themes as far as the facts being reported? People or organizations with malicious intentions will create their own narrative and it’s usually not supported by other accounts.
Does the website have a lot of pop-up and banner ads? Many misleading sites have a lot of those. Other sites feature shocking headlines but the text of the stories don’t support the outlandish claim(s) being made. Does the story seem a bit far-fetched? Does it align with your beliefs and make you angry? Many fake news stores are written specifically to invoke anger. Be aware of confirmation bias. That’s the tendency to put more stock in information that confirms your beliefs than information that doesn’t.
As of May 31, 2019, the U.S. State Department began requesting social media information from visa applicants. The new practice arose from President Trump’s 2017 Memorandum on Implementing Heightened Screening and Vetting of Applications for Visas and other Immigration Benefits. By early December 2019, two organizations (Knight First Amendment Institute and the Brennan Center for Justice) sued to put an end to this policy on the basis that it allegedly violates the First Amendment rights of visa applicants.
The controversy surrounding the social media identification requirement has sparked a great deal of discussion about freedom of speech online and the extent to which the federal government should be able to monitor and even regulate freedom of speech, not just for American citizens in online forums but also for non-citizens seeking U.S. visas.
In other words, visa applicants are not U.S. citizens, but should they still granted the same First Amendment freedoms as if they are? And what are the possible consequences of social media identification requirements for people seeking visas?
To uncover why the State Department’s new practice may be unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds, let’s first examine whether non-citizens are legally granted the same Constitutional rights and what implications this practice may have if it continues.
Visa Applicants and the First Amendment
Although the Constitution was primarily written to protect the rights of American citizens, many of the amendments are intended to cover non-citizens as well, say some Constitutional scholars. They argue that the Bill of Rights was intended to protect citizens and non-citizens alike because the Constitution doesn’t ever say these rights are limited to “citizens;” the Constitution simply says “the people.”
Michael Kagan, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Nevada – Las Vegas, has written extensively about non-citizens’ relationship with the First Amendment, particularly when it involves freedom of speech and freedom of religion. As he wrote in an essay for the Boston College Law Review in 2018:
Speaker identity changes speech in powerful ways, which is why it is dangerous to allow the government to silence certain speakers based on who they are. The Court should recognize that immigrant speech is important enough to be protected by the First Amendment, both for immigrants in the United States and for American citizens who may benefit from hearing what they have to say.
In sum, immigrants and temporary visa holders should maintain the same First Amendment protections as U.S. citizens because denying them said rights would be discriminating against these groups on the basis of identity (non-citizen) and silencing these groups could be enormously detrimental for American society as a whole.
Freedom of Speech Online
The broader question here involves freedom of speech online: why do social media accounts matter in this case? The original purpose of President Trump’s new State Department practice was likely intended as a means for protecting our national security. After all, terrorists commonly use social media as tools for recruitment and propaganda dissemination, which is why asking visa applicants to identify their social media profiles seemingly makes sense at first.
However, this policy can produce a sort of chilling effect on free speech, in which visa applicants no longer share their ideas, opinions and attitudes online in fear of getting denied a visa to the U.S.
For instance, the lawsuit filed by the Knight First Amendment Institute and the Brennan Center for Justice was sparked by the Doc Society and the International Documentary Association’s concerns about filmmakers from around the world being able to express themselves freely, even if their ideas are unpopular. Without access to a U.S. visa, some filmmakers may not be able to continue their investigative reporting and critical documentary work because many filmmakers are reliant on U.S. events to obtain support and resources for their projects.
Beyond filmmakers, it’s simply untenable to require all visa applicants to reveal each and every one of their social media profiles. In some cases, an individual may use a pseudonym to avoid harassment or other serious threats; in other cases, the visa applicant may have expressed an opinion deemed unpopular and/or unsupportive of the current (or future) presidential administration, which could trigger a denial of their visa application.
We don’t know how far-reaching this law may be, which is why we must support the First Amendment for everyone protected under the Constitution, particularly in online environments that are increasingly subject to governmental regulation, such as social media.
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.”