Fact Checking

Video credit: How to Spot Fake News – posted by Factcheck.org on Youtube

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What is fact checking?

According the Oxford English Dictionary fact checking is: “The action of verifying facts, esp. in the context of journalism or other writing; the work involved in checking or establishing the facts of a matter.”

Formalized fact-checkers are those who police the political process. As described by Moore, fact-checkers work parallel to newsrooms, to keep both politicians and political journalists accountable. Fact-checking organizations such as PolitiFact, Factcheck.org, and others are meant to be non-partisan. Any organization with a clear political presence is excluded from fact checking gatherings (Moore).

Fact-checking is an activity that anyone can take part in. While the fact-checking process should take place prior to publishing, for a variety of reasons, incorrect information is sometimes released and circulated. Therefore, an awareness of fact-checking processes with aid readers as they actively and critically receive information.

How has this emerged as an issue?

Fake news came to the forefront of the North American public’s consciousness during the 2016 US Presidential election, but did you know that the spreading of false information has a much longer history? This phenomenon can be traced back as far as the battles of the Roman Republic, but the practice really took off in the 1800s with the dawn of the penny press. Columbia University professor Andie Tucher explains that: with increased access to publishing technologies, and a captive audience of lower and middle-class citizens, “sensational news, and gossip proliferated” in the western world. In fact, newspapers printed false stories and opinion pieces until the early 1900s the journalism industry began tightening their standards for professionalism. Despite this drive to publish only the truth, fake news continued to find avenues in which to spread, such as supermarket tabloids and joke magazines.

With the dawn of the internet age, fake news found yet another vehicle for dissemination in chain emails. Organizations like Snopes.com have been combatting the spread of “urban legends” online since the mid-1990s. In 2000, a particularly famous fake news story about flesh-eating bananas gained so much traction that the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was forced to set up a hotline to help debunk the myth. In recent years, social media has become a large perpetrator of fake news, spreading false headlines quickly throughout social networks. The monetization of the internet is also a driving factor behind the dissemination of fake news. Programs like Ad-sense reward creators for the dissemination of their information, not necessarily for the quality or accuracy of their content. For some, the creation of quick spreading fake news stories can be incredibly financially rewarding.

What is fake news?

There are a few reasons for the current proliferation of fake news. The first is the field of satire. Many stories are so over-the-top to the point and outrageous that they’re funny. This is a healthy, innocuous form of cultural and political criticism that is practiced in functional democracies. Although this particular category of fake news is entirely fictional, its subversive commentary contains inherent and often revealing truths about our society. Examples of satire include The Onion, “America’s finest news source,” and CBC Radio One’s This is That, “a current affairs program that doesn’t just talk about the issues, it fabricates them.”

But other forms of fake news are much more insidious and dangerous for democracy. Craig Silverman at BuzzFeed led an investigation into the creation of fake news stories during the 2016 presidential campaign between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton. He found that a large quantity of fake news emerging from a small town in Macedonia. Teenagers were creating the majority of this fake news and some of their stories were shared more than 140,000 times on social media.

According to Silverman, these teenagers had no interest in supporting Trump and were only financially motivated. They found that the best way to get traffic and clicks was through sharing stories on Facebook. And they found that the audience that shared their fake news content the most tended to be Trump supporters.

But what’s the effect on politics? People share these fake news stories and misinformation spreads, confusing the public about the facts, and impacting the democratic process. The difference between these fake news stories and satire is that there isn’t any humour involved, no underlying point to the farce, just outright deception for a pure economic benefit.

The final reason for creating fake news is political interference. It has been said that Russia also interfered with the American election in this way. In addition, organizations like WikiLeaks release massive amounts of information with the purpose of disrupting corporate and national interests. What’s important when sifting through information disseminated by leakers, is being critical of what information isn’t present, and asking why.

Savvy media consumers are skeptical of news from wherever it comes from, keeping an eye towards the agendas behind news organizations, national agencies, governments, and whoever else is disseminating information.

Think before you ink

When you’re reading articles online are you being a savvy media consumer? According to the University of Toronto, you can follow these steps to help fact check whatever you’re reading, watching, or listening to:

  • Verify the information with a fact-checking website like FactCheck.org, Politifact, or Snopes
  • Look at the URL to make sure it looks right
  • Check out the sites ‘About Us’ page
  • Read other news sources and see if they’re also reporting the story

Following these simple steps will help you determine whether or not the story is credible and prevent you from being misinformed by fake news and sharing a story that isn’t accurate or truthful.

Discuss

After considering the impact of fake news on our democratic values, does it ever serve an acceptable purpose?

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