Fake News and News Literacy in the “Post-Truth” Era

By Kevin Ho

fake news scrabble tiles
Photo by Joshua Miranda on Pexels.com

We are often told by journalists, community leaders, and fellow web users that we live in a “post-truth” era. The idea here is that people contest basic standards of what is factual and what is truthful, making it difficult to distinguish between truthful versus fake news.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines fake news as false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually spread to influence political views or as a joke. One of the most famous websites that promotes humorous fake news is The Onion: a satire website, comedic in nature, that is not meant to be taken at face value. Although there are other similarly lighthearted websites out there meant to make you laugh, our focus in this post will be on the role of fake news in its ability to influence political views, and how misinformation impacts society, science communication, and science literacy.

Increasingly, the line separating fact from fiction is blurry, making it seem like anyone can believe in anything. The internet makes it easy to communicate with others and even spread information on a large scale.  Anyone can post information on the internet without a fact-check, which means that misinformation can get shares and retweets — and even go viral — even if it’s entirely false.

Anyone can post information on the internet without a fact-check, which means that misinformation can get shares and retweets — and even go viral — even if it’s entirely false.

That’s why you should be careful about any articles you encounter online. Sometimes, you may be reading false or misleading news without even realizing it. Not only are there actors who promote false information on the internet, but some internet users actively push misinformation to deceive or misdirect individuals. Fake news can be thought of as a gradient — completely and utterly false to a story which may have some inaccurate details — and exists in a variety of forms including hoaxes, biased misleading news, and outright propaganda.

Although the internet has made knowledge more available to the masses, it is clear that not all information is created equal. In this post, we’ll talk about the origins of fake news, why it is dangerous, how to identify fake news, and how fake news makes scientific research (and even explaining science) difficult.

The Origins of Fake News and Why It Is Dangerous

Misinformation and fake news has been part of the human experience since ancient times. Whether it is the future Roman Emperor Octavian demonizing the reputation of his rival Mark Antony at the height of the Roman Civil War, or the Nazis’ all-consuming anti-semitic conspiracy theories leading to some of the world’s worst crimes against humanity, there have always been political actors who will fabricate and manipulate information for their own agenda.

The spread of information — and misinformation — has been amplified by advances in communication technology. Inventions such as the printing press, radio, and internet make it not only easier to spread your message to the masses, your message can be enhanced through skillful manipulation of technology. Although the printing press allowed for the creation of the modern journalism industry, and the rapid increase in literacy within the western world, it also made it easier for journalists with less ethical standards to push sensationalized messages for the sake of maximizing sales. Known during the 19th century United States as “yellow journalism,” this style of deceptive journalism contributed to inciting the fury within the American public that would lead to the Spanish-American War.

Photo by Porapak Apichodilok on Pexels.com

The technology in spreading fake news is especially obvious in this day of age, with the rapid spread of conspiracy theories in the United States over social media. Perpetrators of fake news see information not as something used to advance the public good or our understanding of the universe, but as a tool used to divide and conquer.

Perpetrators of fake news see information not as something used to advance the public good or our understanding of the universe, but as a tool used to divide and conquer.

In a free and democratic society committed to advancing scientific knowledge, the free flow of accurate information is required to allow productive science research to occur. After all, the scientific method is an iterative, collaborative, and incremental process. Any groundbreaking research requires a foundation of basic knowledge in order to proceed.

If the information that is available in the public cannot be trusted, then the very foundation of scientific research and democratic governance is placed in serious jeopardy. The end result is a polarized, divided society where individuals are unable to trust one another and often believe in totally different stories that fit into their preconceived worldviews.

Anyone Can Be Deceived by Fake News

Individuals browsing the web can often encounter and be deceived by fake news because they fail to identify some characteristics of fake news or other dubious sources. This can be as simple as checking the background of the author or the website’s URL or address, for example. Often, individuals are distracted from checking these basic background facts about a potential news article because they are attracted to the content of the source. 

A fake news article may also be able to avoid scrutiny from individuals by playing into their preconceived worldview, and align with and support that worldview without offering dissenting opinions. This is known in psychology as confirmation bias and its effect is much stronger for deeply-held beliefs such as political, religious, or cultural views about society. Confirmation bias results in motivated reasoning that allows individuals to rationalize views or facts that would otherwise be uncomfortable for them. Even in the face of disconcerting evidence to the contrary of their views or alternative viewpoints, most individuals will stick to their guns in the short term (citation). 

Readers of internet news sources often overlook the basics: who wrote this article?  Where is it published?  This makes them more likely to read misinformation.

These are just a few of the common tactics that fake news and other dubious agencies use to deceive you into buying into their bogus story.

Here are ways you can identify whether a source is credible or if it is merely fake news.  We have previously talked about the use of statistics as influenced by agendas, and you can think of fake news in a similar fashion.

Telling the Difference Between Fact and Fiction on the Web

What should you do when you encounter a news source and want to know how to determine whether it is real or fake news?  There is a lot you can do to determine whether a source is credible or non-credible before you read the body of an article.

Examine the Background

You can start with where the article is from. With the advent of the internet, researching the background of the website you are getting research from is easier than ever before. You can easily learn about what kinds of people write for this website, what kind of values this website promotes, and what kind of principles they have. This way, you can easily tell which are the credible news sources that follow journalistic ethics and which sources peddle in misinformation. These background checks like checking the URL that the platform is using is important because some of the most insidious fake news sites out there mimic the appearance and URL of more credible sites to lure in unsuspecting web users. An example of this practice are websites like abc.com.co, this is now a defunct website that mimicked the URL and format of ABC news. This is by far one of the worst examples of a fake news website, disguising as mainstream news while posting misinformation to deceive the public. There are other more subtle but just as insidious ways for fake news and other questionable sources can spread their agenda.

Examine the Content

If you are unsure or if you want more details on where the article in question leans, you will have to critically examine the contents of the article. Some of the components you need to analyze within the contents of the article are the author’s choice of words, what information is being said, what information is not being said, and how they are presenting the information. A common way for fake news and other less-credible sources to deceive you is by playing into your biases while hiding their own flaws or biases. Authors can play into your biases by only talking about or emphasizing information that you agree with or are sympathetic to while omitting information that may be uncomfortable for you to think about. That way, it never occurs to you that you are being deceived or that the article you are reading is actually fake news. Some things that standout in highly misleading news is the lack of nuance, setting up of obvious villains to be reviled, and . Not only should you critically examine the content of any article to ensure that it is credible, you should also see what kind of supporters or funding sources do these websites receive. 

Examine the Benefactor

One way to understand where the author or article is coming from is to see who provides financial resources for that website. Is this a personal website for the individual? Is it a for-profit entity? Does it receive funding from a non-profit or government organization? These questions are important because they tell you a lot about what interests the author and article supports and why the contents are the way they are. Checking the background information is also a useful way of determining whether a source is credible or not because many fake news websites have obscure or minimal background information. All of these factors: content, source, author, and benefactor, all have an influence in determining what is fake or deceiving news from  what is credible. The powerful ability for fake and deceiving news to misdirect the public is powerful and has a significant impact on communicating scientific research.

Fake News and Science

Maintaining scientific rigor and factual information in this age of the COVID-19 pandemic is more important than ever before. Science communication plays an important role in communicating factual information that can properly prepare the public. Not only does this encourage public readiness and best practices against COVID-19, it also prevents the spread of public hysteria and misinformation regarding the pandemic. However, the job of science communication is hampered by the endemic presence of fake news which undermines the legitimacy of science journalism.

Although fake news traffics in falsehoods, misinformation, and conspiracy theories, they often spread faster than factual information over social media, because they play into the biases of web users. For example, despite the existence of reliable public health sources like NIH and the WHO, up to two-thirds of Americans have, at some point, been exposed to COVID-19 misinformation — whether this is tweets from public officials proposing false COVID-19 cures or treatments, or mainstream news journalists trying to explain an issue they are not familiar with to the general public.

Source: Unsplash

Most people are not scientists, so they cannot accurately judge whether an argument is based on scientific evidence or emotional appeals. The problem of fake news and misinforming the public with falsehoods is not limited to COVID-19, either. There are other health topics, such as vaccines, that are often subject to misinformation and ignorance from uninformed people.

According to a study out of Pew Research Center, 80% of Americans support investments in medical and science research. However, such research is only possible if we can agree on a basic set of facts and agree to have constructive conversation with each other. If we let the airwaves be jammed with fake news, we risk breaking apart the social fabric of the country making constructive dialogue and scientific research impossible.

If we let the airwaves be jammed with fake news, we risk damaging the social fabric of the country — making constructive dialogue and scientific research impossible.

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