Of all of the buzzwords that have defined the past few years, ‘fake news’ is among the most prevalent – and, the most concerning. And while fake news isn’t new, it is seemingly more widespread and deceptive than it has been before.
ClickView’s Jennifer Gough has worked as a commissioning editor in the educational publishing industry for over 17 years – before that, she was a secondary school teacher and a student wellbeing coordinator. Jennifer says that fake news is inherently hard to define – which is why it can be so dangerous.
“Fake News is not just one, easily definable thing, which is why it is sometimes hard for people to recognise,” says Jennifer. “In general, it is information presented as ‘factual’ that is partially or completely untrue. It is delivered to shape peoples’ opinions or, increasingly and more commonly, to get them to buy something.”
And while the term ‘fake news’ is typically used to describe online news and information, Jennifer explains that it can also be found in newspapers and magazines as well. It comes in many forms: hoaxes, scams, clickbait, jokes, advertising, spin, propaganda, satire, sensationalism and even something as simple as a fake product review.
“Fake news is not new – it’s been around for as long as people have tried to influence the opinions and attitudes of others, and we are all probably very aware of examples where politicians or businesses spin content to suit their side of a story,” says Jennifer. “But what is different now, is that the Internet has made it easier and quicker to share fake information around the world, to more people and 24/7. It has become difficult for people to decipher large volumes of information and work out what is fake and what is genuine.”
The way that news is gathered and delivered has changed. Once upon a time, when we received news from a limited number of places, it was easy to trust the stories in newspapers, magazines and on television – they were produced by professional journalists, working with well-known organisations.
“Everyone received the news from the same newspapers and radio stations every day, and content was checked by editors – you knew who was writing the stories and quite often, their usual biases or points of view,” says Jennifer. “But since the news has moved to the web, apps, our phones and even watches, it is much harder to know of its source and why it has been written.”
The question remains: how do we identify fake news? This is a tough one, Jennifer explains, because it is designed to look like any other news.
“Fake news websites can mimic the mastheads and layouts of respected newspapers or include images that might have once been taken by a genuine reporter,” says Jennifer. “Fake news could even be an advertisement for ‘a new miracle drug that cures COVID’ – an article written by an unknown ‘doctor’ that supports the use of bleach to treat the same infection.”
It’s those attention-grabbing headlines about a “dead” celebrity designed to get you to open the article, to then expose you to some form of advertising. Jennifer explains that these websites and hoaxes are often paid for by the advertiser, who in turn receives payment for every click and will rarely lead the reader to the ‘astonishing headline’ they first clicked on.
“Media companies sometimes provide a biased interpretation of an event, a product or a person to gain acceptance or sales, and this ‘spin’ is a form of propaganda,” says Jennifer. “Closely related to spin and propaganda is sensationalism; this is when news stories are presented in a way to provoke public interest, outrage, or excitement, but always at the expense of the facts and accurate, unbiased reporting.”
Jennifer adds that joke websites like the Betoota Advocate or The Onion can unintentionally help to start or spread fake news.
“If the jokes are too subtle or the satire of real news is too good, people can miss the joke and believe the story is true, and spread it as ‘real news’,” Jennifer explains.
And while these forms of fake news feel more annoying than harmful, there are some instances where misinformation can be spread to change peoples’ beliefs on major issues. Take conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic being made up, for example.
“This resulted in people not believing in the disease and not wearing a mask or following the correct safety procedures, as well as politicians extreme suggestions about self-medicating or even drinking bleach to avoid contraction of the COVID-19 virus,” says Jennifer. “These are just a few recent examples of where fake news can be misleading and even dangerous.”
What’s more, the large amount of fake news infecting online social media has seen people become more suspicious of the established media and professional journalists. The news sources we used to trust are now easily confused with the fake news sites flooding the Internet, and the ‘fake news’ label being employed by certain politicians when they don’t like the latest headline has made matters worse.
“By labelling articles that are true but damaging as ‘fake news’, politicians try to make us doubt the facts,” says Jennifer. “This makes it harder for the legitimate media to do the important job of holding people in power responsible for their actions.”
It’s also worth noting that this kind of news is manufactured to draw you in – the creator is banking on the fact that the headline or imagery will make you feel something, and that strong emotional response will drive you to click the link without thinking.
“Instead of reading news articles and searching for the facts, we are drawn into the emotion – good and bad – of the attention-grabbing headlines,” says Jennifer.
“Another common reason we engage with fake news is because we, as humans, like to read facts and stories that back up the opinions and beliefs we may already have. This is called ‘confirmation bias’, and it is a powerful tool in the spread of fake news.”
When we experience that superior feeling of being proved right about an important topic, Jennifer explains, we want to share those stories.
So, how can we combat fake news? The most powerful thing you can do, says Jennifer, is ask questions.
“Simply ask yourself, ‘What is this trying to make me think or do? Is it biased or trying to persuade me in some way? Is the tone or language trying to influence an opinion or decision?’” says Jennifer. “Trying to maintain a little scepticism is the first step to identifying fake news.”
We can encourage our kids to do the same. Identifying bias is a learned skill, one that should be cultivated over time – the earlier we start to learn it, the better.
Here are a few of the very practical ways Jennifer encourages you (and your children) to play the fake news detective:
- Do a visual check of the website or app. Check for: unusual website addresses, spelling and grammar errors, low-resolution imagery, lots of advertising banners and pop-ups. All of these elements hint to a fake-news source. Where there is a lot of advertising present, it can often mean that the site owner is more interested in making money than delivery news.
- Fact-check the date and source. Google the name of the journalist if it is supplied. Where do they work and what is their background, work-history or credentials? Are they closely linked to a political organisation or product that they are writing about?
- Do a deep-dive into the article itself. After the visual analysis of the website, you can start to look more closely at the article. A quick Google search will tell you if a story has been reported on by other news sites. You can also search to find out if quotes and sentences have been used by multiple people. Often when listening to multiple interviews or watching videos, you will find that some sentences have been cropped or re-used to change the meaning entirely.
- Do a reverse Google search: This is a great way of finding where images used in ‘fake news’ have come from. To make fake news stories seem more real, images are often lifted from other sites and used out of context in the story to change or manipulate opinion.
“Many of these ways of ‘fact-checking’ for fake news also apply to suspect articles on social media platforms,” says Jennifer. “The problem is that it can be even harder to analyse and interrogate these articles as there is even less information about the source.
“When reading articles on social media, ask yourself if the article is a first-hand, third-hand or even fourth-hand account of the event. Is it seen through the eyes of someone remote from the incident or is it reporting on an incident not connected to the source? Get yourself into the habit of questioning, before digesting the news.”
LEARN TO SPOT FAKE NEWS
ClickView’s series, ‘Fake News,’ focuses on teaching media literacy. Co-written by writing talent from Have You Been Paying Attention?, the series examines issues such as defining fake news, explaining and providing examples of hoaxes, scams, clickbait, jokes, advertising, spin, propaganda, satire and sensationalism, and an essential resource for boosting secondary students’ digital literacy skills. Watch it free here.