Fake news - the awful truth

Phil Bradley explores why people create fake news stories - and what librarians can do to educate and guide.

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There has been a lot of discussion in the press and on social media about the problem of 'fake news' recently. In this article I'll look at why this occurs, and what people can do about it.

There are several reasons why people produce fake news stories – or indeed entirely fake news sites. The first and biggest reason, is that it is a money maker. If someone sees a news story and visits the site there is a possibility that they may well end up clicking on an advertising link, and make money for the site owner. Each click will only earn a few pennies at best, but if enough people do it, that can result in a sizeable income. Allen Montgomery, Founder of 'The National Report' said "We've had stories that have made $10,000 (about £8,100). When we really tap in to something and get it to go big then we're talking about in the thousands of dollars that are made per story."

A second reason is that it gives the perpetrator a chance to infect a readers machine with malware. A visitor clicks on a link and goes to the site, where upon a dialogue box pops up to say that their Adobe software (for example) is out of date and needs to be updated. A small number of people will automatically click on the link supplied and will end up downloading and installing malicious software that could do any manner of different, and equally nasty, things.

Once the faker has a visitor on their site they might then be able to tempt them to visit another site and so on, thus boosting the total number of visitors they receive. This can be used to impress a potential advertiser, or simply give the faker a second bit at the click through advert.

A final reason that people will produce fake news is because they want to push a certain agenda, be it religious or political. A Buzzfeed news analysis discovered that fake political stories on Facebook during the American election campaign of 2016 generated more clicks, likes and shares than the best performing election stories from trustworthy news sites. (https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/viral-fake-election-news-outperformed-real-news-on-facebook). People will believe what they want to believe, and if a faker can produce a story which supports a viewpoint, it's more likely to be believed and shared onwards to their friends and colleagues. Of course, if a friend has liked something and shared it, that gives it even more credence, particularly if the reader is seeing it from a variety of different sources.

A Stanford study (https://ed.stanford.edu/news/stanford-researchers-find-students-have-trouble-judging-credibility-information-online) reported that students can 'easily be duped' into believing the authority and authenticity of articles. They have a hard time being able to understand the difference between advertisements and news articles, or being able to work out where stories originate. Add into this rather toxic mix the fact that 62% of US adults get their news from social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook (https://techcrunch.com/2016/05/26/most-people-get-their-news-from-social-media-says-report/) and the problem is further exacerbated.

Of course, both Facebook and Google have said that they are working on this problem, with Google saying that they will ban websites that host fake news from using their advertising services for example. However, Google itself has recently been criticised for providing links to fake news sites in their own news results (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/11/14/googles-top-news-link-for-final-election-results-goes-to-a-fake-news-site-with-false-numbers/)

We need to consider what information professionals can do to reduce this problem, and there have already been some excellent articles on this very subject. 'In the war on fake news, school librarians have a huge role to play' http://www.theverge.com/2016/11/16/13637294/school-libraries-information-literacy-fake-news-election-2016 and 'The US Election, a need for curation and the power of story' (https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2016/11/14/the-us-election-a-need-for-curation-and-the-power-of-story/) are both worth reading in detail. However, I think that each and every one of us has a responsibility to take a lead here. Check out the stories that you link to on Facebook or that you share via Twitter. Spend time looking at, and getting to know the fake news sites, and the ways in which they differ from satirical or parody sites, learn how to do reverse image searching to check to see if the image referenced in a story is actually from somewhere else and explore the CRAAP test. That is to say, Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy and Purpose – you can learn more about it in detail at https://www.refme.com/blog/2016/04/19/the-craap-test-an-easy-fun-way-to-evaluate-research-sources/

Above all, hammer home the point that the internet, Google, Facebook and the rest of social media is NOT to be trusted. After all, if you want accuracy and reliability, ask a librarian, right?