Reading between the lines – an SLA Europe event on fake news

Fake news raises big questions about the nature of truth and the value of evidence.

Social media has increased the speed of news-gathering and dissemination, but it has also facilitated the rapid distribution of inaccurate news. In central London a fight on a train platform was misrepresented by so-called witnesses (including pop star Olly Murs) as a potential terrorist event.  The Mail Online (who else?!) went onto misinterpret an old tweet as evidence that a lorry had been driven into crowds on the street.

In an SLA Europe event chaired by Charlie Inskip, three speakers shared their thoughts about the challenges posed by fake news and the role that information professionals can and do play in mitigating it.

Jo Tinning-Clowes from Dow Jones explored the sliding scale of truth and fake that ranges from satire (think The Onion or the Southend News Network) to deliberate and malicious fabrication. (A sliding scale was described in the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism research paper which we discussed here.) Somewhere on this scale is lazy journalism and misrepresentation (the example Jo shared was an article using an image of London black cabs to illustrate a news story about sex attacks in taxi cabs, although none of the reported crimes were linked to London’s licensed taxis).

Phil Bradley spoke about why people create fake stories. Motivations include wanting to generate money, a desire to spread propaganda or misinformation, or to spread malware. He recommends that as information professionals we simply should no longer trust Google. He showed examples of holocaust denial sites, cure cancer with carrot juice diets, racist websites masquerading as educational sources on Martin Luther King – all of them appearing in top ten search results pages.  He showed how Google feeds confirmation biases (try this yourself – type in Is Milk Good for You and compare the results with a search for Is Milk Bad for You).

Most of all, information professionals should always use the CRAAP test, and other tools and techniques such as reverse image searching, and checking the original date of posting – and encourage others to do so before sharing stories. 

It's not all bad news

Will Gore of the Independent reminded us that good journalism continues to exist and that many journalists are out in the world trying to do the right thing and are working to surface the facts and share truthful stories.

And don't forget that research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism suggests that people aren't 'victims' of fake news.  They have identified their trusted sources (brands and people) and use them to verify information.

The SLA Europe event was held in London.