Facebook Can’t Solve Fake News. But We Can.

Social media users either aren’t aware or don’t care about sharing credible sources of news. That has to change.

You’ve heard the warning a million times. We increasingly live online, in customizable bubbles of comfort that allow us to isolate ourselves from opposing viewpoints. But there’s an insidious undercurrent of profit that drives this division, especially on Facebook: fake news.

I encountered a near-lethal dose of it just a few weeks ago.

After my tweet calling out an off-duty police officer for intimidation tactics went viral, a conservative website that operates almost exclusively on Facebook plastered my face all over their feed.

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Within minutes, vicious messages and threats began flooding my Facebook messenger. Trump supporters attempted to dox me on Twitter, and one called my work, fishing for information. I was shocked that a publication I had never even heard of, with just a few hundred followers on Twitter, could command an army of millions on Facebook.

Fake news. Just like Twitter has trolls that promote hate speech and online harassment, Facebook has propaganda. Lots of it. From both sides. Articles that look real, headlines that feel authentic. But they aren’t. And we’ve fallen in love with news that feeds our prejudices. Hook, line, and sinker.

Zuckerberg released a statement after the 2016 election in response to criticism that misleading articles on Facebook had lost the election for Democrats. He said actual hoaxes are a minority of the sources shared (1%) and while Facebook has taken some steps to address that type of content, they simply can’t be an arbiter of truth. Shortly after his comments, a hotly contested spreadsheet of fake news sources and various charts began to circulate on social media.

False & Misleading New Sources by Melissa Zimdars, 2016

Written by a professor of media and communications, it’s a great place to start, but ultimately a futile exercise. You’d finish blacklisting a slew of sites only to have new ones crop up the same day. The solution here is not to consult some magic list of approved sites that create authentic content. The solution is to help people understand how to become arbiters of truth for themselves.

I come at this from the perspective of a journalist. Someone who has spent her life passionately pursuing knowledge. And I can tell you that the average person does not know how to critically evaluate a source. Academia is rife with this problem.

When I worked in higher education at an online university one of the classes all students were required to take no matter their transfer credit was critical thinking. This online, non-profit university had discovered early on that students lacked the ability to determine a credible source. This problem permeated every program at both the undergraduate and masters level.

We live in the age of the internet, where we swim in a vast cesspool of information. It allows us to pick and choose facts in ways that reinforce our own narratives. And it keeps us drowning in self-righteousness.

Let’s conduct a little experiment to illustrate the problem, shall we? I’m going to link up several sites with similar titles that you might see shared on social media, along with their slogans. They are all purported news sites that carry some variation of the word “Daily”.

But that, friends, is where their similarities end.

These sources look legitimate enough on the surface, although there are some obvious clues just in the taglines. We’ll also pop into Wikipedia and see what they have to say about each of these publications. Wikipedia is a good place to start, but as an open source site, it is by no means where you should stop when it comes to researching a credible source. Mine further for details about ownership, audience, and any political affiliations of the editor-in-chief.

The Daily Beast

A smart, speedy take on news around the world.”

Described as a reporting and opinion site with liberal, progressive views. The Daily Beast actually won a webby for “Best News Site” in 2012 and 2013.

Current featured article’s headline: “The Other Woman in the Stormy Daniels-Trump Saga” . I see what you did there, Daily Beast.

Analysis: This one skews liberal in the headlines, but they do back up their stories with credible sources. Stay away from their more salacious, click-bait headlines and you’ll be fine.

Daily Dot

Your Internet. Your Internet news.

Wikipedia indicates this one covers life on the web and news around the internets. Based in Texas, there are no obvious affiliations here.

Current featured article’s headline: “A guide to the best SpongeBob SquarePants memes — so far”. Ummmm, okay.

Analysis: I dug a little deeper here by looking at articles written by the founder, editor, and managing editor for this publication. I found content from both sides and historically, an equally dispersed mention of positives for both Trump and Clinton.

Daily Kos

“Daily weblog with political analysis on US current events from a liberal perspective.”

This is a progressive political blog that says up front that it’s focused on advocacy. It’s not considered nor does it bill itself as a legitimate news source.

Current featured article’s headline: “This Bernie Democrat will do his part to help repair the Democratic Party”. Way to do your part driving that wedge within the party, Daily Kos.

Analysis: Nope. We don’t even need to discuss this. Not a legit news source on its own. Get a second source, kids.

The Daily News

“Breaking News. World News. US and Local News.”

This is an actual newspaper. Whew. Finally! The New York Daily News. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about their political leanings.

“The Daily News’s editorial stance is “flexibly centrist” with a populist streak.In presidential elections, the paper endorsed Republican George W. Bush in 2004, Democrat Barack Obama in 2008, Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, and Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.” (Wikipedia, New York Daily News)

Current featured article’s headline: “Barbara and George H.W. Bush Through the Years”. Daily News definitely goes for the feels.

Analysis: This one is fairly trustworthy, with a healthy smattering of content from both sides of the political spectrum. It can come off sometimes as a bit of a gossip rag and they don’t seem to be YUGE fans of Trump. Maybe it’s a New York thing. Or an American thing.

Daily Caller

“An American News and Opinion Website”

Founded by Tucker Carlson, a political pundit and libertarian conservative, this publication is labeled as a news and opinion site. It’s rather heavy on the opinion.

Current featured article’s headline: “‘Leaving The Door Open:
Trey Gowdy Has Some Advice For Trump On How To Handle Rod Rosenstein.” Surprisingly, Gowdy is advising against firing Rosenstein and this is flashing like a warning beacon from their front page.

Analysis: Yeah. Pretty obvious what is happening here. They even have a section devoted to gun reviews and a healthy sidebar ad from the NRA. Oh, goody.

The Daily Mail

“All the latest US news, showbiz, science, sport and health stories.”

A British tabloid? You don’t say! This newspaper has bragging rights as the only British paper where females make up the majority of the readership. Wikipedia labels Daily Mail as conservative however but that means different things across the pond. Sort of.

Current featured article’s headline: “Philadelphia police chief says his officers were RIGHT to arrest two black men at a Starbucks because they didn’t order anything while waiting for a friend and refused to leave.” Which, no offense to The Daily Mail, is a pretty glossy generalization of what happened and what was actually said. Traditional sensationalist tabloid fodder.

Analysis: Do you like facts? Do they taste good to you? Then you should run far, far away from The Daily Mail. This is not for you.

Are you beginning to see the problem? I picked 6 “news sites” randomly that contained the word daily. Only two of them had content that didn’t have obvious skew.

But you’re sharing this stuff. I’m sharing this stuff. We all are. And we need to stop.

Before you hit that share button, let’s commit to each other to ask these questions.

1: What’s the source?

This is kind of like the rules your Mom has for eating stuff off the ground. If you don’t know where it came from, don’t put it in your mouth. News is like that, too. If you can’t determine the source, that’s a bad, bad sign. Memes, maps without links or citations, etc.. If it’s not obviously sourced and you don’t want to do the research, don’t hit the share button.

2: Where does it live?

A site’s domain tells you a lot about it. Coms are in it for the money. Orgs usually have an advocacy agenda. Gov is, well, you get the idea. This is grade school stuff, but we forget all the time. Judge a book by its cover, or more specifically, a site by its address.

3: Is there authority?

Look at the author’s credentials. Do they have the background to talk about this topic knowledgeably? Not sure? Google is your friend. Because every writer leaves a trail of breadcrumbs and you can follow it right back to their political affiliation. Every damn time. Yes. I’m a part of the liberal media. Full disclosure.

4: Accurate and objective?

This one is hard because it seems so subjective. Here’s how you trick yourself past your own bias- look for the facts. The headlines are meant to trigger an emotional response, so ignore those and mine the article. It should link out to other credible sources that support the assertions. It should present evidence from at least two sources and keep the speculation to a minimum. I’d also keep in mind that many, many people are never going to read beyond the headline. So if the headline is misleading, either frame it with a caveat or look for another source.

5: Is it current?

This is the biggest mistake I see well-meaning people make. I did it just recently. We feel outraged. And we skim right past that telltale timestamp at the beginning of the article. Facebook is a fantastic perpetrator of this because often, pages recycle content. We end up posting articles from years ago, unwittingly feeding into the echo chamber in a very literal way.

Let’s make a promise to hold each other accountable on this. Facebook isn’t willing to police fake news, but they’ll let you report it. So next time you see something in your feed, you can use the drop-down menu to select “report this post”. And instead of reporting it to Facebook, you can privately let the person who posted it know that you found the content misleading and ask them to remove it. It’s hard to confront someone. I get it. But if we want to make our world a better place, we need to do this. Gently, politely nudge each other towards a healthier dialogue.

But I am a libertarian or a conservative or a progressive, you’ll say. These are just my views and I want to share them. WITH EVERYONE. Okay. But think of it this way. You’re like those annoying evangelists who canvas the neighborhood repeatedly, trying to pass out pamphlets. Read whatever you like. But don’t litter our shared space with propaganda masked as news. We owe each other more respect and civility than that.

Facts matter. And I hope they matter to you. There are lots of things we can’t change right now, either about the election, this President, or the chaos our country is experiencing. But this we can do. We can hold each other accountable for sharing responsibly.

Like what you see? Come hang with me on Twitter for more tasty facts and tidbit commentary.

Kaz Weida (@kazweida) | Twitter

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