The real truth is, fake news is old news. From grocery store tabloids to The Onion to hoax stories about Betty White kicking the bucket (she’s still safe!), to urban legends that your nutty family members spam your e-mail with. Even founding father John Adams attempted to influence public opinion by publishing fabricated news stories.
But if fake news is nothing new, why should we worry about it now? This is what we’ll tackle in the “Truth and Consequences: Fake News, Filter Bubbles and Democracy” panel in the Mountainlair tonight at 7:00.
Personally, I believe the fake news hysteria is rooted in a broader concern about how we process information. A majority of Americans report getting news from places like Facebook and Twitter, which means that they are getting a near-constant stream of information. Who really has time to read all that? That’s why, to navigate this steady flow of news, we have to take mental shortcuts to help. Even if we don’t have time to read the full article or watch the entire video, we can get a lot of information and make quick judgments from glancing at the headline or just looking at that crazy photo of Vladimir Putin riding a bear to get the gist.
Admit it, you do it all the time. The problem is, the headline could be misleading. That picture could be photoshopped. The article that you didn’t read, might not even be accurate. That impression that you formed of the story probably isn’t 100 percent fair.
To make matters worse, news organizations (all of them, but especially the ones in the business of cranking out actual fake news) don’t want you to just skim their article, they want you to click on it and maybe share it! They get money for every click. For this reason, they bait us with sensational headlines and weird photos that will stand out, appeal to our emotions, confirm our existing beliefs and make us want to click to read more. Sadly, human memory is tragically flawed and we tend to remember misinformation better when it’s packed in these entertaining but often misleading “clickbait” trappings.
A lot of people think that the way to solve misinformation boils down to getting rid of it. I think that’s impossible and it doesn’t address a larger problem. Even with all of our flaws as news consumers, evidence suggests that when people are educated about the shortcuts they use to process news, they become better at weeding out misinformation. Fake news has and will always be with us. What we need is more media education to help us deal with it. So come to our panel and register to take my media classes!