Election Highlights Concern Over "Fake News"
The 2016 U.S. presidential election brought a new term to the public’s attention: “fake news.” Whether sensationalistic “clickbait” stories about the candidates designed to bring in money for their authors or truth-bending stories planted to sway political opinion, fake news has the potential to spread quickly when disseminated on social media. That’s just one reason it became controversial during and after the election.
Carrie Forbes, associate professor and associate dean for student and scholar services at University of Denver Libraries, works to help the DU community recognize the difference between real and fake news, and to understand the potential dangers of the latter.
Q: What exactly does the term “fake news” mean, and why is it suddenly such a big deal?
A: Fake news has been loosely defined by several major news outlets, such as The New York Times and the BBC, as encompassing a full range of unverified news reports, ranging from made-up stories intended to solicit money to poor journalism where facts are reported before being checked. Fake news has been around for a long time. Snopes.com, a well-known site that debunks urban legends, started in 1995 in response to a proliferation of hoax emails. Fake news has received more coverage recently due to the increased popularity of social media and the recent election coverage.
Q: Is fake news dangerous? Why or why not?
A: Whether fake news is dangerous depends largely on the audience reading the news. Informed consumers who know how to research and verify facts and double-check their sources may not be too impacted by fake news. For individuals who have not been taught these skills and are basing opinions on nonreputable news sources, there may be more of an issue. The biggest risk, I think, is when policy makers shape laws or regulations based on erroneous information, as that impacts all of us.
Q: How, if at all, did fake news impact the 2016 presidential election?
A: I think the jury is still out on how much fake news impacted the election. There was a proliferation of fake news on both sides of the political spectrum. One thing that fake news has done is to reinforce people’s narrow perceptions of the world. If you are active on social media, you will see lots of fake news related only to the side that you agree with. I do believe it has had an impact on people’s ability to see other points of view and engage in a common dialogue.
Q: What effect does it have when a president-elect refers to a legitimate news organization as fake news? Is this something we should be worried about?
A: I’m not an expert on politics, so I won’t comment on the president-elect’s statements except to say that it’s very important for all of us to verify facts so that we don’t contribute to rumors and urban legends. We live in a complex, information-rich world, and it can be difficult to easily and quickly verify facts and evidence. Even well-regarded news organizations may make mistakes. It’s important to distinguish between organizations and individuals that purposely spread fake news for malicious reasons and organizations or individuals that simply make a mistake.
Q: What role does the library play in helping people recognize fake news?
A: DU librarians, particularly reference librarians, spend significant time collaborating with faculty and students on information literacy. Librarians use a learning framework developed by the Association of College and Research Libraries that helps guide our teaching of information literacy concepts to students. Students don’t generally have a problem finding information. The issue is evaluating the information they do find. There are all types of information available on the Web, including fake news. We usually begin with teaching students how to evaluate more traditional sources, such as books and scholarly journal articles, then move on to more complex evaluation techniques for Web sources. We teach students to look at things like the background of the author, overall information on the website, whether sources are cited in the document, etc. In an academic context, it’s very important that students understand the differences between research sources, popular news sources, opinion pieces and fake news stories.
We work closely with faculty to integrate information literacy concepts into courses across the curriculum. We also offer free drop-in workshops on a variety of research and searching skills that are open to the DU community. In February, we will be teaching a workshop specifically to discuss techniques for evaluating news sources. It’s certainly possible to spot fake news stories, but you need to spend time doing some research and know the clues to look for.