Fake News: Alternatives to Alternative Facts
By: Jacob Longman
There are very few things as American as the Bill of Rights. The first of its kind, it has been quintessentially American. Encapsulated in the Bill is everything that made—and continues to make—this country the greatest nation on the planet. Notable, then, is the fact that the first of these Amendments deals explicitly with freedom of speech.
After the Presidential election, this has proven to be a serious issue. The true effect that fact news had on the outcome of the election remains up for debate. What is not is the following: in the months running up to the election fake news stories outperformed real ones, generating almost a million more shares on social media than those written by organizations who employed fact-checkers. In the run up to the election, conservative news consumers were the target. Post November 8th, liberals have become the new target audience.
“There’s a lot of confusion and people are profiting from the confusion on all sides of the continuum,” Brooke Binkowski, the managing editor of Snopes, said in an interview. Snopes, for those who may not know, is rumor debunking site. Like most things that depend on veracity for credibility, Snopes relies on the fact that it cites its sources—in public—to prove to users that the website itself is reliable. As a hard line rule, this is also the difference between major news organizations, such as the Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and NPR and other “news” websites. It’s why corrections are published in their editions and why fact checkers have jobs on their payroll. This distinction makes information in traditional news outlets inherently more credible than information procured from less traditional or alternative ones.
Fake news, like traditional, or actual news, is a business. A recent NPR story found that the owner of NationalReport makes between 10,000 and 30,000 dollars a month in advertising revenue.  News was not always a business. Before 24 hours news networks, the “Big Three” dominated television news. ABC, CBS, and NBC all produced prime-time news of the day—at a loss. At the time, it was the major network’s business model to subsidize the news division with their entertainment ones.
With the introduction of shows like “60 Minutes” all of this changed. Now news programs were expected to compete for viewers, similar to the entertainment division. This emphasis on the bottom line has driven sensationalized coverage and resulted in a 24 hours news cycle that jumps from crisis to crisis.
Despite the divisive nature of media and the emergence of fake news outlets, there are still ways to sift through the political double talk. Although citizens may have to take a more active role in analyzing their media intake, there are several sources, which give Americans the power to drown out the click bait. At a minimum, if a claim raised in a news article seems overblown or suspicious, run it by a fact checking website. Politifact won a Nobel Prize for its coverage of the 2008 election and primarily checks political claims made by politicians at the local, state, and federal level. Other reputable sites include Factcheck.org, the Sunlight Foundation, Open Secrets, and Snopes.
It is important to remain alert when reading an article from a questionable source. Melissa Zimdars, assistant professor of communication and media at Merrimack College, and Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, agree on a few best practices to employ when reading online articles. First, pay attention to the domain and the URL. Sites with such endings like ‘.com.co’ should raise red flags. Often times, fake news sites will closely copy a legitimate news source, only changing the URL slightly (i.e. abcnews.com v. abcnews.com.co). In addition, look for quotes. Most news outlets have multiple sources for an article who are professionals or hold expertise in the topic at issue. If quotes are lacking and the claim is serious or controversial, more research is required.
Another skill to implement is the reverse image search. The writers of fake news stories are not likely to take their own pictures to accompany the article. Reverse image search the picture by right-clicking on the image and choosing to search Google for it. If the image is appearing on a lot of stories about several different topics, there’s a good chance it’s not actually an original image of what it purports to be in the article.
While it may seem impossible to slow down the influx of fake news stories, readers can arm themselves with the tools to decrease the spread of this false content. As goes the proverb, “If it seems too good to be true, it usually is.”