Sometimes politics makes strange bedfellows. An online news report says the National Rifle Association is teaming up with one of its staunchest critics, David Hogg, the Parkland shooting survivor and gun control activist. The NRA is said to have invited Hogg to join its advisory board, according to a source familiar with the matter.
It sounds incredible. Both sides have been vocal critics of one another, and it is surprising to imagine they would set aside their differences for a common cause. But here it is in black and white:
The report even appears to have the imprimatur of CBS News.
If I thought my Facebook friends and Twitter followers would be interested in this surprising report, I might want to share it on social media. Humphreys (2016) detailed how Internet users dictate the flow of content through “spreadibility,” which is “the potential–both technical and cultural–for audiences to share content for their own purposes” (p. 224). Sometimes interesting posts might even go viral, spreading online like wildfire.
In his book, Post-Truth, McIntyre (2018) observed, “The rise of social media as a source of news blurred the lines even further between news and opinion, as people shared stories from blogs, alternative news sites, and God knows where, as if they were all true” (p. 93).
Seeing is Believing
That wasn’t the only unlikely story I had seen online. There was also this one:
I showed this second report to three different people, and at first glance, they all thought it was true. The only problem: I had made up both stories using The Fake News Generator, an online tool that allows you to “make fake news stories to fool your friends and maybe even the masses,” according to the site’s Twitter profile.
Justin Hook, a writer, producer, and coder, designed the site. I reached out to him to ask about his creation.
“I made The Fake News Generator because I knew it would be easy,” he told me. “Like extremely easy. I’m an amateur coder at best, and in one weekend I put together a site that resulted in tens of millions of people clicking fake news stories. And this was over a year after the 2016 election.”
The site allows users to create a fantastic headline, write a bit of wire copy, and pick an appropriate photo from Flickr. Notably, the generator features a drop-down menu where users can choose which “news” site will be listed as the source of the report. Options include cbs-news.us and tonightat11.tv – both lending an air of credibility to the unsuspecting reader. The site generates a link where the post can be shared on multiple social media platforms.
Pro-Trump Fake News
The issue of fake news has gained new cultural and political significance in the last couple of years. Although no research has definitively proved that President Trump won the 2016 election because of Russian meddling, many studies have concluded that he was the primary beneficiary of fake news. Allcott and Gentzkow (2017) determined that “fake news was both widely shared and heavily tilted in favor of Donald Trump” (p. 212).
Fake News as Propaganda
In their book, Network Propaganda, Benkler, Faris, and Roberts (2018) defined propaganda as “the intentional manipulation of beliefs” (p. 6). They argued that during the 2016 campaign, many fake news stories were created as a means of propaganda to convince undecided voters that Clinton was dishonest.
In my first example, I might want you to believe – incredible as it may seem – that the NRA has conceded defeat by bringing a vocal critic into the fold. In the other false story, I might be manipulating you into thinking Trump is so vain that he seeks out hair advice from Lou Dobbs, who The Washington Post recently noted shares with Trump a “deep embrace of hair-color shades not found in the natural world.”
The New Gatekeepers
Humphreys (2016) wrote about how social media allows users to bypass the mass media, which had traditionally served as gatekeepers in controlling the flow of information. Nowadays, anyone has the power to disseminate information online, where it can spread quickly.
Hook told me, “For a long time, newspapers were the gatekeepers, but because the Internet is cheaper, social media have become the gatekeepers. And they’re doing a terrible, terrible job. It shouldn’t be the average person’s job to sleuth out the truth. The truth should be obvious. But social media companies don’t find truth to be as profitable.”
So how do we know how to spot fake news? Melissa Zimdars, a communication professor at Merrimack College, spoke with WNYC's On the Media program to offer some tips. They include:
Check the domain. In my examples above, the domain was cbs-news.us. A real report from CBS News would be hosted at cbsnews.com.
Verify an unlikely story by finding a reputable source that may be reporting the same thing. In both examples above, there is no other outlet reporting these claims.
Do a gut check. If a story makes you angry, it is probably designed to be propaganda.
If you’re not sure it’s true, don’t share it. This keeps fake news from spreading.
Facebook and Twitter have vowed to do a better job of stopping fake news on their platforms. They suggest that artificial intelligence may be one way to help sort fact from fiction.
However, Hook is not optimistic they will get a handle on it.
“They have not begun to solve the problem, and they won’t solve it before 2020,” he said. “I hoped the site would draw some attention to that, and I hoped people would do so in the funniest way possible. I don’t know if it made anyone think twice about fake news, but I know people created some very funny stuff.”