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Fake News, Media Bias, and How to Protect Yourself

Be honest; you wouldn’t have clicked on this if the headline said it was a blog post on media literacy. I offer the following as a communications professional with more than two decades of experience in media and public relations. Please try this at home. 

The recent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma has brought fresh attention to social media’s potential negative impacts on human behavior, in part through the proliferation of fake news and other tactics designed to manipulate and polarize the public. While outlets like Facebook and Twitter are taking steps to flag questionable content for its users, there are many simple things you can do to protect yourself from the intended consequences of fake news. 

What is Fake News?

To put it simply, fake news is made up, fictional, not true. Throughout history, real news stories have served to move public sentiment around specific issues or individuals. For example, coverage of the death of George Floyd during an arrest last summer in Minneapolis had a measurable impact on public sentiment around the issues of racial justice and policing. 

Fake news seeks to do that same kind of thing. Organized operations and individuals create and distribute fake news pieces, mostly on social media, to move public opinion. Examples from 2019 include fake news stories about U.S. Representative Alexandra Ocasio Cortez seeking to ban motorcycles and President Donald Trump’s father being a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The goal is that people will see these stories as confirmation of their own beliefs and biases and will share them on social media without verifying their accuracy, thus proliferating the false narrative and moving public opinion accordingly.

Unfortunately, it works. 

The most effective fake news stories are shared millions of times, fomenting lies at a scale that would have been impossible before the advent of social media. In 2016, a fake news story about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C., prompted a man to go to the business with an assault rifle and open fire in an attempt to “rescue” the children. Fortunately, no one was injured. While the story was circulated in a clear attempt to damage Clinton’s presidential campaign, the effects resonate today, four years later, as the story continues to be shared and the owners of the pizzeria report on-going threatening phone calls and emails, harassment of employees, and vandalizing of the business’ vehicles. 

What is Not Fake News?

If a news story was generated by a real news organization, it is not fake news, in spite of the increasing tendency for some to refer to legitimate news outlets as the “fake news media.” A legitimate news story may contain inaccurate information or may be reported with bias, but that does not classify it as fake news. Media bias, of course, is very real; you can watch coverage of the same story by a variety of outlets and see an equal number of takes on the story, but that doesn’t mean the story is not real. Since the beginning of news coverage, outlets have exercised varying levels of bias, which manifests in what stories they choose to cover and how they choose to report them. 

Protecting yourself against media bias requires a little work but is far from impossible. As comforting as it is to get all your news from the outlet that puts your preferred slant on its coverage, becoming an active news consumer will help to provide a broader, more comprehensive look at the important stories. You don’t have to do with this with every story, but for the big ones, look at a sampling of coverage from different outlets, including overseas outlets. At that point, it’s easier to see that Outlet A focused on different details than Outlet B and Outlet C ignored some elements of the story altogether. 

The bottom line is that if we automatically discount everything reported by the mainstream news media, we will be in serious trouble. 

Protecting Yourself from Fake News
  • If you see a story that looks suspicious, don’t share it until you have verified its authenticity. If you start typing the words, “If this is real,” stop. 
  • Many fake news posts include a fake attribution, such as “NBC News Reports that Taylor Swift is a Robot.” If you see a suspicious story like this, go to the NBC News website and search for the story. If it is not there, it’s fake. 
  • Real news stories with a sensational bent typically draw the attention of large numbers of news outlets. If you see a provocative news story and it was reported only by some site you’ve never heard of and ignored by the known outlets, it is likely fake. This can be checked in seconds by putting some or all of the story headline into any search engine. 
  • Fact-checking websites like Snopes and Politifact are good at doing this research and rendering a verdict: true, false, or some mix of the two. They also provide links to their sources, so you don’t have to simply take their word for it.

In the same way that Netflix serves you content it thinks you will like, news sites and social media serve you news content they think you prefer. The effect of this is increased societal polarization and tribalism along ideological lines, which makes us more susceptible to fake news and media bias. It also means that our elected representatives are less likely to look beyond their bases when making important decisions. 

But studies have shown that when people are exposed to viewpoints outside of their comfort zones, they are more open to conflicting points of view and form a broader societal outlook, rather than simply demonizing those who disagree with them. 

The solution is not to simply turn off social media, though you could probably do with less of it. We can easily counter the worst effects of fake news and media bias by becoming smarter consumers of information and taking a few small steps. The internet and social media have made it easy for us to fall victim to these forces, but the same tools make it equally easy for us to fight back. 

Published by Chris Duggan

I am a seasoned communications professional, father, runner, and old-timey baseball player.

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