Primer on Fake News

What You, Your Kids & Their Teachers Need to Know to Navigate the News Right Now

By Jaci Clement, CEO & Executive Director, Fair Media Council

The chaos surrounding fake news isn’t dying down anytime soon. In fact, we seem to have quickly morphed from discounting pretty much all news as ‘fake’ and taken things to a completely new level: Now, anything that disagrees with us must be ‘fake.’

In an attempt to restore order — or at least quiet the buzzing white noise swirling around our heads — let’s break this down into manageable pieces. Here goes.

First up, to set that stage correctly, understand that this era of hyper convergence is killing our minds. What does that mean? It means we no longer know where our news is coming from, because we’re using Twitter and Facebook and other social media channels and websites that aggregate news from many sources and present it all, quite nicely, on our screens. In effect, we’ve been trained by technology to look at headlines, instead of sources. (Fake news providers know that, and prey on this particular vulnerability. Which makes them extra evil, doesn’t it?)

To get a good look at how we read stuff online, check out this article from Slate, which laments how few people actually read a news story

To take control of our minds again, the first step is to start paying attention to the source before we give any credence to a headline. In a perfect world, we would all actually read an entire article before we decide to share it with others, but hey, we’re here for an intervention. Recovery is completely up to you.

Now, once you start paying attention to the sources, you’ll notice something odd. Very odd. All this time you thought you were reading a news story from ABC News, right? That would be a story coming from, with its easily recognizable logo, to boot. Instead, what you’re reading is coming from, which looks very very much like ABC News but is, instead, a very very fake news site.

These fake news guys are sneaky little devils, aren’t they?

Some fake news is easier to spot than others. This from Weekly World News.

It’s especially easy to pass off a fake site with a name similar to a legitimate news site because — again, one of the wonders of technology — we’ve grown accustomed to seeing only part of a name or a word in the abbreviated space that is a subject line or a Tweet.

To help level the playing field, you can acquaint yourself with some of the current and more popular fake news sites by checking out this article in Wikipedia. (It’s ok, even Harvard approves of this type of use for Wikipedia.) The list is in no way exhaustive. Indeed, more fake news sites sprout up every day, like virtual weeds in the world of the Internet. In fact, this piece from Rolling Stone tells us how Google cracked down on more than 300 fake news sites last year alone.

CBS News — the real one — offers up this look at 22 fake sites that are faking people out.

Other things to keep in mind: If you’re not familiar with a particular news site, be sure to click on the ‘About’ link to discover its pedigree. Just because you’re unfamiliar with a news source doesn’t mean it’s fake. In fact, one of the great things about the Internet is the ability to tune into news around the world with the click of a link. Don’t let the fear of fake news get in the way of that.

If you’re reading an article, is an author’s name attached to it? Legitimate news stories include bylines.

Read the story! It’s not uncommon for fake news sites to create articles with engaging headlines and great photos, but the actual story amounts to little more than gibberish. How do they get away with that? If you read the Slate piece mentioned above, you understand how.

From Buzzfeed: 50 Biggest Fake News Hits on Facebook 2016

Facebook is currently embarking on a journalism project to help protect its site and its readers from fake news. That is quite a turnaround — remember how Mark Zuckerberg originally pooh-poohed the concept of fake news and its impact? Well, he’s clearly had a change of heart on the topic, and is hiring up news professionals to help get his new initiative off the ground.

But here’s the hitch: The news industry is horrible at explaining itself to its readers, viewers and listeners.

No, wait.

Actually, it’s horrendous at it.

So, relying on industry insiders to solve this problem is a lot like moving an infection out of one company after everyone’s gotten sick and relocating it to a new company and expecting a different outcome.

Fake news has proven to be quite lucrative, so don’t expect it to be eradicated after a couple of warning labels are slapped on it,or a few algorithms have changed.

A couple of other factors are clouding the picture for people trying to distinguish the real from the fake.

The reality is, this is not all the fault of fake news.

News content next to sponsored content, from the CBS News website, Feb. 22, 2017.

The introduction of ‘sponsored content’ and ‘native advertising’ have people confused, so much so that more than 50 percent of people surveyed by Contently said they felt ‘deceived’ by it. Compounding the issue is sponsored content and native advertising is found on legitimate news sites, side by side with real news stories. Take a look at the bottom of, for instance. Look closely. That’s not CBS News content; it’s sponsored content. And that’s different than fake news.

Of course, the granddaddy of public complaints about news and hence, much distrust, comes from the news media’s inability to clearly articulate what portions of a news outlet’s product is ‘news’ and which portion is ‘opinion.’ Inconsistencies in labeling across the news industry compound the problem, as does this: Not all news products are filled strictly with news. Today, 24-hour cable channels give us news, talk shows, documentaries, movies and satire. That’s a lot for the public to take in, especially when there’s no standard in the American education system to teach them what’s what in the world of real news.

In all fairness, isn’t that where the lack of trust begins? No one understands that better than the fake news purveyors.


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