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On the spot

Communications expert describes history and peril of “fake news”

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While the term “fake news” is relatively new, the phenomenon, of course, is not. People throughout time have been motivated to share false information in ways that give it the appearance of legitimacy or to discredit accurate information in order to serve their own interests. Newer, digital media channels have made the tools to do so readily available and more effective, according to Jenny Hanson, assistant professor of communication studies, film, and new media. What’s more, social media sites tend to present users with information that confirms existing biases. In her classes, Hanson teaches students the media literacy skills necessary to be critical consumers of the news.

Q: What is the history of “fake news” in media?

A: Fake news has been around for centuries; it’s probably as old as humans’ ability to communicate. People seem to have a natural desire to tell tall tales. After all, spectacles draw crowds and outlandish stories trend. Fake news took off with the invention of the printing press in 1439, in part because stories were difficult to verify and mass distribution meant news could travel relatively quickly. A journalistic code of conduct toward objectivity and the practice of fact-checking did not yet exist. Stories about strange beasts, hideous crimes, and falsified scientific discoveries sold papers, and for advertising-supported publications, that was the goal.
As journalism evolved and as newspapers came to rely on subscription models, impartiality and accuracy became guiding principles. In the 1980s, standards changed when cable TV made the 24/7 news cycle a reality. Next, the internet created alternate—and rapid— means of news distribution and increased access to content-creation tools among the general population. Today, new reasons for using fake news are emerging: to distract, to challenge existing knowledge, and to raise doubt about the validity of information, all in order to favor particular interests. In this way, calling something “fake news” and creating fake news both can be used to advance political, social, or personal interests in a way that functions more like propaganda. Calling something fake triggers a reaction in us to question and doubt, thereby decreasing our confidence in the information and opening us up to different possibilities.

Q: What are the potential real-world implications?

A: There are immense implications when news is inaccurate. Journalists understand that if they misreport, misquote, or just plain get the story wrong, there are often legal implications, damage to the outlet’s reputation, and harm to those wronged. When fake news is used as propaganda, it threatens the very legitimacy of news itself, inviting us to believe what is most aligned with our own ideologies rather than what actually is. The damage can be widespread, creating lasting impacts that go on to shape industry, policies, procedures, culture, artifacts of history, and society.

Q: What can individuals do to protect themselves from falsities and to process news and information critically?

A: There are many actions people can take to become savvy information consumers. The advice we tell students includes getting your news from a variety of sources, seeking connections on social media who have viewpoints differing from your own, and reading beyond the headline and before sharing information. In a critical reading, check the author’s credentials,
watch out for emotional appeals or outrageous claims, look to see that sources are named and are experts in their fields, review the article date for context, and consider your own bias. Understand the source and their interests, and be sure websites are the official sites and not ones intended to mimic another’s appearance.

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Q: How does digital communication play a role in exacerbating the effects of false information?

A: The digital is pervasive, making it challenging to digest information in critical ways. Consumers read headlines, share stories, and take something as fact, especially when it looks like news or is shared by sources we trust (including our Facebook friends). Fake news can go viral before it ever gets disputed. What’s more, we tend to operate in echo chambers online. Most of us have friends who share our own viewpoints. Those friends reinforce and amplify our own ideas about society, politics, and the world around us. In these instances, fake news can reinforce what we believe, promoting deeper divides between contrasting viewpoints. Left unchecked and unchallenged, discourse on the issues dissipates and we fail to question what is presented, accepting it as truth. It is easy for us to assume that if none of our 150 friends dispute what was shared, then it must be true.

Q: What’s the line between falsehood and satire?

A: Intention is the strongest line, followed by transparency. Satire aims to use exaggeration, irony, and humor to call attention to, and even ridicule, a popular topic in order to bring about social and political change. Satirical press, like the Onion, clearly identify themselves as satire. Falsehood often uses invention and lies, masquerading as truth with the intention to distract and deceive in order to serve personal interests.

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