Netizens Beware: Fighting Fake News

By Elizabeth Lehman

In the 1890’s, the term “yellow journalism” was coined to describe an emerging style of newspaper reporting emphasizing sensationalism over facts.

Fast forward more than 100 years into the future – with widespread use of the internet and social media, the term “fake news” is on the lips and fingertips of many, including U.S. President Donald Trump.

Dennis Schiraldi, communications professor at Youngstown State University, said he has been a victim of fake news, especially since many fake news websites are often designed to look like well-known news sources.

“It’s very difficult, I think, from my perspective, to decipher what’s real and what’s not real,” Schiraldi said.

Shelley Blundell, assistant professor in communications, said while fake news is not really a new concept, the proliferation of misinformation has been made easier by social media.

“There are a lot of people producing news right now who feel no ethical obligation to be sure that it’s true,” Blundell said. “A lot of these people are in basements, hidden around the world and they’re getting money by clicks, but people can separate fact from fiction by doing their homework.”

Blundell said many people who get duped by fake news stories will see a link shared by someone they trust and they will assume it is legitimate. She said readers must investigate the information they see posted online.

“See if you can confirm the information with at least three other sources. The running joke I always make is, if I see somebody is dead on Facebook, like a celebrity, before I’m willing to post any RIP messages, I check at least three independent sources to make sure the person is in fact dead and it’s not a hoax,” Blundell said.

Jaietta Jackson, communications instructor at YSU, said in addition to fact-checking with multiple sources, readers must also consider perspective and purpose.

“Understanding the perspective of a story is key. Why is a story written, for what purpose? Is it written to entertain, to exchange ideas or change viewpoints? And if it is to change viewpoints, what tactics are being used?” Jackson said.

Blundell said journalists need to understand they are the voice of the people, and not just the ones they agree with.

“Objectivity from a media perspective is somewhat of a strange perspective; we’re human beings, we have thoughts all the time, we have opinions and beliefs and understanding, but journalists need to rise above personal feelings and opinions and biases,” Blundell said. “And they have, I believe, a moral and a practical duty to report the news in a neutral, or if not a neutral, at least a balanced and a fair way.”

Perspectives vary on how to handle the spread of fake news. Schiraldi said it is up to technology to decipher information.

Blundell said she recently heard a story on NPR about using technology in the battle against fake news.

“Apparently, the National Science Foundation has given professors at Pennsylvania State University $300,000 to develop a technological solution to combat fake news,” Blundell said. “How will that look? It could be an app for your phone or some kind of alert.”

Despite the development, Blundell said it all comes back to people exercising media literacy and critical thinking.

“We don’t need $300,000 worth of NSF money to develop something that we have the capacity to develop within ourselves for free,” Blundell said. “It goes back to being a responsible and savvy consumer of news, making sure that you are well rounded and well informed by looking across media platforms, looking at different news sources and questioning the information that you read.”

Jackson said standards should be implemented for journalists.

“There is no real solution other than training journalists to maintain ethical standards and integrity when reporting a story,” Jackson said.

Whether the fake news issue is solved by establishing standards for journalists or by the use of technology, Blundell said, for now, the effect of spreading misinformation is evident in social media threads.

“I’ve seen massive debates between two best friends on Facebook over a piece of information that has been shared that is incorrect and that, to me, is slightly terrifying,” she said. “Now more than ever, we need to make sure that we’re being better, more responsible consumers of news.”