Research Help workshop tackles fake news

By Fleming Smith

Executive Editor

On Wednesday, March 8 in the Torian Room, the Research Help Librarians hosted a workshop on how to spot fake news. The workshop explained the different types of fake news, the ways to find reliable news sources, and challenged audience members to tell the real news from the fake for themselves, all useful skills in what many call a post-truth society.

Research Librarian Amanda Sprott-Goldson began the workshop by sharing the story of the Great Moon Hoax of 1835, when The Sun in New York printed a six-part series about an astronomer supposedly finding life on the moon, including bat-people and biped beavers. “It’s considered to be one of the most famous media hoaxes of all time,” Sprott-Goldson said.

Although the term “fake news” recently gained popularity due to President Donald Trump’s accusations against major news outlets like The New York Times, “fake news is not a new term,” Sprott-Goldson explained. “It seems to have appeared in the 19th century when false journalism spiked due to emerging technologies and a boom for the news. They started recruiting boys and girls to make up news.” She gave the example of one headline about fake news in Spain that appeared in 1901.

According to the Research Librarians, many types of fake news exist, some more insidious than others. Satire pieces like those found in The Onion are generally understood to be false but humorously intentioned, while clickbait sites and hoaxes typically use outrageous headlines in all-caps. However, some fake news sites fashion themselves after legitimate sources in an effort to fool readers.

“Some of what’s coming at us isn’t all true, so we can at least try to winnow some of that out and find out ways to stay away from that, and not replicate and share those things,” explained Research Librarian Heidi Syler.

A Pew Research Center study found that 62 percent of U.S. adults receive news from social media, and a BuzzFeed report stated that fake news stories received more engagement than mainstream news stories in the three months leading up to the 2016 presidential election.

“None of it’s filtered or fact-checked,” said Syler. “Some of the more insidious fake news stories are purely believable, and many of us are believing them. They model regular news and they may have pieces that are true as well, so we have to dig a little deeper.”

Receiving news mostly from social media sites like Facebook can be dangerous because people often share news closely aligned with their pre-existing beliefs, an effect called confirmation bias. News feeds can therefore become an echo chamber where people only look at news that reflects what they already think.

“You see confirmations of the thoughts and beliefs you have, you see the stories that reflect that back to you,” Syler explained.

Social media is not the only misleading source of new on the Internet. Even Google should not be trusted as a one-stop way to get the answers. Discussing Google’s search algorithm, Syler said, “We’re missing context, we’re missing what’s authoritative. Google is not saying look at this, it’s reliable, it’s objective.” Instead, the rankings may be based on advertisements and popularity, with advertisements masquerading as real sources of information.

Research Librarian Dann Wigner gave audience members a tour through duPont’s webpage on fake news, which can be found at library.sewanee.edu/fakenews. The website explains the different kinds of fake news and how to recognize them, including examples, as well as ways to find reliable news. A graphic on media bias on the website illustrates where different media outlets fall on the liberal and conservative scale as well as degrees of complexity in reporting.

“It’s not just about spotting fake news, it’s about trying to find reliable news. It used to be that you would get news from a few major outlets,” Wigner said. “But starting with new all-the-time news stations and moving into the Internet with many potential sources for news, it’s hard to choose between them.”

The workshop ended by breaking audience members into groups and giving them six different articles on farmed versus wild salmon, asking them to choose which sources seemed most legitimate. The audience decided that a Washington State .gov piece appeared most reliable because it included several sources and was not peppered with ads or dramatic language. All of these articles can be found on the “Checking Claims” portion of the duPont webpage for anyone who wants to challenge themselves to discern real news from the fake.

“I thought the workshop was really interesting and informative, and it gives you a new perspective on what you find online, what I look at and where I get my news from,” said audience member Abby Garmon (C’19). “It’s important to be informed and take your time, and not take everything at face value.”

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