By Lillian Maheu
Many consider “alternative facts” and “fake news” a shocking new trend — but in fact it is a time-honored practice employed throughout the history of journalism in this country. According to Andy Tucher, a professor at Columbia University, “The first newspaper published in North America got shut down in 1690 after printing fabricated information. Nineteenth-century newspapers often didn’t agree on basic facts” (Boyle, et al). As grim and discouraging as this trend may seem, by acknowledging our history of hearsay, we may be able to learn how to better navigate towards the truth. Journalists have the capacity to shape and manipulate their readers judgment, morals, politics, and economic decision making. It is up to the reader to protect themselves from being manipulated by fake news representing contorted or falsified information.
The internet provides a platform for the vast inculcation of misinformation to be spread instantaneously, which has the capacity to create dangerous perspectives. Researchers at Stanford Graduate School for Education found many assume young people who are adept at navigating new technologies and media platforms are just as adept at perceiving the information they intake. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Oftentimes people focus on the content of social media posts, rather than the credibility of its sources (Donald). The demand for fast information has begun to deteriorate our perception of reality — content creators publish now and fact-check later, and consumers will believe the top result that confirms their own belief systems. Students must be taught how to properly vet content.
Harvard Summer School columnist Christina Nagler, believes there are four areas one can assess to evaluate a news sources’ integrity: credibility, timeliness, quality, and fact-checking with professionals. Take for example the article, “Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg Favors Decriminalizing Pedophilia, Child Sex Trafficking,” written by Lauren Richardson and published by the DMG Christian News Radio. An extreme headline should be the first red flag, indicating the content may contain false or misconstrued information. The religious publisher may not present completely unbiased information of academic quality. The article is presented in a somewhat professional manner: it uses quality photographs and quotes legal language, however the overuse of bold lettering seems questionable. The reader must carefully read the article’s content to determine the entire argument is based on a book published in 1977, suggesting its timeliness is lacking and cannot be substantiated by anything else that has taken place in the last forty-one years. The quality of Richardson’s argument is additionally insufficient due to the evidence being decontextualized from its original intentions. The reader may also choose to utilize professional fact and news checking sites, like FactCheck.org or Snopes.com, to learn this is fake news. In fact, Ginsburg was trying to suggest a more gender neutral language to a preexisting bill in order to protect more children from abuse, without actually trying to change the content of the bill itself.
Being able to identify “fake news” is not enough — we must take measures to stop the profitability of falsified information, click-bait material and decontextualized content. By suggesting Ginsburg supports pedophilia, Lauren Richardson may be eliciting dangerous reactions from a radical reader. As was the case in Washington D.C., NPR reported, “On Dec. 4, 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch entered the Comet Ping Pong restaurant and fired an AR-15 rifle into a door. The 28-year-old man told police that he had driven from his home in Salisbury, N.C., to ‘self-investigate’ the ‘pizzagate’ conspiracy theory that the restaurant was the site of a child sex-abuse ring involving powerful Democrats such as Hillary Clinton” (Slotkin). Critical thinking skills must be exercised every time we are provided with information, even when it derives from previously or supposedly trusted sources. In many instances real and fake news may seem easily distinguishable, however it is the reader’s responsibility to be ever vigilant as they consume media and content. Fake news tactics have adapted and permeated into platforms once trusted by the majority. A responsible reader must consider whether the source has something to gain from altering information or flat-out lying, and review the original context the information derived from. It is important to take the time to evaluate information, so as not to be influenced by click-bait or propaganda. These skills must be refined and taught to everyone in order to promote a more discerning populous. If reporters are unsure whether to appeal to a consumer’s wants versus the citizen’s needs, it is our responsibility to demand honest and transparent depictions of accurate truths every time.
Boyle, Tara, Rhaina Cohen, and Shankar Vedantam. “Fake News: An Origin Story.” Hidden Brain, NPR, 25 June 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/06/25/623231337/fake-news- an-origin- story. Accessed 09/16/18.
Donald, Brooke. “Stanford Researchers Find Students Have Trouble Judging the Credibility of Information Online.” Stanford Graduate School of Education, 22 Nov. 2018, https://ed.stanford.edu/news/stanford-researchers-find-students- have-trouble- judging-credibility-information-online. Accessed 09/16/18.
Keohane, Joe. “How Facts Backfire.” The Boston Globe, 11 July 2010, http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles. Accessed 31 Aug. 2015.
Nagler, Christina. “4 Tips for Spotting a Fake News Story.” Harvard Summer School, https://www.summer.harvard.edu/inside- summer/4-tips -spotting-fake-news-story. Accessed 09/15/18.
Richardson, Lauren. “Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg Favors Decrimi nalizing Pedophilia, Child Sex Trafficking.” DMG Christian News Radio, 16 Sept. 2018, http://dmgnews.com/index.php/2018/01/06/supreme-court-justice -gin sburg-favors-decriminalizing-pedophilia-child-sex- trafficking/. Accessed 09/16/18.
Slotkin, Jason. “‘Pizzagate’ Gunman Pleads Guilty to Charges.” The Two- Way, NPR, 24 March 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo- way/ 2017/03/24/521377765/pizzagate-gunman-pleads-guilty-to- charges. Accessed 09/16/18.
Fake New Essay Contest:
In the fall of 2018, the English Department at Berkeley City College sponsored a school-wide student essay contest calling for well-written, compelling essays offering a socially-responsible and original stance on the theme of “Fake News.” Faye Bird Winer and Lillian Maheu tied for first prize and were each awarded $200; Brian Figueroa was awarded $50 for third place. All three essays are published in this special edition of the BCC Voice.
About the Author:
Lillian Maheu is an honor student at Berkeley City College, currently studying Elementary Teacher Education. She is a Berkeley native who has lived and worked in the Bay Area, Hawaii, and Thailand. Lillian believes education is a powerful tool that can be used to create positive change in the world.