By Dzmitry Yuran, assistant professor of journalism and communication
While the term “fake news” dates back to the 1890s, the phenomenon is probably as old as the idea of news itself. Even our Founding Fathers used fake news as a powerful political tool. While on a diplomatic mission in France, Benjamin Franklin fabricated a story to advance anti-colonial sentiment in a fake copy of the Independent Chronicle.Likewise, John Adams wrote about “Cooking up Paragraphs, Articles, Occurrences” for Franklin’s Boston Gazette. Political bias, especially when it aligns with our own, is one of the first red flags to look for in news.
Fake news is abundant outside of politics, too. With its virus-like contagion, fake news can rake in a great deal of advertisement revenue. Shocking discoveries always capture attention, but they are much easier to fabricate than to actually discover. Between advancements in graphics-editing software, the ease of internet publishing and the number of people who rely on social media as a news source—two-thirds of Americans, according to Pew Research Center—the cooked-up sensations rapidly spread. In fact, a recent Massachusets Institute of Technology study found that on Twitter, fake news and gossip travel six times faster than legitimate news. So, remember: If something looks too shocking to be true, it probably is.
Belive it or not, though, fake news publishers are not solely responsible for the spread of misinformation. The abundance of choices, as well as algorithms employed by social media and entertainment content providers, enhance the effects of selective exposure, or our tendency to avoid information that may challenge our beliefs. If that were not enough, confirmation bias makes us contort whatever information we do receive to support our convictions, even if the facts in the piece directly contradict them.
Even our own memories can deceive us. In 2010, people were collectively remembering Nelson Mandela’s death in prison during the 1980s, despite that he was actually released in 1990 and didn’t pass away until 2013. The “Mandela Effect” and the similar “Lost in the Mall” line of research—started by a psychologist who got his brother to believe, and recall details of, a fictitious story about his getting lost—illustrate how our own memories sometimes can’t be trusted.
So, what can we do to reduce the flow of misinformation around us and stop it from affecting our decisions so profoundly? Do not rush. Read more than the headline, and determine where the story comes from before you react. Learn to identify your own biases and those of your sources with online tutorials or apps like Factitious. Recognizing that the lens through which we read news can be skewed with bias and blurred with inaccuracy is half the battle. The sooner we accept it, the sooner we can quelch it.
Dzmitry Yuran is an assistant professor of journalism and communication in the School of Arts and Communication. His research interests include media effects, news production and media transformation.