Fake News Isn't New, It's Americans' Inability To Read Critically That's Alarming

A healthy skepticism is always in order.
03/30/2017 11:03 am ET Updated Apr 04, 2017
Thomas Faull via Getty Images

If you’re like a lot of folks, you’ve probably had quite enough of the ongoing media kerfuffle over “fake news.” What started out as an interesting discussion about politics, journalistic ethics, and the truth, has degenerated into a hyper-partisan food fight.

First, President Trump commandeered the term, using it to disparage news outlets he doesn’t like; then commentators and academics on the left responded by branding conservative websites they don’t like as “fake news,” too. By now, the meaning of fake news is largely a matter of partisan opinion – which means the term really has no meaning at all.

That’s unfortunate, because the fake-news debate had the potential to illuminate some important new issues facing Americans in the digital age. But not political or journalistic issues; there’s not much new on those fronts. Fake news has been around since the earliest days of the Republic, when Jefferson and Hamilton used the “party press” to savage their political opponents. From the yellow journalism of Hearst and Pulitzer to the celebrity-gossip journalism of the supermarket tabloids, Americans have been consuming fake news for generations.

According to the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of Americans use social media to access news...

What’s new is the sheer volume of fake news now flooding into the public square – and the unwillingness, or inability, of so many Americans to analyze this information critically. The Internet has spawned countless new sources of fake news, from laughably amateurish content farms in Macedonia to slickly professional-looking websites here in the U.S. At the same time, the rise of social media has allowed fake news to spread faster and further than Hearst and Pulitzer could ever imagine. According to the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of Americans use social media to access news – with more than 40 percent getting news via Facebook.

And the issue isn’t limited to news, fake or otherwise. With more than a billion active websites on the World Wide Web, the amount of raw information that can easily be accessed is simply mind-boggling. And the speed with which false or misleading information can be re-transmitted to credulous audiences is equally breathtaking.

With so much information bouncing around the web, you’d think that a lot of Americans would be looking for ways to distinguish the truthful from the false. Alas, no such luck: a 2016 study by Stanford University researchers indicated that even among supposedly web-savvy young people, there is an alarming tendency simply to take websites and social-media content at face value.

For instance: fully 93 percent of college students in the study were unable to recognize a lobbyist’s website as a biased source. Four-of-five middle schoolers could not distinguish native advertising from unpaid content. And fewer than 20 percent of high school students would bother to check out the source of a photograph posted on a photo-sharing website. The lack of critical thinking among these “digital natives” – young people who have grown up with the Internet and social media – does not inspire confidence about the future.

These statistics underline the pressing need for more Americans, digital natives and aging technophobes alike, to develop sharper critical thinking skills for assessing online content. Whether you’re surfing news websites, conducting academic research, or simply reading a handful of retweets on your phone, a healthy skepticism is always in order. A few basic tips:

  • Consider the source. A recent study by the Media Insight Project found that “people make little distinction between known and unknown (even made-up) sources when it comes to trusting and sharing news.” But knowing the original source of a news story or academic article is the clearest indication of whether it’s legitimate or not. If you’re not familiar with the source, take the time to check it out.
  • Look for telltale signs of fakery. Most people don’t fall for emails from that Nigerian prince who wants to share millions of dollars – they’re obviously fake. Similarly, a lot of websites are obviously fake, too, if you know what to look for. Be wary of sites with unusual domain names, obviously altered photographs, and text that is filled with typos or IN ALL CAPS.
  • Attributions are essential. Online sources that do not attribute quotations, reference other sources, or provide credits for photographs are inherently suspect. For those conducting academic research, it’s important to look into the reputation and credentials not only of the author of any article you want to cite, but also of the journal in which it was published.

There are many other, more detailed guidelines for critical thinking in the digital age. But most of them can be summarized in three simple words: Ask. More. Questions. And one final piece of advice: trust your instincts. If an article or website contains information that seems too good to be true – well, it probably is.

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