Understanding “fake news,” & why defeating it isn’t a fix-all

After the dust from our toxic post-election discourse settled, the talk of traditional and social media turned to “fake news” – a term that has taken on new meaning in recent years, and new prominence in the 2016 presidential race.

In this iteration, fake news doesn’t refer to satire like The Daily Show or The Onion. Nor does it refer to news that is biased in its selection and interpretation of facts. No, for now we’re fighting a much simpler to identify foe – the peddling of information that is blatantly, demonstrably false and intentionally deceptive.

Stuff like these sensational – and completely fictional – headlines that circulated in the months leading up to the election:

Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president, releases statement [Ending The Fed]

FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apparent murder-suicide [Denver Guardian]

WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary sold weapons to ISIS… Then drops another BOMBSHELL! Breaking news [The Political Insider]

Thousands of fake ballot slips found marked for Hillary Clinton! TRUMP WAS RIGHT!! [Donald Trump News]

President Obama confirms he will refuse to leave office if Trump is elected [Burrard Street Journal]

BREAKING: Hillary Clinton to be indicted… Your prayers have been answered [World Politic US]

Rupaul claims Trump touched him inappropriately in the 1990s [World News Daily Report]

This sort of nonsense has been around for a long time, previously circulating via your crazy relatives’ email inboxes. But it found new prominence this election cycle, on Facebook. Craig Silverman and his team at Buzzfeed compared Facebook engagement metrics on the top 20 fake news stories and the top 20 stories from a sampling of traditional media outlets across the final three quarters of the 2016 election. They found that after lagging well behind for most of the year, the most popular fake news out-engaged the most popular real news in the final three months of the race. (All of the headlines above were among the top 20 in that time period.)

*There are caveats to this method, and if you care, I discuss them at the end of this post. The point is that engagement with fake news has risen dramatically.

That has invited three questions – where is fake news coming from, does it have an effect, and what can be done to stop it? Continue reading “Understanding “fake news,” & why defeating it isn’t a fix-all”


[Paw Paw’s Inbox] Dhimmitude

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the psychology of chain emails – or, perhaps more accurately, the senders and receivers of those messages. Now, it’s time to take a look at one of those emails. The most frustrating thing about this one is that the deception could be uncovered by doing the exact Google search suggested in the email! 

It provides a perfect example of the simple citing of a source being enough to convince the (albeit receptive) reader that the statement is legitimate. It’s why I always tell my students to follow the path – check the sources cited in research materials. Don’t just take them at their word.
Continue reading “[Paw Paw’s Inbox] Dhimmitude”

Paw Paw’s Inbox – A Primer on the Psychology of Chain Emails

Introducing Paw Paw’s Inbox – the part of the blog where we look at the latest chain email to convince your grandfather (aunt,  mother-in-law, second cousin twice removed… there’s always one) that a radical Muslim president is seeking to destroy his own country.

The degree to which these emails are disseminated and believed causes me tremendous frustration. Democratic discourse becomes polluted when such blatantly false misinformation is accepted as fact – especially maddening when it is often so simple to debunk. But the factual qualities of the message aren’t as important a part of acceptance or rejection as you might think. Often, it comes down to our perceptions of that message, and how it fits in to what we already believe.

Continue reading “Paw Paw’s Inbox – A Primer on the Psychology of Chain Emails”