Editorial: Without diligent readers, fake news spreads like wildfire

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 12/27/2017 6:12 AM

A Christmas meme that was circulating in the last week on social media asserted that Facebook was discouraging people from posting a Nativity scene picture on their timelines because it was "offensive."

It fed into the popular, at least in some circles, narrative that there is a "War on Christmas."


But it wasn't true. Fact checkers were easily able to determine this.

But how does an average person find out what's fake news and what's not? You must put your fact checker hat on and question what you see and how it's presented.

In the case of the Nativity scene picture and statement, there was no attribution. No source for the charge that Facebook was willing to offend its Christian users by saying a Nativity scene was offensive.

When we saw it on Facebook, we immediately went to a well-known online fact checker because it seemed too outrageous to be true.

But it wasn't fake news because we question the "War on Christmas" narrative. It was fake news because what was said was false.

That distinction is behind Facebook's efforts at curbing the mass distribution of news that can't be verified on its site.

"The term 'fake news' has taken on a life of its own. False news communicates more clearly what we're describing: information that is designed to be confused with legitimate news, and is intentionally false," a Facebook statement given to Slate magazine said.

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In the end, it's up to readers to vet what they are reading. And even more so if they did decide to share what they are reading as fact.

The News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan national education nonprofit that works with educators and journalists to teach middle school and high school students how to sort fact from fiction in the digital age, offers tips on how to decide what could be "suspicious news on the internet.

Among its recommendations are to check the author (or make sure there is an author) and to verify the information through other sources, including traditional media and library databases. Hoaxes can be ruled out as true through sites like the nonprofit, nonpartisan factcheck.org or popular sites like snopes.com.

And beware of stories that don't add up but come from people you trust. Don't assume they've done the research to find out if that information is correct.

Is this really that common? Yes, fake or false news spreads like wildfire. An article by a former managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer posted on the News Literacy site quoted a Stanford University survey of 7,800 teenagers which found 80 percent had difficulty judging the credibility of news sources.

Doing so is a "new basic skill (needed) in our society," said professor Sam Wineburg, the study's lead author. Indeed, all of us must be vigilant to address this relatively new, but dangerous, phenomenon.

Facts matter. Support a free press.

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