January 8, 2018

Published on January 6, 2018 on NJ.com by Deborah Lev, Associate Professor of Communication at Centenary University.

“Facebook: where thinking goes to die,” Bill Maher recently quipped on his Friday night Real Time TV show last month ridiculing America’s drive to selfie itself into oblivion. But his joke has deeper impact now that Facebook, Google, and Twitter have acknowledged that their sites have abetted the spreading, sometimes by foreign agents, of fake news, divisiveness, hate messages and cynicism.

Last spring, Russian trolls on Facebook orchestrated heated demonstrations against a Texas mosque based on fake anti-Muslim accusations of supposed islamization of Texas, according to a New York Times story by Farhad Manjoo. Business Insider and The Daily Beast also reported that both sides of the demonstrations had been cast by Russian trolls. Attacks on mainstream media from the White House and from social media posts sow doubt across party lines.

How bad is bad? CNN recently introduced a spot telling us: This is an apple. Some will try to tell you, over and over, that it’s a banana. It is not. It’s an apple.

The New York Times felt the need to print a full-page ad reminding us that facts and truth matter.

The social media sites have intensified efforts to call out fake news. News stories that are reported as false by people on Facebook may be reviewed by independent fact-checkers. A story may be marked as “disputed” if these fact-checkers find the story to be false. In addition, Facebook has started a practice of placing an icon next to News Feed articles so readers can link to a description of the trustworthiness of the publishers. All of these efforts, while helpful, may not be enough to turn back the tidal wave of fake news. A group of Yale researchers found we are susceptible to believing misinformation if we encounter it more than once. Why? Its repetition re-enforces it. Its familiarity hints at accuracy, as reported in a New York Times article about the work of two Yale professors and a fellow researcher (Gordon J. Pennycook, David Rand, and Tyrone D. Cannon). Further, the enormity and speed of the digital flood overwhelms fact-checkers. Case in point: in the closing days of the 2016 Presidential election, Twitter users alerted Twitter to inaccurate tweets aimed at Clinton voters by trolls, encouraging them to vote by text.

That pretty much puts the onus as much on us as individuals to separate fake news from accurate reporting. Here are a few tips on how to be a discerning – and better informed – news reader.

Headlines, intended to grab our attention, don’t tell the whole story. Reading beyond them offers context.

An ad or a post that is hotly one-sided should raise alarms, even if we agree with it! Practice healthy skepticism, not cynicism. Who wrote and/or published this post? Do you recognize and trust the source? Does the site have a mission/agenda? Are the links credible? Could this be the work of a digital bot and not a real person/group?

Might this be an old story or photo with a new headline attached to it? What’s the agenda behind that choice?

Take a breath; step away from the initial rush of an incendiary post. Were certain word choices intended to incite? Jon Baptiste, author of “The Truth Ain’t Up for Grabs,” recommends learning something from jazz: the rests in music can carry as much weight as the music itself. Taking a breath allows you to sit back and consider what you’ve read.

Do a little fact-checking yourself. Helpful websites include Snopes.com, FactCheck.org, and Politifact.com. These sites review the accuracy of claims by elected officials, candidates, advocacy groups and others on current issues and flag misguiding or inaccurate statements.

Visit your local library. Remember libraries? Librarians and the free digital access to data bases can assist your search for the truth.

Leave your comfort zone and open up to other people’s ideas. Read a wider range of newspapers and websites. They may challenge you, and that’s a good thing.

There’s a lot at stake. The movie “All the President’s Men” comes to mind. Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee tells beleaguered Watergate reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward that nothing’s riding on this…except the First Amendment and a free press. Bradlee could just as well be talking to us, bearing a burden previous generations did not carry. But the Big Lie– the weaponizing of words so successful for Hitler and Goebbels, repeated often enough, aimed at groups or ideas we dislike, and originating with clandestine groups– is the enemy. That is reason enough to rally us in this war effort, to ensure that facts matter and Facebook is not where thinking goes to die.

Deborah Lev is an associate professor of media-related courses in the Communication and Fine Arts Department at Centenary University in Hackettstown, NJ.


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