In a world where access to information is at people’s fingertips, anyone can create content and, thanks to social media, news can travel faster than ever. But with “fake news” and “alternative facts” threatening to skew what is presented as truth, how can the public fight to stay informed in an era of information overload?
Gerald Kosicki, an associate professor in communication, said he sees a lack of media literacy –– the ability to access, analyze, engage and create media in the 21st century –– as a main cause of fake news’ presence in the world today.
“(Media literacy has) kind of been a neglected stepchild, in a way, in our discipline,” Kosicki said. That’s a mistake.”
Kosicki said this lack of knowledge on how to stay informed with real news, combined with people not always knowing to disregard fake news, has produced a climate in which individuals are able to manipulate the system to push a false narrative.
How millennials get informed
Kosiski and doctoral candidate George Pearson published a research paper last January titled “How Way-Finding is Challenging Gatekeeping in the Digital Age,” which discusses the ways media habits are rapidly changing.
Traditionally, older generations are loyal followers to only a few different news outlets, Kosicki told The Lantern. Younger generations, however, do not do that, he said. Instead, they use “way-finding,” a new way of engaging with news, to get information.
“You get social media feeds, some interesting thing comes by, you click on it and it takes you off to some site and you read that,” Kosicki said. “And then you see another thing and go off in a different direction, bouncing from one thing to another. There’s diversity in that, but it’s also without purpose.”
The problem with this method, Kosicki said, is it requires readers to place their trust in those sharing the stories on their social media feeds.
“It’s hard to know what are the priorities and what is the agenda being set by your friends,” he said. “You’re really leaving important decisions about how you’re going to learn about the world to the mercy of others.”
Pearson said this trend is likely due to excessive trust by millennials.
“The millennial generation is (part of) all the growing evidence that suggests that people just trust the thief that’s in front of them,” Pearson said. “They just assume that their Facebook feed is trustworthy. They assume Facebook itself is trustworthy.”
Fighting fake news
A quick scroll through one’s Facebook feed might reveal a mix of viral videos and status updates from family and friends. Scroll a little longer and you might start to see fake news, with headlines and articles designed to present fictitious and fabricated content as true.
The term “fake news” has been tossed around to describe a number of different things, something that Pearson said is a problem.
“(Fake news) usually (refers to) an entire media outlet that is set up to propagate intentionally misleading and falsified information and that’s a very, very distinct category,” Pearson said.
Pearson said that it’s important to distinguish between fake news and what is really just a journalist’s error.
“Journalists have always made retractions and got things wrong,” he said. “Biases have always existed … but those two things are not necessarily completely corrosive to democracy in the same way that entire news outlets set up to spread false information are.”
Pearson said the best way to confirm whether something is fake news starts with a simple Google search before clicking “share.”
“If anything seems ‘too good to be true’ in terms of your political bias, google the headline and see who else is reporting on it and see it elsewhere,” Pearson said. “Most of the time, you’re reading these stupid fake news articles, you’ll realize very quickly that not a single other news outlet out there is reporting on it.”
Media outlets such as CNN and The Washington Post have created fact-checking guides available online to help scope out fake news, and websites like realorsatire.com allow users to copy and paste URLs to articles to confirm if they’re real or not. Snopes.com has also curated a list of known fake news websites to also confirm one’s findings.
Know your bias
In a time of divisive politics, Kosicki said questioning and recognizing one’s own biases is important, especially when consuming news.
“What are you trying to do with your news consumption?” Kosicki said. “Feed your prejudices and come up with talking points and arguments that you can use with your friends? Or are you really trying to understand the world as it is and have an accurate view of the world?”
If readers know their biases, Kosicki said, makes it possible to understand not only their own views, but the views of others.
“If you know the bias, then you can make mental corrections for it,” Kosicki said. “They say that if you had a rifle and the sight is 2 inches to the left, you can still learn to hit your target by aiming and making adjustments on your end.”
Kosicki said he recommends reading news from sources from the other side of the political aisle, for example, reading something from Fox News if someone usually sticks to MSNBC. This exercise, Kosicki said, is great to see, “What does that look like over there?” Additionally, visiting sites such as Allsides.com allows readers to take in a full scope of news, from far-right to far-left and everything in between.
Pearson said it’s important to remember, though, that not all bias is inherently bad, and that an article having a bias doesn’t automatically mean it’s fake.
“People do definitely need to be aware of what other viewpoints are and what the other side of thinking is if you want to have a very successful democracy and more to the point, to get along with one another,” he said. “But that is a different realm to falsify information, which is all fake news is … I think we do need to make efforts on our public level to rid ourselves of fake news. But I think you can have a healthy functioning democracy with bias in news.”
Editor’s note: Gerald Kosicki is on the School Publications Committee.