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Social media creates platform for false information

January 11, 2017

Confused and frustrated, sophomore Brahim Bouzara scrolls through major headlines on his phone, wishing he knew which sources he could trust.

“I wish it wasn’t happening — the world isn’t perfect,” Bouzara said. “I wish the news was free, (that) it wasn’t biased, but I guess for that you would have to watch all the news channels if you want to look at every view, and that’s hard to do.”

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An increasing issue

Former Washington Post investigative journalist Rudy Maxa said fake news is a piece of media that falsely leads a reader into seeing it as fact.

“Fake news is something presented as fact or something presented as a question that leads one to believe it could be fact,” Maxa said. “Fake news stories are stories written that are posted on Facebook or somewhere else.”

According to Star Tribune assistant managing editor Terry Sauer, false news stories can also be known as shock-journalism.

“(Fake news) is created as shock-journalism,” Sauer said. “It generally takes part of real news and twists them to be shocking, so that once disseminated (it) gets shared heavily.”

Sophomore Leila Raymond said she relies on Snapchat as a news source.

“I use Snapchat because they have articles in the news section,” Raymond said.

Sauer said social media provides additional difficulty in determining which information is truthful.

“The truth has become a less important device than ever before. A lot of it was from social media,” Sauer said. “(A couple of) years ago, you read things in the news and websites, now it becomes another layer (with social media as) a third person.”

A study by NPR writer Matthew Bell showed people can create programs, or “bots,” to automatically spread fake news. German Chaos Computer club spokesperson Linus Neumann created an experimental bot that would spread a rumor about Donald Trump by tweeting, retweeting and commenting.

“This process was remarkably easy,” Bell said. “Neumann spent five or 10 minutes downloading an open-source toolkit that helped him get started, and he sketched out how this social media bot would work.”

Neumann said if the creator of such a bot wanted to spend more time, effort and money, the simple bot could be expanded to create posts at an exponential rate.

“The hope here, of course, would be that this fake information would take on a life of its own in the real world,” Neumann said.

Junior Benjamin Dodge said he feels uncomfortable with fake news’ recent expansion.

“I think fake news has spread at a pretty fair amount. Of course I don’t feel so great about this, but that’s just because people kind of look for what they want to look for and they don’t really look at both sides of the story,” Dodge said.

Sauer said he feels worried about majority opinion being perceived as truth.

“It is so dangerous when everybody now is a disseminator of information,” Sauer said.

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Misleading the reader

Media specialist Ellen George said she is worried fake news generates bad habits for Park students.

“It can affect anyone if you get in the habit of not being a critical thinker, of just accepting and passing on sharing things that are widely sensational, but maybe not true,” George said. “(It) is a really bad habit to get into and when you’re doing research.”

Dodge said social media and personal devices make news access easier than ever before.

“Well you can get news a lot easier now with computers or phones,” Dodge said.

According to Sauer, shock news articles only attempt to surprise and thrill the reader.

“People love sharing things that will surprise other people,” Sauer said. “When they see something startling they say ‘I’ll share that to show all of my friends.’”

Raymond said she is aware information online can fool readers.

“I am aware that there is false news in social media. I look at the sources and usually it is from a well known source,” Raymond said. “I know that there is always the possibility of the news being false, but I always take the risk.”

According to Sauer, a danger to the legitimacy of news came from the introduction of a third disseminator of news.

“It’s somebody who finds something and shares it. I think there’s a lot of people, including me, that get their news from Facebook,” Sauer said.

Senior Benjamin Chappell said correct news is essential for a functioning society.

“People need that information to act reasonably in a society and impact not only their generation but also further generations,” Chappell said. “So to affect that in any way is not right.”

According to Bouzara, the public needs correct information so they can decide how to perceive the world around them.

“I think (trust) is very important because if people walk around only knowing what the media tells them, they’ll have a different outlook on the world,” Bouzara said. “(Things like) how the world operates, how the U.S. operates and how people are, which is bad.”

George said support for false news on social media is a large threat for spreading the information.

“When you start getting into some information it can be damaging to give something a lot of support,” George said.

Sauer said giving the digital population the opportunity to be a journalist is a threat to the truth.

“It is so dangerous when everybody is now a disseminator of information,” Sauer said. “I’m not saying journalists are holier than anybody, but they’re trained to be communicators and to be ethically sound in reporting and writing.”

Chappell said it is the duty of the journalist to provide readers with correct information.

“The journalist’s job is to always continue to search out and deliver the truth (and) to remain as legitimate as possible,” Chapell said. “If any slip ups happen they own up to it and realize their credibility will be in question for a long time.”

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Fighting false sights

According to Sauer, checking the source of the information is the most direct way to combat false news.

“You’ll never be able to stop (fake news) totally because there’s always people who will share that stuff,” Sauer said. “But the best way to try to understand if it’s fake or true is look at the source.”

According to Maxa, information coming from a smaller-scale source may be untrustworthy.

“If it’s something you’re not seeing on CNN or the front page of the paper, something that strikes you as either interesting or weird, the first thing to do is try and determine the source,” Maxa said.

Bouzara said he turns to televised news, instead of social media.

“Right now as a whole, I don’t trust social media news as much as I would like the TV news,” Bouzara said. “On TV they have to prove (their point) a little bit more.”

George said information only available from one source is an immediate notification of possible fake news.

“If (the site is) the only place you’ve seen the information that’s a red flag,” George said. “You should be able to find things that are true in multiple places and you ought to be able to find one of those that is highly reputable.”

Maxa said there are various websites dedicated to seeking and exposing disseminators of fake news.

“I often go to snopes.com, they’re especially good with false rumors,” Maxa said. “I noticed today Facebook will be harder to delete bogus news items. They’ll be working in conjunction with several organizations including Snopes.”

According to the Star Tribune article “Facebook gets serious about fighting fake news,” Facebook has begun to make efforts to efficiently combat fake news. By partnering with official fact-checkers and news corporations like snopes.com as well as ABC News, they hope to effectively distinguish between honest news stories and false articles.

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