Wednesday, November 16, 2016, 8:00am

Combatting the Scourge of Fake News on Social Media

There’s been a lot of talk about “fake news” on social media platforms the last few days, particularly since both Google and Facebook have announced that they’re kicking “fake news” sites out of their advertising platforms.

For those of you who don’t wallow in social media on a daily basis, what this means is that websites which are designated as spreading “fake news” won’t be allowed to use Facebook’s or Google’s ad platforms to run ads on their articles, cutting off a not insignificant portion of their revenue.

This is apparently quite the problem on Facebook. I curate my Facebook feeds pretty ruthlessly so I very rarely see it there. (I do have a couple of liberal friends who will occasionally share stuff from Addicting Info. You guys know who you are. Stop that; they’re bullshit.)

I see this problem much more frequently on Twitter, which, notably, has not yet joined the anti-fake news brigade. It’s gotten so’s on Twitter you might as well not even bother with trending hashtags because they’re so full of hate and lies.

Fake news on social media platforms isn’t a particularly new problem. It’s been going on for years. It’s just getting to be a really bad problem. And while Facebook and Google are taking steps to alleviate the problem, that might not be the best solution. Jeff Jarvis raises some concerns about their actions, pointing out that letting two for-profit corporations with their own agendas determine what sites constitute “fake news” might not be the wisest course of action.

Jarvis exhorts journalists to combat the problem, and offers some pretty good suggestions for how. He writes,

Instead of mourning the creation of fake-news memes and putting the onus on Facebook to kill them (again: do we really want that?) we should be pouring out our own truth memes — with facts, fact-checking, context, explanation, education, reporting, watch-dogging: journalism, in short. We should be arming fair-minded, intelligent, curious, rational, fact-loving citizens (if you don’t think they exist, then give up on democracy and journalism, too) with the weapons, the truth bullets, to fire at will in their conversations. They won’t win all the wars but they will win some fact battles alongside us if only we enable them.

And yeah, that should be happening. If journalists want to remain relevant, they should be learning how to tell their stories on social media. Jarvis suggests that news outlets should dispatch social journalists to find and engage in conversations, bringing people to their journalism (based on what I see on Twitter I doubt this would work, but you never know).

That sounds great, but I wonder if news outlets can bear the cost of such a tactic. You’d have to hire a lot of new journalists for that, and most papers can barely keep their old (and overworked) journalists employed.

Fake news sites aren’t even the entire problem. Lazy news sites and biased news sites are problems, too. There are a whole hella lot more of those than there are fake news sites, and worse, it’s way more difficult for Facebook or Google to help us out with that.

Those aren’t the only problems. What about real life? What about TV news, or 24-hour news channels? As much as I complain about Fox News, CNN and MSNBC aren’t much better these days, and a lot of local broadcasts are jokes, too. What about your local paper? The Midland Daily News, from back home, was almost criminally biased on some topics – anything to do with Dow Chemical, for example, and they grossly underreported crime (particularly sexual assault) for the Midland area.

The biggest problem, though, is that all of these “solutions” rely on other people and organizations to fix things. I think, in the end, the onus has to fall on us as news consumers. We have to make a choice to be well informed, and to spread good information where and when we can. And that takes work.

The first thing you can do is familiarize yourself with this handy list of suspect or outright fake news sites from Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communication and media at Merrimack College. At the time of writing, this list was pretty solid and full of useful media literacy tips. It’s a transient document, though, so maybe save off a copy for yourself now, and evaluate its information carefully in the future.

Here’s my list of good news sources:

If anyone’s interested, I have a public Facebook feed of these sources, along with a public Twitter feed, both of which you can subscribe to. You can also subscribe to most or all of these sources via RSS, with an RSS reader. I currently use The Old Reader, but Feedly works well, too.

No source is ever perfectly correct, however, so being informed requires critical thinking and media literacy. Some good sources for learning about these skills live at the previous two links, as well as here:

It takes some work to keep yourself informed, but, with a little practice, no more so than you put into reading a newspaper every day. And it’s an important effort. Think of it like a healthy diet and a little exercise for your brain. You can sit on the couch all day and eat chips: that is, get your news from whatever colorful graphic is popular that day on Facebook. Or you can get out for a walk and have some veggies: that is, critically read news from good sources. The result of doing one instead of the other is about the same for your mind as it is for your body.

I highly recommend eating some veggies and getting out for a walk, personally. You’ll definitely feel a lot better for the effort.

Featured Image: Newspapers in black and white, by Jon S. (Source & License.)

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