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Civics in Action
August 2020

Can You Trust the News?

Fake news stories are causing a problem in America. So how can you tell what’s true . . . and what’s a lie?

Made-up stories are taking over your news feed. How can you tell what’s fact—and protect yourself from fiction?

Imagine someone told a lie about you. He said you had robbed a bank.

Then imagine he wrote a story about it. He found a photo of you on Instagram. He posted this fake story and your photo on a website. This website sounded official. It was called American News. Soon, many people believed you were a bank robber. 

Let’s hope no one ever writes a fake story about you. Still, experts worry about fake news. They think fake news has become a crisis in America. 

You’re scrolling through your Twitter feed when all of a sudden, a shocking headline fills your screen: “England BANS VIDEO GAMES!!” Outraged, you text your friends, who in turn text their friends. Could the United States be next, you wonder?

Soon, millions of people across the country are sharing the article on Facebook and Twitter. Within hours, the story has gone viral. The only problem? The article is fake—and you fell for it.

Made-up stories like that one are designed to look real but are completely or partly untrue. Sometimes it’s easy to tell when an article is false—words might be misspelled or randomly capitalized, or the headline might contain multiple exclamation points. But more often than not, fake-news writers are careful to make their stories seem real by including headlines, details, and data that sound believable.

News You Can’t Trust

Deceptive Stories

In recent years, there have been countless fake news stories. These articles are often on the internet. One such story said that a congresswoman from New York was trying to ban motorcycles nationwide. Another said that eating garlic cures Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. 

These stories aren’t true. But many people believed them. The stories were shared many times. People posted them on Facebook. They emailed them to friends.

Fake news stories can be dangerous. They can hurt the people they are about. What if people believed you had robbed a bank? They wouldn’t trust you. One day you might apply for a job. You might not get hired.

But fake news is bad for all of us. “We have news we can’t trust,” says Michael Spikes from the Center for News Literacy. The Center helps students learn how to spot fake news stories.

Such articles may seem harmless, but they can have real consequences. For example, experts say that false stories may have influenced the 2016 U.S. presidential election. During the campaign, made-up articles about the two main candidates—including President Donald Trump—were shared on Facebook nearly 38 million times. Many people worry that deceptive stories could affect the outcome of this year’s presidential election.

That would be a major problem, says Alan C. Miller. He’s the founder of the News Literacy Project, an organization that helps students learn how to spot misinformation. Part of being a good citizen means knowing what’s happening in the world around us—and being mindful that not everything we see on the internet and social media is true.

“The overwhelming majority of information available online has not been verified,” says Miller. “It has not been approved by an editor or signed off on by a fact-checker. So we all need to have a healthy amount of skepticism about what we see.”

In addition, many politicians have begun using the term fake news to refer to factual stories they simply disagree with or don’t like. That’s making it even harder for Americans to distinguish fact from fiction—and discouraging people from believing stories that are real.

The Rise of Online News

History of Lies

Not long ago, most Americans got their news from a few newspapers and TV news programs. This news was written by professional journalists. 

Journalists are people who report the news. They are trained to do research and check facts. A journalist’s job is to give all the facts. They don’t share their opinions. They let readers make up their own minds. 

Today, there are still professional journalists. They work for trusted newspapers and news programs. What’s new is the internet. Now, almost anyone can write a story and post it online.

There are many fake-news websites. People can spread fake stories on Twitter and Facebook. 

It’s also easier now for people to doubt stories. People doubt stories even when they’re true. If someone doesn’t like what a story says, he or she can just say, “That’s fake.” This makes it hard for people to discuss important things.

The act of influencing people with fake stories may seem new, but it’s been around for centuries. During the American Revolution (1775-1783), Benjamin Franklin, one of the nation’s founders, was himself guilty of spreading false stories. He attempted to increase support for the war by writing articles that falsely claimed that the British had teamed up with Native Americans to murder colonial women and children.

In the late 1800s, newspapers competed for readers by printing shocking headlines and overdramatizing stories. Sometimes writers made up quotes altogether and cited experts who didn’t exist. The practice of creating scandalous news came to be known as yellow journalism.  

But fake news really took off with the rise of the internet and social media. When your parents and grandparents were kids, most people learned about current events from a few respected newspapers or national news shows on major TV networks. For the most part, that news came straight from professional journalists, who had been trained to conduct thorough research, fact-check their stories, and report the facts.

Of course, plenty of trustworthy websites still report news today, including The New York Times (nytimes.com) and The Wall Street Journal (wsj.com). But now almost anyone can write and post articles online—and potentially reach a large audience. Many fake news sites currently exist, including ones with official-sounding names, such as The Political Insider.

Getting Rich

Fake News Means Big Money

Why do people want to write fake news? The answer is simple. Fake-news writers want money. 

Companies pay to place ads on websites. The companies want their ads on websites that get a lot of visitors. This makes sense. They want many people to see the ads. These people might buy what the companies are selling. 

Fake-news sites get a lot of visitors. How? They post stories with shocking or surprising headlines. They know that you are more likely to click on these types of articles. You might even share them with friends. 

When sites have a lot of visitors, companies buy a lot of ads. This is how fake-news writers get rich. “I make like $10,000 a month,” one fake-news writer has said.

Why might someone want to post a fake story in the first place? During presidential campaigns, people may be trying to influence Americans’ beliefs and, in turn, how they vote in the election. In other cases, the answer is simple: to make money.

Many companies pay to place ads online—and websites that get a lot of visitors can charge high fees to run those ads. That’s because the more visitors a site has, the more views the ads get.

Fake news websites often attract a lot of readers—and thus, a lot of money from ads—by posting stories with outrageous headlines that people are likely to click on and share. “I make like $10,000 a month,” fake-news writer Paul Horner told The Washington Post in 2016.

In fact, one study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that, on Twitter, false stories spread six times as fast as factual ones—and reach far more readers. MIT researchers discovered that, on average, a false story can spread to 1,500 Twitter users in just 10 hours. By comparison, a factual story can take 60 hours to reach that many people.

True or False?

Don’t Be Fooled

Sometimes it’s easy to tell that a story is fake. A crazy headline like “Zombies Attack New York” won’t trick you.

But many fake articles don’t seem crazy. That’s because they come with photos. They also have real-sounding details. Some are posted on websites with names that sound serious, like The Boston Tribune or The Political Insider. 

A few years ago, researchers did a study on middle school students. They wanted to know if the students could tell a real news story from an ad. They found that 80 percent of the students could not tell the difference. 

But don’t worry. It’s a skill you can learn.

The good news is that a lot is being done to stop the spread of fake news. In recent years, for example, Google and Facebook have banned fake news sites from advertising on their pages. Facebook is also working with fact-checking organizations around the world, including PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org, to help identify and flag made-up articles that are posted on its platform so they can be deleted.

In addition, lawmakers in Connecticut, Washington, and other states have recently passed or introduced bills requiring public schools to teach media literacy. Such lessons would show students how to analyze information from websites, TV, and other forms of media, and how to detect bias.

In the end, however, it’s up to each of us to be skeptical of what we see online. For starters, if a story doesn’t seem quite right or appears too good to be true, investigate it. Spend a few minutes researching the headline, the author, the sources, and the website it came from. And if you suspect a story might be false, don’t share it on social media.

“It’s our responsibility to stop the spread of fake news,” says Jonathan Anzalone, the assistant director of the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University in New York. “We need to be committed to seeking out the truth.”

The Good News


Facebook and Google are trying to stop the spread of fake news. And you can too. Here are some suggestions.

1. Remind yourself that not everything posted online is true. Even if your smartest friend shared the story, it could still be a lie. Be a detective. Look for the truth. 

2. Get news from respected newspapers and websites, like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or CNN.com. Think about who published the stories that are shared with you.

3. Ask smart questions as you read. Where is the writer getting the information? Is there enough good evidence to back it up? Are any experts quoted in the story? 

4. Check facts. Conduct research to find out whether trusted news organizations have published the same information. Start with fact-checking sites like FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.com. Teachers and family can help too.

And if you read a story saying your best friend robbed a bank, don’t believe it.



- By Lauren Tarshis

- By Rebecca Zissou


Words to Know:


misinformation


(n) false or inaccurate information, especially that which is used to mislead people


bills


(n) proposals for new laws


bias


(n) personal opinions that influence someone's work, actions, or thoughts