Fake News: Becoming the right kind of skeptic

Fake News: Becoming the right kind of skeptic

LiQM_Mar2017_CoverThis article first appeared in the March 2017 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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By Katrine Deniset

There was a time when the daily newspaper, dropped off at the door every morning by the mail carrier or a neighbourhood kid, was the only source people consulted to know what was going on in the world. Particularly observant people sometimes had a small pile of papers to compare over their morning coffee.

Nowadays, a single Facebook account can provide access to not one, but thousands of sources. According to a 2016 report by the Pew Research Center, an organization that studies media and social trends in the U.S., 44 per cent of American adults seek out their news on Facebook.

All those users are faced with one main challenge: spotting the truth. That challenge existed before the Internet, but unlike today, it did not involve what sometimes seems like searching for a needle in a haystack.

Last year, Facebookers read about a pizzeria connected to a child sex ring led by Hillary Clinton, and about Pope Francis’ fervent admiration of Donald Trump. Both of those viral stories were false. More recently, the right-wing site Infowars.com, which the recently elected U.S. president once described as “amazing,” declared the Québec City mosque shooting, in which six people were killed, a “false flag” attack organized by militant Islamists.

“Facebook thrives off clicks, and lately, all these examples of garbage news seem to be what engages readers,” says Guillaume Latzko-Toth, associate professor in the Department of Information and Communication at Université Laval. “All these sites are a piece of cake to build; it just takes a little bit of imagination and a basic blog platform, not much more.”

The items still come nicely prepackaged, formatted like conventional news articles; only now, the packaging is organized through algorithms.LiQ_Mag_Sub_Banner

“There are a few problems with algorithms, the first being that [they] create a real perverse effect,” explains Latzko-Toth. “Facebook mostly shows you what your friends and family and other acquaintances also liked and shared. You just trust those people, right? So there is less reason to doubt them, even if they share bogus news.”

The second problem with algorithms, he explains, is confirmation bias, which is the tendency to search for, interpret and favour information that confirms your own pre-existing beliefs.

“People really do tend to consume media that reassures them in their own opinions,” he says. “When we surround ourselves with people and words we already agree with, it’s easy to forget to question any of it at all.”

What’s the real harm in exposure to fake news?

One major problem generated by the inundation of fake news, according to Latzko-Toth, is an increase in cynicism from news consumers.

“The coexistence of quality information and trash information is starting to create social unrest [through] widespread suspicion,” he says. “People are even beginning to consider traditional media professionals to be professional misinformers, because they sincerely believe there’s no longer any such thing as the truth.”

This ever-growing relativism is the real danger at the core of disinformation, according to Sylvain Rocheleau, who specializes in the analysis of media coverage and teaches in the Department of Letters and Communications at Université de Sherbrooke.

“People are feeling lost and don’t know how to distinguish what’s true or false,” he points out. “That creates a natural path toward skepticism and disinterest, because people are just confused. That’s the main danger at play.”

Rocheleau cites literacy survey results shown in a 2011 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and calls the numbers “alarming.”

“About half of Canadian adults who are faced with a newspaper editorial have difficulty understanding it,” explains Rocheleau. “That should right away bring us into a discussion around media education. We need to be able to think critically, because it’s nice to have access to all these words and all this information, but what’s the point if you can’t read it and understand it and form an opinion based on it? What’s the point if a citizen can’t speculate and think, ‘no, that can’t be true’ when faced with fake news? Our capacity to think critically is on standby.”

Another danger, according to Rocheleau, is the impact of fake news on the future of professional journalism in Canada. He refers to a recent report by the Public Policy Forum, partially funded by the Canadian government, entitled The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age, which sheds light on a possible future world where traditional media doesn’t exist.

The report addresses the broken business model of Canadian journalism, with revenues landing in the pockets of American Internet giants like Google and Facebook, which place more emphasis on clicks than on editorial integrity. Rocheleau says the report also misses out on the protection of the standards of journalism as a profession. He explains that while there is more and more information out there, paradoxically, there are fewer and fewer journalists.

“A report isn’t enough to show that our government is worried about the state of information in this country,” he insists. “Decisions are needed here. Let’s look at the cuts that have been made at CBC and ICI Radio-Canada in the past decade, for example, although we’ve heard new promises regarding that. We really need to see if the government is ready to put in place regulations in order to protect information, to ultimately protect Canadian citizens. Journalism is the main way we can hedge against false news.”

Fake news consumption: whose responsibility?

Jean-François Buissière, president of the French satirical website Le Gorafi (a play on words based on the popular French daily, Le Figaro), has another theory about the rise of fake news. He explains cheerfully that the average Internet surfer just doesn’t know any better.

“We are not responsible for the public’s stupidity. People have always been idiots, are still idiots, and will always be idiots. We love and respect our journalist brothers, but what they do demands responsibility, and we don’t really like responsibility.”

Le Gorafi, like The Onion in the English-speaking world, is now a well-established organization that no longer fools most French readers (although an Algerian daily was briefly fooled by a story involving French right-wing leader Marine Le Pen proposing a wall across the Mediterranean). Its website is also blatantly satirical. Its homepage slogan, “Toute l’information selon des sources contradictoires” (“All the news according to contradictory sources”), almost screams, “We are not the real deal!”

The trouble arises when the line between truth and fakery is much finer, or when fake news sites claim to be authentic. Latzko-Toth argues that in some cases, it can be challenging for untrained readers to detect fake news. As an example, he cites the famous  2012 Montréal YouTube video hoax that shows an eagle scooping up a toddler on Mont Royal. The video was impressive, and Latzko-Toth says ordinary viewers, who were not familiar with 3-D animation, were easily misled.

Since the recent U.S. presidential election, Facebook has been repeatedly forced to defend itself against accusations that it played an important role in the election of Donald Trump by spreading fake news unfavourable to Trump’s opponents. The company argued that as a social media platform, they were not the media.

In early February, as a response to this criticism, the social media firm and Google joined forces with news organizations to launch a new fact-checking system, which should be rolled out before the upcoming presidential election in France. The system will rely on Facebook users to flag suspected fake news; from there, questionable stories will be looked at by independent fact-checkers.

Putting in place such mechanisms is an experiment Sylvain Rocheleau finds highly interesting, but he still thinks news consumers should look beyond social media.

“Facebook is not a news distributor, and they’ve reminded us many times that that’s simply not their mission,” he says. “If they started filtering through everything, there would be no interest left for them, because it would mean fewer clicks.”

Latzko-Toth agrees, and accentuates the importance of contextualizing what we read on social media, to avoid letting Facebook’s algorithm dictate the way we are informed.

“When you click on a link and you notice there are more ads than content, that’s a red flag. If there are no sources, if the headlines are extravagant, then surely the goal is not to inform you. If you are unsure about an image, slide it into Google and it will tell you whether it’s come up anywhere else on the web, and when. There’s a list of tools out there [to distinguish fake news] and it demands some effort, but it’s essential. We need to work on becoming healthy skeptics.”
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How to spot fake news

In February 2016, French daily Le Monde launched Decodex, a French-language online portal dedicated to arming the average reader with the tools to fact-check online information. Here are just a few of their suggestions:

  • Make sure you know who is sending the message. Is it from a media outlet or an expert that you trust, or from a site you’ve never heard of or a random person? If possible, find the original source of the story.
  • Search for corroboration. A news story that has been picked up by several news outlets is more likely to have been confirmed.
  • Pictures can be manipulated or reused in a deceiving manner. A picture or a video, in itself, is never proof of anything.
  • Take shocking posts or posts which appeal excessively to your emotions with a grain of salt. Flowery language and capital letters are a sign of a post written to get clicks, not to inform.
  • Think before you post. Verify the date, source and veracity of a viral post before passing it on, and avoid getting caught up in an embarrassing hoax yourself.

Decodex also has a site search tool, where readers can search for a media outlet and determine whether it’s legitimate, satirical, suspect or false. The English-language site Snopes, almost as old as the Internet itself, is another reliable tool for checking the veracity of online rumours.
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