Sunday, October 19, 2014

They're Selling You Fake News...And You're Buying It

Stop.  Before you read any further, look at the top of the page.  What website did you just navigate to?  You should find something that has somewhere in there.  Do you see it?  Good.  That's very, very important.  Now keep reading.

When I was in high school, the internet was still pretty new.  So new, in fact, that many of my teachers, when giving us research assignments, instructed us not to use the internet at all because the internet on the whole was not a reliable source of information.  

By the time I graduated from college that had all changed.  These days, finding reputable information online is just as viable as finding it in a book in the library.  Care was taken, of course, by my college professors to point out that not all online sources are created equal and that a science journal is different from a Wikipedia article.

Now, it seems, many of my facebook friends have completely forgotten this lesson as it applies to our daily intake of information.  As you scroll through your news feed on any given day, you are likely to come across all sorts of headlines.  You click on them, navigate to a web page...  What is the first thing you do?  Do you look at the web address?  No, neither do I.  Most of us just aren't in the habit of doing that and we're far more interested in whatever it is we're about to read than who wrote it.

And that's a problem.

On any given day, there is a high probability that some of the "news" you encounter is utterly fake.  Now, I'm not talking about news in general ("the liberal media is lying to us!").  I'm talking about websites that create deliberately false headlines for satirical purposes.  If you didn't already know about them, it's important that you do.  So, Here are a few examples of headlines I've come across that were shared with me by individuals who were convinced this was actual news:

I discovered this article in my facebook feed when it was shared by some very smart, liberal friends.  They were ecstatic that the Pope was making such radical statements as: "We must recognize that religious truth evolves and changes. Truth is not absolute or set in stone."  "The church no longer believes in a literal hell where people suffer."  "All religions are true, because they are true in the hearts of all those who believe them."  "In the past, the church has been harsh on those it deemed morally wrong or sinful. Today, we no longer judge."  The problem?  The Pope never said any of that.  And the Third Vatican Council never happened.  Fake news website.

The abstract:  "A team of psychologists and medical doctors associated with the Technische Universität of Berlin, have announced this morning that they had proven by clinical experimentation, the existence of some form of life after death.  This astonishing announcement is based on the conclusions of a study using a new type of medically supervised near-death experiences, that allow patients to be clinically dead for almost 20 minutes before being brought back to life."
I heard about this one through word-of-mouth from someone I very much respect and whose opinion I value.  When I heard about it, though, I thought:  "If that's true then that's a really big deal.  Let's investigate."  I found the article...and found the disclaimer.  Fake news website.

Capitalizing on our worst fears of a terrible disease becoming airborne and preying on innocent families, this article tells the story of an Everyman returning from Dallas and infecting his family with Ebola despite having no contact with real-life Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan. The thing is, it didn't happen, though the article was shared tens of thousands of times on facebook within a few hours, according to Snopes.

My guess is that while reading those headlines you may have thought they sounded hokey to begin with.  Who would ever believe that?  Well, in the context of this blog post, after my having told you they were going to be fake, of course they sound phony.  But in the context of a facebook feed, surrounded by dozens of legitimate news headlines, people are easily hooked and they forget to look at whether this is coming from CNN or from some jokester.  

"Who is responsible for content like this?" you may ask.  If you're online a lot, you're probably familiar with some satire sites like  I love the Onion.  And while some people still take their headlines literally, (some examples, language warning) most of the time, it's pretty obvious this stuff isn't legitimate news (Man Surrounded By Loved Ones Feels Awkward Being Only Person Dying).  Other fake news websites are not so transparent in their presentation and create headlines we're willing and ready to believe.

Here's the disclaimer from a website called the Diversity Chronicle.  Actually, the web address is  Lesson learned.

"The original content on this blog is largely satirical.

'I ceased in the year 1764 to believe that one can convince one’s opponents with arguments printed in books. It is not to do that, therefore, that I have taken up my pen, but merely so as to annoy them, and to bestow strength and courage on those on our own side, and to make it known to the others that they have not convinced us.' – Georg Christoph Lichtenberg.

It is in the spirit of the above quote that I write. Who am I you may ask? My name is Erik Thorson. I created this blog for my own personal amusement."

So there you go.  It's called satire and it is meant to hold human follies and vices up to ridicule whether through humor, sarcasm, or even willful deception.  And here's the thing: By buying into these fake headlines, we prove their point and illustrate some of the flaws in human nature that these satirists are out to ridicule.  We prove our gullibility and our thirst for sensationalism.  But the important point here is that, if you consume content on the web, you should know that there are content creators out there whose content is simply bogus.  The internet "does not have a 'truth' filter." -Neil L. Andersen  So, before you believe the next thing you read, stop.  Look at the top of the page.  See where you are?  Good.  Make that a habit.

To help you out, here is a link to a list of websites creating fake news content.  This list will soon be outdated so just stay skeptical, friends.

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