The Real Threat of Fake News

The 22nd of February was much like any other day on social media. Everyone’s Facebook was smothered in posts about the latest celebrity gossip, mutual friend pregnancies and cute pics of dogs. However, there was one piece of content that seemed to be apparent no matter your age, gender or interests.

A screen grab from the video. Copies of the video, which was deleted from Facebook, can be found online. 

Depicting a woman being verbally assaulted by a van driver, the viral footage made headlines all over the UK. Everyone was commenting on it, calling the woman everything from brave to unstable to insane. However, there was one similarity in all of these pieces: nobody checked if it was real.

Countless reports of the event were presented as hard fact despite not quoting a source. The Sun, The Mirror, Mail Online and The Huffington Post were the main culprits of this. This displays a problem that is rampant in journalism where news organisations prioritise clicks over quality. Example? Look no further than the aforementioned Sun who updated their headline with “but was it real” to save face. This has has acted as a catalyst to a worldwide epidemic going by the name of fake news.

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Before discussing how it has a negative impact on news and the public in general, first we need to clearly outline what fake news is. The phenomena can be described as similar to propaganda. For those who don’t know, this is information which is knowingly fake or bias in nature. This is nothing new especially in terms of politics where its origins can be traced back centuries ago. There are countless cases of this, with World War II and American propaganda to raise morale and set the nation against the Nazis being one of the most famous examples.

While the two are similar, fake news and propaganda differ in some vital ways. Firstly, propaganda is usually perpetuated by large groups, most notably governments and the state. This is in order to keep control of or influence a large audience. Fake news on the other hand seems to be particularly instigated by smaller groups who all seem to have different intentions.

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Nasty News

The most obvious intent is malicious, as shown disgracefully during the US election last year. As Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton went head to head over who would succeed Barrack Obama, multiple stories arose. These shone both candidates in various lights though sadly, nearly all of the following headlines were fabricated. On one hand, there was the DailyPresser article that reported that Pope Francis was backing Trump. On the Democrat side of things, a post claimed that Hilary Clinton blamed racism for the death of Harambe.

It wasn’t until Trump was elected President that many witnessed their first use of fake news. During his first press conference, the POTUS used the term repeatedly. This hasn’t stopped Trump himself from spreading fake news stories himself. There was “Kuwait issues its own Trump-esque visa ban for five Muslim-majority countries” which was proved to be false. Fake news, while perpetuated by small websites built to generate ad revenue, is still very toxic especially when officials such as Trump and UKIP MEP Jane Collins, who claimed ‘hundreds’ of illegal immigrants arrive in UK each week, quote non existent sources to suit their own agendas.

Ban The Baddies?

The relationship between the media and Trump has become even more complicated due to this. His behaviour threatens to damage democracy as he has banned various outlets from attending White House briefings. Amongst these outlets are The Guardian and Daily Mail and, notably, the BBC. The UK juggernaut was named “fake news” by none other than Donald Trump’s assistant. It’s not just Britain who have been insulted with this term though: American outlets like CNN and The New York Times have also been barred for allegedly feeding into the Fake News frenzy. However, Trump’s constant use of the term has lead to him changing the definition from “intentional hoaxes and misleading” to whatever doesn’t suit his agenda.

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The move came after Trump told a US conference: “We are fighting the fake news, it’s fake news, fake. The fake news doesn’t tell the truth. It doesn’t represent the people. They have no sources, none. They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources that they don’t name. ‘A source said Donald Trump is a horrible human being’. Let him say that to my face. They should put the name of the person and then you’ll see stories dry up so fast.” However, Trump fails to bring up a single example of this. This adds to his already mucky public image of unreliability after using fake news to his own advantage during the election.

Rule For One, One For Another

These claims of fake news aren’t without merit but the occurrences are rare to say the least. The only example the republican lead media seem to give is the way CNN Brian Stelter retweeted a video without checking the source. The video in question was the delta airlines controversy which saw a man and his friends ejected from a plane for apparently speaking another language. It was soon revealed though that the man in question was a famous YouTube prankster, who has maintained that the video is serious despite other passengers disputing his version of what happened board the aircraft. This proved Stelter to be hypocritical after his claims that all journalists should triple check their sources.

However, a quick google search will result in countless videos displaying both Trump and follies blatantly lying for everyone to see. A notable example has to be when a republican lawmaker Trent Franks said in an interview with CNN that immigrants are bringing nukes into the country, disguised under a bale of marijuana. As you can expect, the claim, which came with no sources, was quickly laughed off. The host replied with statistics that Obama had deported more immigrants than any other Republican president, totally debunking claims that Trump was left having to deal with the mess that the Democrats had left.

 

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The Onion, a satirical newspaper launched in 1988, has found itself in the cross-hairs during the fake news fiasco.

Serious VS Satire

A victim of this malicious intent, however, is comedy, in the case of satirical sites like The Onion. Best known for funny headlines such as Surgically Altered Obama Doubles Struggling To Find Work After Presidency, the comedic site has consistently had to defend itself after finding itself painted with the fake news brush.

Many unaware members of the public share their articles as legitimate sources of news. This is despite the fact The Onion as well as similar satirical sites have made it clear they are not. Just a glance at the information on The Onion’s About Us page is enough to show this. Here they claim that the website has a daily readership of 4.3 trillion. Then there’s the serious declarations such as “The First Amendment protects satire as a form of free speech and expression”.

These disclaimers haven’t stopped satire from blending into this malicious intent though. A notable case of this has to be a headline from RealNewsRightNow that stated “U.S. to House 250,000 Syrian Refugees at Navajo, Standing Rock Indian Reservations”. If you hadn’t guessed by now, this was a subtle touch of humour. It may have been too subtle though. Donald Trump started quoting the fact as if it were true which the author Robert was unsurprisingly aghast at. “That was very unsettling,” he said. “I was, like, this is incredible.”

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The Mail claimed the father of the then-head of the Labour Party hated Britain; supporters demanded an apology. The city editor said that paper should have made it clear its accusation was comment, not fact.

 

How To Spot A Fake

It’s clear that fake news serves as a threat to journalism and us as a society. Now it’s time to take action so what better way to do that than spotting fake news. One of the best ways to do so is being aware of whether or not the source is reliable. The Daily Mail, for example,  have repeatedly offended with headlines that are conservative slanted such as The Man Who Hated Britain, a story that tried to set up Ed Miliband’s father without any evidence.

The Sun has also been found doing similar heinous acts. Most infamously is its reporting of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. Unsurprisingly this has lead to Liverpool recently barring Sun journalists from reporting on matches. While the papers may report legitimately on some stories, its best to take these papers with a grain of salt. Make sure to cross examine any of their articles so that you don’t end up looking like a fool.

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Read for the real story

Another way to spot fake news is maybe a bit too obvious but it’s one that many overlook: read past the headline. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of seeing an interesting statistic or one that angers you. Without thinking, you share it, not even considering to read the article in its entirety. This is a great disservice though as a headline only serves to try and sum an article. It can’t possibly convey over 1000 words in just ten.

An example is an article claiming that Sweden had banned Christmas lights to avoid offending Muslims. This was only half true as Christmas lights were indeed banned. However, this was not due to religious backlash as Elin Isaksson, coordinator at Trafikverket, told The Local “Christmas lights are usually plugged into the lampposts, and under Swedish law, Trafikverket is not allowed to give or sell power from the electric installations they own”. So not only was the Muslim angle a complete lie but Christmas lights were only banned from being plugged into the lampposts, as can be seen in the same local piece which displays some gorgeous light-works.

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Fake Is Real Danger

While it’s funny enough to joke about fake news, the reality is that frequently using the term is damaging. Now more than ever, our governments must be held accountable for their actions. In addition to this, the media seems to be less and less trusted due to certain outlets creating content without sources in order to further an agenda. As CNN’s Chris Wallace put it though, attacking the media does not create jobs. Trump’s attempt to put focus on anything other than himself is both obvious and harmful.

With the internet literally at our fingertips, it’s important to make sure that we don’t fall into this trap. Knowing how to spot it, report it and debunk it is crucial if we ever want to defeat this toxic threat. If it’s ever allowed to become the diversion that Trump and co. want it to be, it can be summed up perfectly with one word the President loves to use: SAD!

 

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