How Fake News Spreads and What We Can Do About It

Is it time to extend extreme vetting to the world of online news?

By Laura RiceNovember 20, 2016 9:40 pm, ,

The day after Donald Trump was elected president, Nov. 9, a Twitter user posted a picture of a few charter buses in downtown Austin, along with a now-deleted message: “Anti-Trump protestors in Austin today are not as organic as they seem. Here are the buses they came in. #fakeprotests #trump2016 #austin.”

Despite the Twitter user only having about 40 followers, it was only a matter of hours before the story went viral. A popular Reddit feed picked it up, so did conservative web-forum the “Free Republic”, and then the president-elect, himself, tweeted about professional protesters.

Only one problem – the tweet wasn’t factual. The busses were in town chartering attendees of a software conference. But at this point, it didn’t much matter. The story, shared so many times over social media, had taken on a life of its own.

This isn’t the only case of fake news gone viral in the days before and after the election. So how does this type of information spread? And how can the general public discern fact from fiction on the internet?

Tony Pederson, professor and chair of the journalism department at Southern Methodist University, says many people are searching for any bit of information that serves their political point of view.

“That gets blown up and magnified in the digital realm,” Pederson says. “It starts with one person and sharing it between friends and contacts. And then it gets picked up and organizations are looking for this sort of tidbit of information all the time. And then once it gets into an organization with thousands of followers, it goes viral and the growth of it and the element of communication that occurs in just a few minutes is really quite explosive.”

News outlets recommend their reporters and the public look for two sources of information or more to verify whether news in fake or not, but Pederson says there’s also a point where a rumor becomes news in and of itself.

“The vetting process has completely fallen by the wayside in a lot of news organizations,” he says. “When the rumor itself is news – regardless of whether that rumor has any basis in fact – then the spread of that rumor becomes simply a part of the news cycle.”

So what’s the solution?

“The only fix is really a certain amount of media literacy that just doesn’t exist in the general public right now,” Pederson says. “That’s taking with a grain of salt just about anything you read on Facebook or Twitter or any of the other social networks. … Go back to the mainstream news organizations that have credibility, and that have a history of vetting news, and have a history of telling and communicating news that has a real basis in fact.”

Post by Beth Cortez-Neavel.