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The Hidden Danger of Social Media: Fake News

By Elizabeth Osborne

Social media, for better or worse, is a part of 21st-century culture. And for America’s youth, it’s deeply ingrained in their experiences and viewpoints. They don’t know a world without Instagram, SnapChat and Google. It’s simply their reality.

Social media connects users across the world, allowing them to share ideas, thoughts and content. While the dangers of social media are prominent in teachings to youth, the entire spectrum of what exactly is dangerous may not be covered. Students are warned of sexual predators online and the consequences of posting scandalous photos or inappropriate comments. But what have we taught them about being able to discern what’s true and what’s false?

Social media has become a source of news, especially with today’s youth. This generation doesn’t buy newspapers or even visit news websites. Most metrics show that visits to the home pages of mainstream news are down considerably. Content that is shared on social media platforms, whether it is from other individual users or the media, has become the bulk of what many in our society consider news. The Pew Research Center has determined that 62 percent of adults receive the majority of news via social media. This has become the norm. So do social media platforms have a responsibility to debunk fake news? And how can educators equip students with the right skills to distinguish between truth and fiction?

Fake news isn’t new. It’s what tabloids have been pedaling for years. Social media now provides a new channel with more credibility. Consider that users may be more likely to click on a news story if it was shared by a peer, friend or family member. Because we trust others more than organizations, we are more likely to believe the accuracy of news and share it without even thinking about the source or its basis in facts.

Some fake news is simply clickbait, which means a sensational headline or image is used to drive users to a website. After you click, the actual content may have little to do with the headline. Those using fake news in this way have one objective, generating online advertising revenue.

The recent U.S. election was a gold mine for those using fake news to make money. A recent BuzzFeed News investigation found that over 140 pro-Trump websites were based in Macedonia and run by teenagers. Macedonia is a small Balkan nation that seems an unlikely place for news from the U.S., but millions of Americans clicked, shared and liked the articles from these sites, which had little to no validity. These young people have no interest in politics. Their interest is in making money.

Thus when there is money to be made, there are conflicts. FaceBook and Google have reacted to the critics about their role in publishing and promoting fake news. Google News recently allowed a false headline to be prominently featured on their page. Because Google and social media sites deliver what is shared and clicked on, the legitimacy of the content isn’t a factor. Google now says it won’t allow fake news sites to use its ad-selling software, yet details on enforcement aren’t clear. But are any of these sites in a position to become an adversary of fake news?

FaceBook has answered critics and argued that less than one percent of news published on their site is fake. Many disagree, saying that fake content is widely viewed. FaceBook uses a news feed algorithm to weed out unsubstantiated news. However, this algorithm also works to provide users with more of the same. So if you click, like or share a post like this, related content will pop up in your feed. FaceBook has proclaimed it’s not in the news business How they balance this very thin line will continue to play out, but there is no doubt that FaceBook and others like it have the ability to inform, misinform and influence readers.

Although most students don’t consider FaceBook their social media platform; it has become a site for their parents. However, FaceBook, by far the largest social media site, still has a presence in their lives. Educating students on the prevalence of fake news on the site can, in turn, help them spread awareness to adults in their lives or their communities.

BuzzFeed also launched an investigation into FaceBook news. It looked at news from mainstream media, far left sources and far right groups. The analysis found that even though the far right and far left groups weren’t fake sites, there was still plenty of falsehoods and mixes of true and misleading information. Those these types of sites don’t necessarily fall under fake news; there’s still bias and unsubstantiated information being published. So if one article has both factual and unproven parts, how will this type of article be filtered? Could the future include some kind of scale to measure truthfulness? Or maybe, it’s a new algorithm that works to verify stories. Some college students recently developed such an algorithm in a hackathon but no comment from FaceBook if it’s a viable option.

Social media doesn’t filter, or fact check what is published. It doesn’t have journalistic standards. These platforms seem to want to counter fake news and are working together to do so.  However, it’s still a bit of the wild West, and unfortunately many readers don’t have the critical thinking ability to determine what’s true.

These fake news sites play on the fears and anxieties of users. And often, the rhetoric sounds so familiar; of course, readers think it to be true. Mainstream media and journalists have even repeated some of these stories, only to later report it wasn’t true. If they aren’t fact checking then who is?

Before social media and the Internet, students writing articles or research papers needed to cite statistics, quotes, and information. There was work involved to ensure what was written was true. Now we live in a world where people simply trust anything published online. They don’t even question it. And herein is the challenge. How can educators encourage and foster investigative perspectives and a thirst for truth? Educators have a responsibility to inform and educate students on how to discern when something is based in fact, pure propaganda or simply sensational clickbait.

Here are some guidelines to use when talking to students:

  • Check the URL. It may seem like it’s a story from CNN or ABC but check carefully. Hover over before clicking.
  • Use Wikipedia as a source. Wikipedia is the world’s encyclopedia, created and updated by individuals across      the globe. Wikipedia has standards: content must be neutral, verifiable by reliable sources and can’t be      “original” thoughts. Wikipedia even has an Education Program, encouraging students and educators to      contribute.
  • Search for the story using Google or another search domain. Is the story on multiple sites? Is there proof      already that it’s been debunked.
  • Use a fact checker site like Snopes.
  • Consider the source and investigate it. Is it legitimate?

Students need to be prepared for the “real” world. And that real world may contain a lot of falsehoods. They must be empowered to be curious and inquisitive toward headlines and stories that appear to have unsupported angles. Students need to understand that real journalists have ethical standards and objectivism, something completely devoid in the world of fake news. There are real dangers in the digital world; some are readily apparent, but it’s the seemingly benign that can ultimately do the most damage. Prepare your students for a bright future, one in which they have the tools to recognize truth over deception.

Beth Osborne is a professional writer, marketer, and blogger. She spent multiple years writing about challenges for K-12 administrators and how to overcome them. She holds a B.A. in English and an MBA in Marketing. Both her mother and grandmother spent decades as public educators. Read her blog, follower her on Twitter or contact her at bethfosborne@gmail.com.

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