Fake news was the real winner of the 2016 election. Virtually nobody came out unscathed by the profusion of nonsense, harmless and otherwise, that filled social media over the course of the election cycle. And as the gunman who shot up a pizza parlor over the fake #PizzaGate scandal which somehow involved Hillary Clinton and human sacrifices proved, this stuff has real-world consequences beyond simply making you want to take folders of factual sources to family reunions to give to Aunt Judy. The problem? The incoming administration doesn't appear to be anti-fake-news. Indeed, they seem to be fostering their own version to fit their purposes. And that's a dangerous thing we need to work out how to fight.
In a world where access to facts on various issues may soon be at a premium and trust in traditional sources is at an all-time low, how can we cope with fake news, whether by protecting other people from it or by sorting the truth from fiction for yourself?
Being a sensible person with your head screwed on helps. Always looking to the sources helps. Checking and rechecking helps. And there are other mechanisms, too -- ones that might help you survive four years of general manipulation of the everyday.
Why Battling Fake News Is So Necessary
We've been talking about fake news for years. A 2013 study, for instance, looked at how Stephen Colbert's satirical persona on The Colbert Report influenced trust and knowledge in the news. (The fact that fake news was once confined to deliberate satire shows and The Onion feels very long ago now.) But increasingly, trust in traditional news media across America has dropped to all-time lows, with a Gallup poll in September 2016 finding that only 32 percent of the people surveyed had a fair or great amount of trust in the media. Add to that the prevalence of falsified news and the ongoing conversations about how social media institutions like Facebook should or could combat it, and growing worries about the new Trump administration's preference for "alternative facts" instead of verifiable information, and you have a firestorm in which picking out what actually happened today becomes increasingly difficult.
This isn't a small matter, either. The World Economic Forum's Global Future Council on Human Rights is looking at fake news as a matter of urgency, in recognition of the spread of fake information as a potential tool for propaganda, panic, and extremism. It's not as easy as "getting everybody to cite their sources," as Sean Spicer's press conference at the White House about voter fraud, in which he vaguely referenced "studies" that were either irrelevant or debunked, proves. Sometimes sources can appear logical and reputable while concealing problems, or have since been superseded by more perfect information, or reference conditions that no longer exist (or simply aren't applicable).
Can We Inoculate People Against Fake News?
An interesting new idea specifically about fake news around climate change has just come out of Cambridge and Yale. Climate change information is currently at the center of a storm in America, as the Environmental Protection Agency has been ordered to remove its climate change page and all research attached to it, and a National Parks Twitter feed "went rogue" for several hours with climate change statistics in protest of an apparent gag order from the White House. (The Tweets have since been deleted, but a collection of anonymous self-proclaimed National Parks workers have set up an "alternative" feed in their spare time to continue to spread climate change awareness. It's a supremely odd and terrifying scandal, and it's only January.)
Keeping the public aware of proper climate change information, including the basic fact that no, it's not a hoax, is a key part of the battle to fight its environmental effects. Fake news about the issue, including the idea that it's a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese (thanks, Donald), is highly damaging. So how can we fight it?
The scientists discovered something interesting: the idea of a possible "inoculation" against fake news. They focused on one of the biggest lies from climate change deniers, that scientific opinion isn't actually agreed upon it (it is). They found that showing people a misinformation campaign about climate change and then a factual presentation on it "cancelled out." People didn't shift their opinions at all. (Frustrating.) Then they used what they call a "psychological vaccine," in two types. One was a "general" one, warning that "some politically-motivated groups use misleading tactics to try and convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists." The other was a "detailed" one that picked apart the misinformation campaign pretty decisively.
Showing people the general vaccine influenced a 6.5 percent shift in favor of the genuine climate change message. The detailed vaccine influenced a whopping 13 percent shift. And, interestingly, the scientists found that the vaccines "were equally effective in shifting the opinions of Republicans, Independents and Democrats in a direction consistent with the conclusions of climate science."
What You Can Do To Combat It
If you want to argue the point with Uncle David on Facebook for hours, you may have better uses for your time. And an interesting new tool might help you out. Hoaxy, the brainchild of the Observatory on Social Media at Indiana University, has been conceived as a way of tracking how various claims manage to spread through social media and other forms of communication, and what organizations are debunking them. One fake news story about a lying climate change scientist, for instance, shows its origins in a single Tweet from a non-reputable source. It's a way to judge accuracy via debunking, and see how fast various stories are spreading.
Tools from both Google and Facebook to provide fact-checking on various news stories are also in preparation across the U.S. and Canada, though it's as yet unclear how they'll function in full. As trust in news remains embattled, it's likely going to be a long slog to understand and verify the information coming at us from all directions.