Guest Opinion: Fake news is hard to resist
Among its many charms, the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign will be remembered as the time when fake news became a real thing.
The handwringing is well underway. Did lies and hoaxes spread by bogus news outlets and by social-media sites sway a lot of voters? What should or could be done, perhaps by the likes of Facebook and Twitter, to limit the problem in the future — without endangering free speech? On this of all issues, the debate should be based on facts, and that means starting with the most basic truth about untruth: People are easily fooled.
If you need evidence of that, it’s here in the form of a study from Stanford University.
Researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Education tested students at the middle school, high school and college levels on how well they can distinguish between credible information and opinion, advertising or outright fakes on the internet.
Kids are so tech-savvy, they should be pretty good at that, right?
“We were shocked, to be honest, by how consistently poor these students did,” Joel Breakstone, director of the Stanford History Education Group, told the San Jose Mercury News. “Across the board, students really struggled. They read for content, and rarely do students consider, ‘Where does this content come from?’”
Now, in reading that, someone exercising the proper skepticism might ask if a study of students really says a lot about the media-consumption habits of the population as a whole. Kids may be too inexperienced with news and propaganda to instinctively recognize the difference. Perhaps so, but kids also may be less set in their political ways and thus less prone than, say, middle-aged people to swallow fake news that seems to confirm what we already think. So the study is worth looking at.
In a typical test, students at three universities were asked to assess the usefulness of a Twitter post from MoveOn.org saying, “New polling shows the @NRA is out of touch with gun owners and their own members,” with a link to a poll, sponsored by the Center for American Progress, suggesting NRA-opposed gun-buyer background checks are supported by most NRA members. Both MoveOn.org and the Center for American Progress are liberal groups with an ax to grind against the NRA.
Less than one-third of the students noted how the organizations’ political agendas might have influenced the content of the tweet; fewer than one-half even clicked on the link. One student said MoveOn.org must be trustworthy because it has a lot of Twitter followers.
The study found more than 80 percent of students failed to distinguish between real news content and ads labeled “sponsored content.”
Because the study began before the presidential race, it didn’t include election-related fake news. But, knowing how easily people are duped, it’s not hard to see how readers are taken in by some of the campaign-season fakery. Things like: a mock New York Times website “reporting” during the Democratic primaries that Sen. Elizabeth Warren was endorsing Sen. Bernie Sanders; a mock ABC News site “reporting” that a protester at a Donald Trump rally was paid $3,500 to make trouble; a made-up quote, spread on the internet after the election, in which Trump supposedly said in 1998 that if he ever ran for president, he’d run as a Republican because Republicans are “the dumbest group of voters in the country.”
Politicians, internet operators and traditional journalists considering what to do about fake news must be careful not to mess up the exchange of honest information and insight by trying to block the exchange of dishonest misinformation. At the same time, no one should downplay fake news’ existence and how easy it is to be fooled.
That’s a fact.