It’s time, if not past time, for some new rules about sharing news articles found on the internet, for it has gotten increasingly hard to tell fact from fiction. The chief new rule is “Double or triple check a story before you share it.” While social media has its good points, a major bad point is that it has made it increasingly easy for people to spread stories that aren’t true.
On Sunday, for example, Donald Trump told his followers on Twitter that “Twitter, Google and Facebook are burying the FBI criminal investigation of Clinton.” Around 25,000 of his followers retweeted it and about 50,000 “liked” it. A simple visit to the sites in question would have quickly proven the falsity of Trump’s assertion, however. Google News listed the FBI email investigation as their top story, while Facebook had James Comey’s name at the top of their trending box. Twitter also displayed the story prominently. So, no, they were not burying it.
As might be guessed, social media sites are particularly unreliable news sources. That should probably not be a surprise, for most people visit such sites for fun. Sharing stories is part of that fun, and many people do not let facts get in the way of a good or entertaining story. In fact, untrue stories are more likely to be shared than true stories.
Other websites exist simply to attract attention and readers by posting stories of dubious veracity. Many of them are political sites that serve only to reinforce the biases of their readers. “Buzzfeed” conducted a study comparing political websites and Facebook pages to see which ones posted the most bogus stories.
The researchers used an admittedly small sample of nine websites. Three were moderate, three were left-wing and three were right-wing. They examined all the posts published during seven weekdays (September 19 – 23 and September 26-27), giving them a total of 2282 posts. The researchers collected 1415 posts from the moderate sites, 666 from right-wing sites and 471 from left-wing sites.
After fact-checking the posts, the researchers divided them into several categories. Opinion pieces, satires and the like were classed as having “no factual content.” Posts about news were divided into three categories: “mostly true,” “mixture of true and false,” and “mostly false.” The results showed that mainstream sites were far less likely to publish false stories than any of the political sites. The right-wing sites posted more false stories than did the left-wing sites.
Neither social media nor political websites are going away. Readers therefore need to learn how to sort the trustworthy from the untrustworthy. Alex Howard of the Sunlight Foundation tweeted some tips for would-be fact-checkers:
• Search the source link on Twitter
• Google it
• Check Snopes
• Consider the record of the source
On his Twitterfeed, Howard has also recommended an e-book called the “Verification Handbook” that provides more detailed instructions on how to fact-check a story.
Snopes is a website that was established in 1994. It began life as a site that examined and debunked urban legends and has since expanded its role to fact-checking news, internet rumors and so forth. The site has never been affiliated with any political or religious group.
The Sunlight Foundation is an organization that seeks to make government and politics more accountable and transparent. Its members want people to have more information so they can take part more effectively. The Foundation has existed since 2006. It originally concentrated on Congress, but has expanded its concerns to local, state, federal and even international affairs.