Using Information Literacy to Fight Fake News

The issue of fake news (not a new problem) has been gaining more attention since the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, where several social media outlets were blamed for disseminating untruths. I see this as a problem of media literacy, not fake news.  Some facts:

  • Stanford University found that 80% of middle school students perceived digital news that was labeled “sponsored content,” as real news stories
  • A 2016 Pew Research Study found that 62% of adults get news through social media
  • While another Pew Research study found that 64% of adults admit that fake news contributes to widespread confusion, even while 84% feel confident that they can decipher real from fake news

There are several types of fake news, from the manipulation of media (videos, pictures, and so on) to opinion pieces circulated as fact. Doctoring a photo or video is clearly intentional, whereas a circulated opinion piece may have been shared because the reader found it interesting, not expecting the opinion to be accepted as fact.  Regardless, both scenarios are examples of fake news and require information literacy skills to separate fact from fiction. There are several common sense questions to help validate online content and several tools involving fancy algorithms removing the need for logical reasoning.  The tech tools are helpful, but like any artificial intelligence, they are not flawless. Kind of like trying to learn math through the use of a calculator, if the underlying understanding isn’t there and the technology isn’t available, then a user is out of luck  This post will have some common sense strategies, a non- exhaustive list of tech tools, and links to some interesting articles/groups.

People get their news through social media, there is no way of getting around that.  This has encouraged people to perceive shared content as truth.  Of course, anyone can post ANYTHING on social media, this content can go viral whether or not it is accurate. The Center for Media Literacy has developed five key concepts and questions for students to consider when viewing online information.  The complete list includes considering the author, format, audience, content and purpose. Although this is geared towards grade school students, these are questions worth asking at any age. The News Literacy Project also has a list of ten questions for Fake News Detection, the more red flags that exist, the more likely that the news is fake.

Both lists encourage readers to consider the source.  Authorship relates to who created the content, both the individual author and the organization that published the piece. Sharing content can make it difficult to determine the author. For instance, even if the headline says The New York Times (or another reputable news source), the information shared might be someone’s personal opinion, which makes it important to always determine both the source and the author of the piece.

Some news outlets blur the lines, the Huffington Post (HuffPost), for example is a news aggregator, as well as a community of contributors posting satire pieces like guides to racism and mock presidential Pinterest pages. Someone with an understanding of the source is better equipped to recognize the joke, but if shared on Facebook out of context, this is much harder to discern.  In addition to the author, the content is an important consideration. Whether or not the subject is believable- some stories are so outlandish that they can be dismissed straightaway, but others like the pope endorsing President Trump (then President elect) might be true and require additional research.

The article above is about Andreas Vlachos, he is part of Factmata, a company seeking to improve fact checking by making it more automated. Learning from the misinformation that swirled around the U.S. election, Factmata and similar organizations are looking to prevent similar confusion in upcoming European elections.  FirstDraftNews is a non-profit, non-partisan coalition created “…to raise awareness and address challenges relating to trust and truth in the digital age.” The site offers guides and resources for intelligently navigating the sea of online information. This post’s featured image (what you saw next to the title) is from FirstDraftNews‘ and attempts to categorize different types of “news” from information that is anti-liberal, to openly satirical, to speculation.

Facebook also has a fact check tool (and a White Paper on the subject) but I’m going to ignore it at the moment- I realize that people follow news on social media (myself included) and while it’s admirable that FB should reduce the spread of fake news, it is not their responsibility. On the other hand, Google does have a responsibility as the leading search engine.  Many people treat Google as an authoritative tool, more like a reference material than a search engine. Users depend on Google for accurate information and it is in the company’s best interests to develop algorithms to funnel the most relevant and also the most accurate search results. Google’s Fact Check tool uses nonpartisan sites (Politifact & Snopes) to check the validity of search results.  I used the Pope endorsing Trump example and I found that it worked best when framing the search as a question “did the Pope endorse Trump?” (instead of just typing “Trump and Pope”). There is also a Google Fact Checker extension that can be used for checking the validity of highlighted text.

Additional helpful extensions are Frame by Frame for YouTube, a tool that gives the user more control in slowing down a YouTube video, making it easier to notice any discrepancies (such as the Wales weather girl video where she is hit by a fish that looks to have already been gutted). Video Vault, RevEye, Distill Web Monitor, Jeffrey’s Exif Viewer, are other helpful extensions for checking online content. FirstDraftNews goes into more detail on how they can be used for verification. Extensions are useful but they can also clog a user’s search bar area, therefore bookmarking useful websites, such as, might be worthwhile. A Google search reveals many more, I would just advise checking the “about us” section of any of these sites to make sure it is a nonpartisan site, beholden to no specific group of sponsors or advertisers.

Misinformation is not a new problem and it is not going away anytime soon.  The exponential growth of online information has only added to the problem.  Information literacy is the antidote to fake news.

Happy truth hunting!



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