Luis Acebal, Ph.D.
But I’m ravenous for news, any kind of news;
even if it’s false news, it must mean something
There has been much attention paid to the extent in which fake news has permeated our news sources. There has been less attention focused on the challenges that most students face when confronted with divergent sources of information. In today’s marketplace, where information has become a commodity to maximize profit, our students are often unable to discern between propaganda and more established sources. My paper focuses on providing students with the necessary critical skills to discern between reputable sources and those that foster ambiguous language and half-truths.
Key Words: Information, Fake News, Half-truths, News Sources, Students
Se ha prestado mucha atención a la medida en que las noticias falsas han penetrado en nuestras fuentes de noticias. Se ha prestado menos atención a los desafíos que la mayoría de los estudiantes tienen cuando se enfrentan a fuentes de información divergentes. En la actualidad, donde la información se ha convertido en un producto para maximizar las ganancias, nuestros estudiantes no siempre pueden discernir entre propaganda y fuentes legitimas. Mi trabajo se enfoca en proporcionar a los estudiantes las habilidades críticas necesarias para discernir entre fuentes confiables y aquellas que fomentan un lenguaje ambiguo falso.
Palabras Clave: Información, noticias falsas, medias verdades, fuentes de noticias, estudiantes
The ways fake news has permeated all sources of information has been a topic of hot debate. There has been less attention focused on the ways that digital media has contributed to this phenomenon. In contemporary society when digital media is our primary source of information, we are constantly exposed to data that is questionable in nature. Digital media has also transformed the ways students do research.
In the past, students conducted research primarily through the library, where the majority of information was in print form. These sources were peer reviewed and underwent a rigorous review process. Prior to the emergence of digital media, the student’s primary task was to engage with the text and navigate through the interpretative process. In today’s marketplace, where information has become more of a commodity, there are numerous ways that students can be deceived into believing a source is valid when it is not. I found that a significant number of my students were unable to discern between publicity, dubious information and more established sources. They were adept at navigating between a variety of social media, such as Instagram and Facebook, but lacked the necessary skills to discern between reputable and false sources. It became clear that they had not developed their critical skills sufficiently to analyze the overwhelming news sources that they encountered.
There has always been questionable sources of information, but they are most difficult to detect in the digital age. One striking change is the emergence of sponsored or native advertising. Corporations in an attempt to increase revenues have aggressively moved into the news realm by introducing their own brand of sponsored content:
[…] native advertising is a form of converged media that is intentionally designed to blur the boundaries between a journalism organization’s editorial and advertising operations. The content is sometimes directly created by brands and marketers themselves; however, writers and editors working in news departments are sometimes involved in crafting it. Native advertising attempts to blend in with the editorial work of the host medium in terms of style and layout. (Knolls)
Historically, there has been a demarcation between the news and advertising, but these lines have been blurred. In print form, the distinction between news and advertising was easier to distinguish, but these differences are not easily discernable in digital form. The long sacrosanct barrier between the business side and the news side has disappeared in the digital age. It is now common practice among reputable news agencies to incorporate native advertising that mirrors the feel of the publication itself. With the introduction of this sponsored content, it is much easier for corporations to manipulate public opinion by presenting advertising that mimics a traditional news format. In the past, there has been a clear difference between advertising and news as a way to protect the credibility of the latter. The ability for native advertising to blend seamlessly to news content threatens the overall credibility of our news sources.
My research regarding the different ways that digital media presents itself in questionable formats began when one of my students referenced an article on gun control and included The Onion as a secondary source. The Onion is a news satire organization that has been in publication since 1988. For the first eight years of its existence, this satirical news agency published a weekly publication in print form. It was not until 1996 that The Onion began publishing satirical news in digital form. There is probably no other satirical news agency in the United States that has such a large readership. Its success is not simply based on their witty content, but their ability to create digital format that resemblances reputable news sites. With its professional layout, The Onion gives no indication that it is a satirical news site. Though a careful read of any of its articles reveals that the material is satirical, many readers have been duped. Here are a few now high-profile cases that are worth noting.
The Onion reported that the famous Apollo 11 mission with its historic first steps on the moon had been a hoax. They quoted Neil Armstrong as saying that he had been convinced that his first step on the moon was part of an elaborate hoax orchestrated by the United States government.” Two Bangladesh news agencies, The Daily Manab Zamin and The New Nation reported Armstrong’s fictitious comment as true. These news agencies later admitted that they had not realized that The Onion was a satirical news site (Taylor).
Another Onion article, “Planned Parenthood Opens $8 Billion Abortionplex,” gained immediate notoriety when Representative John Fleming, a republican from Louisiana believed the information to be true. The article reported that Planned Parenthood was opening a massive abortion facility that would provide conveyor-belt speed abortions. The whole article is humorous and yet congressional representative Fleming believed it to be true, and posted his discontent on Facebook. Fleming was recently appointed as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health Information Technology Reform in the Donald Trump administration (Horowitz).
The last example is somewhat different because The Onion referenced the California Parenting Institute, an actual organization. The article, “Study Finds Every Style of Parenting Produces Disturbed, Miserable Adults,” was clearly satirical claiming that California Parenting Institute conducted a study that revealed that all parenting styles were detrimental to the development of children. When the article first appeared, a surprising number of local residents began contacting the research center and asking about the findings. The CPI director responded to the article by expressing that, “I’m totally aware that it’s satire, but it’s spreading through the Internet and people’s blogs and where it’s coming from is getting left off and it’s looking like a news story.” There were employees at the center who wanted to know when their organization had conducted the research. In an effort to clarify the situation (Stableford).
The Onion’s satirical approach has always been the same since its inception but its transition to digital media in 1996 has allowed it to blur seamlessly the lines between real and satirical news. They currently have sections for News, Politics, Science and Technology, Entertainment, and Video. Though The Onion is well known for its satirical content, the above examples reveal some important considerations about how easily the public can be swayed to accept a false narrative. Unwittingly, The Onion has served as a model for advertising entities who have adopted similar models to market their products.
Beyond Reputable: the question of clear biases (Corporate Interests)
It is no wonder that corporate interests have been investing large sums of money into digital advertising, not only to promote their products directly, but also to influence public opinion. Digital advertising has exploded in the past decade, surpassing even traditional television for the first time in 2017 (Kafka). It is less expensive and is more adept in reaching specific audiences, as well as masquerading itself as a source of information, rather than simply an advertisement. Most large corporations have engaged in this deceptive practice, but pharmaceutical companies are one of the greatest perpetrators. Drug companies have blurred the lines between news and advertising by introducing increasingly more deceptive and unscrupulous tactics to sell their products. These advertisements often purport to provide health information regarding a medical condition, when they are actually promoting their product. In a recent study by Dartmouth College and the University of Wisconsin found that “60 percent of prescription drug ads and 80 percent of over the counter drug ads were found to be misleading or false” (Plackett). Studies such as these indicate that pharmaceutical companies knowingly make questionable claims about their products. It is more egregious when the advertising presents itself as health information instead of publicity.
One of the most effective ways for pharmaceutical companies to promote their drugs is through online publishers who provide news and information regarding health and well-being. Numerous websites provide these services, but none is as large and vast in the digital world as WebMD’s. Nearly 75 million consumers and 650,000 doctors visit their website on a monthly basis (Hubbard). The public’s perception is that WebMD is an important source of health information. However, WebMD is heavily influenced by pharmaceutical companies that promote their drugs, through their website. The promotional advertisements often masquerade as news, often times in the guise of editorials. They provide information about medical conditions and then provide remedies, which direct the consumer to their products. The medical information that WebMD posts on their website is not impartial, given that corporate sponsors heavily subsidize them.
These examples serve to demonstrate how digital technology has transformed the field of news and advertising by blurring the lines. It has also allowed us to access more information than any other time in history. Unfortunately, our ability to discern between accurate and false information has not kept pace with the different ways that digital media introduces questionable content. We are often times unprepared to navigate effectively through the myriad of information that is presented to us.
In the past decade, I began to see how digital technology influenced the ways my students conducted their research. The quality of the sources that my students began to implement in their research began to deteriorate. I attributed the shift to the “lower hanging fruit” syndrome, as one of reasons for the lower quality of the sources cited. It was much easier for my students to “google” the information they needed, rather than access professional journals or full-texts, even when they were in digital format. The second challenge was more problematic. It was becoming increasingly clear that students were having difficulty evaluating the quality and reliability of the information. I conducted an informal assessment to see if other students could be duped by a satirical news piece. I handed out the same article on gun control that my student has reference in his paper and asked them to consider the article’s newsworthiness. I was surprised to find that nearly half my students did not detect that it was a satirical piece. It was not until one student asked questions as to its veracity that others began to consider more carefully the source. I duplicated this informal experiment in my other English class, with a similar outcome.
My classroom experience aligned with two experiments that researchers from Grady College in Georgia conducted. They found that persons had difficulties distinguishing between advertising and news. In the first, consumers were asked to read two stories, one that was sponsored advertising and the other a news article. The sponsored ads were marked with a variety of labels including “presented by” or “sponsored content.” Surprisingly, only 17 persons out of 242 who were able to discern that the sponsored content was an ad (Freeman).
Given the questionable practices used in digital advertising to perpetuate deceptive information, it is more important than ever to read critically. For example, it is important to consider the website’s domain; its source. If the website is a “blogger” or “word press,” then the information is more of a personal nature, an opinion. As importantly, the claims put forth are not reviewed. The author may not have any expertise in the area and is simply expressing their beliefs on a certain topic. It is much easier in the digital age for anyone to present his or her opinions as facts by creating their own website.
An efficient way to begin evaluating the quality of a news source is by considering the title or domain. What is the website’s URL? An .edu indicates that the website is an accredited college or university, while an .org indicates a nonprofit organization, and .com or .net most likely indicates that the sponsor is for profit. If the source is a .com or .net, a review of the website’s affiliation with other commercial interests is important. It is also wise to consider the “About Us” information provided on the website. This section will provide important information as to the author’s objectives. Often times, one will be able to verify the author’s level of expertise in the field by reviewing this information. It is worthwhile to google the author or publisher. Has the author written several publications on the topic, and have other reputable sources referenced this author?
This information can also offer insights into their political orientation and their associations with other professional organizations. Based on the information that the author provides, it is important to cross check at the affiliations listed. If there is scant information about the author, it should raise concerns about the credibility of the source. It is also useful to check if the website has a “legal” or “disclaimer” section. A reputable source will have a “contact us” link, or at least post contact information.
If the website cites a study or secondary sources, it is best to follow-up by accessing this information. It is important to evaluate whether these sources are accurate and reputable. Cross-referencing, or triangulating, by checking the sources elsewhere allows for more accountability. If the information is verifiable through multiple sources, there is higher probability that it is accurate. Most credible website follow the AP Style or another style guide. If the website does not have a standard style formatting, it indicates a lack of professionalism.
It is important to consider the diction as well. Is the writing informal? Do the headlines use words such “SUPER” or “INCREDIBLE” or uses all caps? that extensively use hyperboles and superlatives tend to focus on the reader’s emotional response. Traditional and reputable sources use a more subdued, professional language and support their assertions with reputable sources, rather than attempting to convince the reader through sensationalism. Is the website attempting to provide information on a certain topic, or does it have an agenda? The author sometimes provides a rationale for writing the article. Most professional sources include a bibliography, or citations. You can google part of the text to see if they can be found elsewhere.
Well-designed websites also provide a clue as to its professionalism. Many questionable websites use poor layouts. Are the screens easy to read, or are they cluttered? The format should be such that the key points are easily presented. How readable is the text? Some questionable websites use stilted language to compensate for the lack of substance. Is the author’s argument repetitive? How current is the information? There should be a date indicated to determine the relevancy of the information.
At times, blogs can serve as forms of information, but there needs to be further research on the author. It is important to consider what formal background and experience the author has in the field. Does he have publications in the subject area? If the author does not have any verifiable credentials or background in the topic area, it would be prudent to bypass such information as simply an opinion from a private individual.
Even when the source is reliable, it is important to consider the affiliations and professional interests of the author. Most recently, I had a student who was researching the possible effects of global warming. He cited Richard Lindsen, a professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lindsen has also published in high-profile peer reviewed journals. He is the Distinguished Senior Fellow in the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute. The Cato Institute is a well-known organization with a long history as a conservative think tank. Richard Lindsen’s association with the Cato Institute does not disqualify him as a reputable source. However, the Cato Institute had received a significant amount of money from Exxon to fund research on global warming. Exxon Corporation had also paid Dr. Lindsen approximately $2500 a day as a consultant (Schwartz).
The author’s affiliation with Exxon Corporation clearly points to a conflict of interest. There were clear capitalist interests on the part of Exxon to discount recent findings regarding the adverse effects of global warming on the environment. It is not within the scope of this paper to discuss the relationship between the corporations and the way they create and disseminate news to fit their narrative. There have been numerous studies conducted in this area, such as Herman and Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.” They provide a compelling analysis of how corporations are able to control the dialogue by filtering out dissenting voices and place their private interests at the forefront of the narrative. The interests represented are primarily those of the media owners and advertisers. (Herman and Chomsky). Dr. Linden’s affiliation with Exxon serves as a case in point. Though we can argue that these sources of information fall outside the purview of what we consider fake news, they certainly have clear biases that makes us seriously question their validity.
These “corporate” sources of information often go unchallenged because they appear as objective. The authors may be credible, in that they have both the credentials and a publishing record on the topic. Those in the community who embrace that perspective also deem the publication source reliable. The quality of the writing is professional and there is adequate research to substantiate the claims. This kind of information is more sophisticated and is the most challenging to detect as suspect. For all extensive purposes, the article appears to be a presentable piece of research, with the exception that the author has been paid by corporate interests. The findings are often benefit the corporation that subsidizes it. For these reasons, it is essential to be know where the information originates and what motives the author may have in writing the article from a certain perspective.
Digital media has made it more challenging to detect unreliable sources of information.
Historically, news sources, whether they are mainstream or alternative, corporate or nonprofit, depend on a certain perspective from which a news story is narrated. News is never value free, there is always a certain ideology in both their production and content. News is not an exact representation, but we can certainly take steps to detect those sources that perpetuate false information. We can also become more aware of our media environment by approaching the digital sources we encounter with a critical eye and not accept them as truths.
- Beder, S. Global Spin: The [c] Corporate assault on environmentalism, rev. edn. Totnes, Devon, Green Books, 2002b.
- Bulik, Beth. Native advertising for pharma: Winning format or slippery slope to regulatory headaches? 6 Jan. 2016. www.fiercepharma.com/marketing/native-advertising-for-pharma-winning-format-or-slippery-slope-to-regulatory-headaches. Accessed 23 October 2017.
- Freeman, Sarah. Despite growth, native advertising is still difficult for consumers to recognize. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. 15 December 2015.
- uga.edu/despite-growth-native-advertising-is-still-difficult-for-consumers-to-recognize Accessed 6 October 2017
- Herman, E.S., and N. Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The political economy of the mass media, Pantheon Books, New York, 2002,
- Horowitz, Alana. John Fleming, Republican Congressman, Falls For Onion Planned Parenthood Joke The Huffington Post. 6 June 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com.mx/entry/john-fleming-onion-planned-parenthood_n_1257763. Accessed 23 December 2017
- Hubbard, Brian. Big Pharma takes tighter control of world’s leading ‘independent’ health websites What Doctor’s Don’t Tell You. 26 October 2017. www.wddty.com/news/2017/10/big-pharma-takes-tighter-control-of-worlds-leading-independent-health-websites.html Accessed 21 January 2018.
- Kafka, Peter. 2017 was the year digital ad spending finally beat TV. Recode. 4 December 2017 www.recode.net/2017/12/4/16733460/2017-digital-ad-spend-advertising-beat-tv Accessed 27 January 2018.
- Knolls, Stephanie. Journalist’s Resource. journalistsresource.org/studies/society/news-media/native-advertising-sponsored-content-audience-ethics-effectiveness. Accessed 14 January 2018.
- Plackett, Benjamin. Study Finds Most Drug Commercials Misleading. Inside Science. 26 September 2013.www.insidescience.org/news/study-finds-most-drug-commercials-misleading Accessed December 14 2017.
- Stableford, Dylan. Fake Onion story causes real confusion for California town 31 October 2012. yahoo.com/news/blogs/cutline/fake-onion-story-causes-real-confusion-california-town-145806545.html Accessed 21 January 2018.
- Schwartz, John. Exxon Misled the Public on Climate Change, Studies Says. New York Times. 23 August www.nytimes.com/2017/08/23/climate/exxon-global-warming-science-study.html Accessed 21 November 2017.
- Taylor, Adam. 7 Times The Onion was Lost in Translation. Washington Post. 2 Jun. 2015. washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/06/02/7 Accessed 12 January 2018.