Seeking truth, 21st-century style

The growing popularity of 'fake news' offers an opportunity for everyone to stop, take a deep breath, and weigh the veracity of what they read online.

REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration/File Photo
People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo. Twitter users share news stories with their followers.

Recently the Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” as the international word of the year. From Britain’s “Brexit” referendum to the American presidential election, worries have grown that people are losing some common definition of what is true.

Like garden weeds, websites offering often sensationalistic and emotionally charged headlines, and spreading unfounded rumors disguised as “facts,” have sprung up and threatened to crowd out traditional news sources. Citizens seem to be as clueless about what to believe online as the Bible’s Pontius Pilate, who in trying to judge Jesus was left wondering “What is truth?”

A few years back a “fake news anchor” named Stephen Colbert on the TV comedy show “The Colbert Report” coined the term “truthiness” to describe people who’d rather believe what they want to be true and avoid information that challenges their beliefs. Fake news stories can feed these impulses.

Concerns about fake news spreading online are legitimate. More and more people are getting most, in some cases all, of their news and information from online sources, often through social channels such as Facebook or Twitter.

Censoring news or appointing some arbiter to declare what is truthful won’t work and endangers the rights of citizens to a “free press.”

So what can be done?

When going online people are already learning to guard their personal information such as passwords, financial data, and Social Security numbers. Reminders to “don’t click!” on suspicious links abound. These cautions need to extend to how people consume news and information as well. Parents should help children be discerning web users, and schools need to teach students online “media literacy.” People of all ages must learn how to avoid the tares among the wheat (to use another biblical analogy) when consuming news.

Some efforts are already under way to make lists of obvious fake news sites, many of which have no higher motive than making money by writing anything outrageous enough to attract a “click.”

Making lists of fake news sites is well-intentioned but problematic. Fake news sites can disappear quickly in one place and pop up under a new name elsewhere. More important, the list-making process itself could get list-makers into a tangle over how to decide which sites qualify.

Giving individuals tools that can help them make up their own minds about a website or shared story seems more likely to be productive. Efforts are already under way by scholars, librarians, and journalism organizations to do just that.

For example, when encountering an online story a reader could ask:

•What is the source of this information? Even a quick check of the “About” section on the site (or the absence of any such section) could be a clue to whether a story is legitimate.

•Is the site carefully edited? Fake news sites often contain frequent spelling or grammatical errors.

•Does the story or site appeal more to emotions than to thoughtful reasoning, written in a way to provoke anger, for example? That’s one hallmark of fake news.

•Is anyone else reporting this? Does the story provide links to original sources, such as a study, to back up its claims? If a story makes a claim that you haven’t heard elsewhere, take time to do some “triangulation.”

Responsible news readers can also pause before they repost an item on a social media site: A fake news headline may confirm the way you already feel on a subject, but have you read the story itself and deemed it to be well-researched and worth sharing? Passing along fake news only spreads misinformation.

More than a century ago this newspaper was founded to counteract the “yellow journalism” of its day, which made sensational or even false claims to distort the truth. Today, online news readers must be their own discerning “news editors,” rejecting the allure of the fake for a more accurate view of events.

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