Editorial: Think before you click: Combatting fake news

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The Expositor was recently invited to participate in an online panel discussion on ‘How to Stop Fake News.’ The panel included Northwestern University’s Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, Ravi Agrawal, editor in chief at Foreign Policy; Justine Isola, head of misinformation policy at Facebook; Věra Jourová, vice-president of the European Commission; Marwan M. Kraidy, dean of Northwestern University’s Qatar campus; Annelise Riles, executive director of Northwestern University’s Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs; and Olga Yurkova, co-founder of StopFake.org.

Across the hour-and-a-half discussion, the scale and scope of the challenges facing the battle against the deliberate (and inadvertent) distribution of misinformation that has proliferated with social media was made clear—particularly by vice-president Jourová, the former Czech Republic minister for regional development who noted that as someone from a country once hidden behind the Iron Curtain, she would not last long were she to support the concept of a minister of information. Her parents cautioned her from an early age to believe nothing that came from the state-controlled news outlets.

Fake news, misinformation, spin, twisting of the truth and just plain out-and-out lying, are nothing new under the sun, as Mr. Kraidy pointed out. Even once trusted and reliable (we thought) state spokespersons from countries with the staunchest of free press traditions have long since bartered their credibility away for short-term electoral gain—“weapons of mass destruction,” anyone? Things went into totally surreal territory during the last US presidency, but this phenomenon of viral misinformation has been going on for centuries, if not millennia; social media only amplifies its spread and impact.

The most prestigious series of journalism awards across the globe, the Pulitzer Prize, actually stems from the days from which the term “yellow journalism,” the precursor to fake news, was born. Two great publishing empires of the nineteenth century, that of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, clashed for dominance of the newspaper industry, and neither let the truth get in the way of an eye-catching (and revenue generating) headline.

During the Foreign Policy panel discussion, it was noted that there are two streams through which governments and other agencies are tackling misinformation. The first is by invoking regulation that aims at discouraging misinformation (neither as effective nor as desirable in the view of Ms. Jourová and her associates at the governmental level) and the second is by countering misinformation by simply responding with facts.

The Facebook representative noted that responding to misinformation with a fact-check label has a strong impact on discouraging the spread (or shares) of that piece of information.

So what can an ordinary individual do to help stop the spread of misinformation?

First and foremost is simply checking the veracity of a news story before you click, especially (and counterintuitively) if that piece of information fits in well with your own world view. Not everything we want to believe is actually true. Take a hard look at where the information is coming from. If it appears to be from a credible news source, double check to make sure that information piece is actually coming from that source. Spoofing, the art of making things look like they are coming from a credible source, is on the rise.

One of the most important things a parent can do is to educate their child about the dangers of seeing something online and simply assuming it is true. Sadly, in the age of social media, we must all take greater steps to combat misinformation. In the process of arming our children against those who would mislead them we may raise a generation of cynics, but in the age of social media ubiquity, that is probably the lesser evil.