Fake news is big news these days, and many want to know how not to be duped by it.
On one level, the solutions are a matter of common sense.
“First, you look for verification,” said James Black, assistant director of the Center for Collaborative Journalism and professor of writing in the media at Mercer University.
Christianity Today published more tips, including not posting items whose authenticity is disproven or that cannot be verified.
“If it is true and helpful, post it,” the magazine advised.
But fighting the surging wave of fake news is going to take a lot more than smarts. Often anonymously created and easily spread throughout social media – and beyond when traditional media picks it up – it is likely here to stay.
And its very nature makes it nearly impossible to eradicate.
Fake news originates mainly from websites that publish misinformation, hoaxes and propaganda. Their false information is initially disseminated through social media. Eventually, some of it becomes the stuff of news reports and personal conversation.
Even those originating websites can be confusing and misleading, Black said. Some are named after major news networks – requiring readers to carefully examine the URLs.
The profit motive also assures the continuation of fake news, he said. While sometimes politically motivated, many of its creators generate memes and articles designed to drive web traffic to their sites, thus earning them revenue from advertisers.
“Fake news is an internet phenomenon where people make money by spreading information,” he said.
That keeps it going and growing.
But so do deeply ingrained human habits.
“We are always more prone to believe things we agree with,” he said.
An individual who supports a certain cause will be more likely to believe, and then read and share, a post that affirms their stance. They in turn will be more skeptical of information contradicting their viewpoints.
“Everyone has their predisposed idea of what reality is,” he said. “We are always drawn to information that reinforces that.”
The confusion increases when factual information is viewed, and denounced, as phony by some.
Rumor-busting website Snopes and traditional media outlets are portrayed as false news creators, Black said.
“This is not a game we’re playing. When the integrity of the church gets undermined, the reliability of the gospel message gets called into question.”
“They’ll say ‘if you agree with Snopes, you must be liberal leaning,” he said. “We have such distrust for the media right now.”
In his Christianity Today article about fake news, Karl Vaters said Christians should be the last people falling for, and spreading, misinformation online – intentionally or unintentionally.
“We need to be rigorous about our fact-checking,” Vaters writes. That goes for sermons and conversations.
“This is not a game we’re playing,” he said. “When the integrity of the church gets undermined, the reliability of the gospel message gets called into question.”
However, Black said even a strong desire to stay away from false news is often not enough.
“We are all gullible. All of us,” he Black said. “Some of us are more gullible than others.”
That, too, has always been the case and is unlikely to change.
“There has always been false information within the marketplace of ideas,” he said. “There always will be.”