When a gunman walked into a Washington, D.C., pizza joint recently and fired off a round, fortunately no one was injured. But the incident did highlight the problems associated with the growing influence of fake news on the Internet at the moment. In this case the guman was motivated by a completely unsubstantiated news story connecting the Democratic party to a pedophile ring operating out of the restaurant.
During the recent election cycle, a number of other fake news stories also went viral. These included claims that the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump, that Hillary Clinton had sold weapons to ISIS and that an FBI agent died by suicide in connection with the investigation into Clinton’s private e-mail server. The Huffington Post reports that Americans are likely to believe fake news headlines 75 percent of the time, citing an Ipsos poll conducted for BuzzFeed after the election.
How should students deal with this new phenomenon? When researching a paper, how can you make sure the sources you’re quoting from are reliable? It’s a challenge that members of Bowdoin’s library staff have been seriously addressing. College Writer and Multimedia Producer Tom Porter recently spoke with Social Sciences Research and Instruction Librarian Beth Hoppe, who has created a student-focused research guide on this issue called “Fake or Fact,” and Humanities and Media Librarian Carmen Greenlee.
TP: How much of a problem is fake news in the world of academe?
CG: It’s something students have to be aware of. In the last three weeks, for example, we’ve helped a couple of students who have found materials, while researching reports, that they wanted to cite in their papers. They looked like reports from NGOs associated with the UN, but on closer examination, they were nothing of the kind. The students were happy we figured out they were fake before the professor did!
TP: What are the different types of fake news sources out there?
BH: One variety is news that’s just not real, like pizzagate story you mentioned. These stories are completely made up. There are also the clickbait articles: These are exaggerated, not well researched, and make claims that can’t be supported by any kind of evidence. There’s also satire, which in many cases people take at face value.
CG: There’s also statistical information.
BH: Yes statistics are a great way you can get lied to. The numbers may look right, but someone may have worked some magic on them to make them tell the story they want to tell.
TP: What kind of help are you offering to students?
BH: We have our research guide, which recently went live and is available through the library website. Also there’s the work that we librarians do with students on a regular basis. Our goal is to encourage them to question everything.
CG: And to think critically, making 100 percent sure of your citations. Citations and citation management are two of the most important ways for a student to verify the information they find.
TP: And this can be done as easily as Googling the information source and writing fake news next to it?
BH: Absolutely. Often if you dig a little deeper than what you see, you can find out there’s nothing beyond the fake news story; or, alternatively, you may find out who really is behind it. Just scratching beneath the surface can cause things to fall apart pretty quickly.
CG: The research guide also shows some sites students can go to for help. We have links there to places that students know, like snopes.com and politifact. Also some of the larger newspapers, like the New York Times and Washington Post, are now linking their fact-checking operations to the online, digital versions of their papers.
TP: Can we look at the URL for clues?
BH: Yes. Fake news can often be found on sites that may look legitimate at first glance, but if you pay attention you can see they’re false. For example, a lot of fake news has come from a site called abc.com.co. It’s important to pay attention to what you’re seeing.
TP: It sounds like good, old-fashioned newspapers or magazines, that you hold in your hand, are more reliable?
CG: In some cases, but not always. For example in Myanmar, or Burma, a lot of fake news has helped stoke violence against minorities, and some of it is actually distributed in printed form. There’s a newspaper there called The Internet, where a lot of fake news is printed.
TP: So the fake news industry is a global phenomenon?
BH: Yes, it can come from anywhere. Consider the town of Veles in Macedonia—population 43,000— where the AP has reported there are many, many teenagers producing fake news stories. You have to realize, there’s a monetary incentive for this. According to Google Analytics, teenage gangs in this little Macedonian community can produce 650 thousand hits a day for just one site.
Listen to an Beth Hoppe and Carmen Greenlee being interviewed on WBOR Radio
On Friday December 9, 2016, Beth Hoppe was featured on Maine Public’s radio call-in program, Maine Calling, which tackled the issue of fake news. Click here to listen. (Hoppe’s comments come about half way through the show.)