The good news about fake news

By Nathan Clarke

What happened in 2016? Well, North Korea’s Dear Leader (Kim Jong-il) was voted the sexiest man alive (of course). The selfie shoe took over from the selfie stick. And who could forget the studies proving that Santa causes childhood obesity.

So what really happened in 2016? Well, clearly fake news rose and rose. Each of these popular fake news stories caused a stir last year and fake news, or “post-fact” or “truthiness” as it’s also known, pretty much became a genre, as bulldust was blasted widely through our social media feeds.

With more than 50 per cent of Australians getting news via social media each week, and one in 10 relying on social networks as their main source of news, we have an emerging danger. And it’s fast approaching when you consider Australia’s younger audience that’s arguably a little less discerning than older generations when it comes to news gathering.

The Huffington Post (known for not publishing fake news) reports that in the final three months before the US Presidential election, the 20 top-performing fake news stories on Facebook outperformed the 20 top-performing factual stories from 19 major media outlets in terms of engagement. That’s significant.

Like all online content, fake news is designed to drive website traffic and social media engagement with the organisation posting the content. Through increasing its reach, click-throughs and impressions, the organisation can ultimately increase its revenue through higher demand for advertising and paid content on its channels.

And while fake news is not new, the format and reach of it is. Today it’s easier than ever for a reader to scan a headline on Facebook, hit share and watch all their friends spread the story.  Indeed even we “citizen journalists” can easily make stuff up and watch it spread.

A former colleague in political circles contacted me recently about an exclusive story he’d read that explained the reason Hillary Clinton wasn’t seen on election night. It was because she was on a plane to Qatar, apparently fleeing the US to avoid legal persecution from a newly elected Trump administration. Turns out both he and the story were full of crap.

Unfortunately this example is not uncommon.

But while the present day picture is pretty bleak and fake news is annoying, perhaps its proliferation  is presenting some silver lining – maybe even good news.

Firstly, the big tech companies who end up publishing a lot of fake news, are slowly waking up to the problem. Facebook and Google have announced they’ve begun proactively weeding out fake news. They’ve committed to an extraction of fake news from our feeds and preventing those creating fake news from accessing advertising services.

Secondly, the spread of fake news has contributed to the rise of fact-checking websites. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism reports independent fact-checkers are establishing all around the world – 50 in the past two years alone.

Thirdly, and probably best of all, fake news is forcing us all to grow up a little and question what we read, believe and share with others.

And so with that in mind, here are five quick tips for thinking critically about online content and sorting out the fake news from the real news.

  1. Read past the headline to the story content.
  2. Be selective of your news sources – check the URL of the site to make sure you know who is publishing the story.
  3. Look out for questionable quotes and pictures – things that just don’t add up.
  4. Do a quick check to see if other prominent news outlets are also reporting the story.
  5. Read critically – always question if what you’re reading is absolute.

With this approach, Australian audiences – young and old – and news sharing organisations might just contribute to the rise and rise of real news, which is a good news for the news industry.