How to combat the fake-news phenomenon


A recent study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers concluded that “fake news” — that is, fabricated stories — raced across Twitter much “farther, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.”

The researchers reviewed more than 126,000 stories tweeted millions of times between 2006 and 2016. The most recent year included the presidential campaign that led to the election of President Donald Trump, who consistently refers to rigorously reported stories that he wants to discredit as “fake news.”

This isn’t another screed against Trump. Rather, it is an appeal to our readers to carefully vet their news sources — and the stories they produce — so they can make informed, intelligent decisions in a democratic society such as ours. The ability to access — and trust — information nourishes our minds and fortifies the democratic system we cherish.

Sunshine Week, which celebrates the Freedom of Information Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, was held this year March 11-17. FOIA grants all citizens access to government documents. It is during this week that we take a moment each year to reflect on the current state of the news industry. Clearly, journalists need to do a better job of educating the public about the difference between real and fake news.

The MIT study, which was funded by Twitter, found that the average untrue story took about 10 hours to reach 1,500 Twitter users. By comparison, it took 60 hours for an accurate story to reach the same number of users. On average, fake news reached 35 percent more people than real news.

This is dangerous in a democracy, where information is the coin of the realm. Americans think of themselves as an educated people who pass our history, culture and traditions down to younger generations. What exactly are we passing down to them in this age of technology? How to lie? That to be accurate is unimportant?

Fake news stories are often alluring packages that are designed to pique curiosity or provoke anger — and thus attract widespread attention. But as Sinan Aral, a co-author of the MIT study, found, “It’s easy to be novel when you make things up.”

It can be difficult to discern real from fake news these days. Truth is so often stranger than fiction of late. That is why it’s important that people read and watch widely. Seek your information from multiple, credible sources.

If you spot a juicy-sounding article on social media and your gut is telling you that it might be fake, check out the news organization’s own website. If you find the story there, you can feel assured that it’s true and correct — or, at least, that it’s real, and not fake, news. In short, don’t just share or retweet an article on social media — particularly a crazy-sounding one — without vetting it first.

At the same time, understand the difference between objective, fact-based reporting and subjective opinion columns. Columns reflect on the news, but they are not the news.

Clearly, there is a rapidly growing need for classes in news literacy, which Howard Schneider, dean of the Stony Brook University School of Journalism, says should be taught at K-12 schools and universities across the state. “Journalism is under fire today for a number of reasons,” Schneider told innovateli.com. “One, the hyper-partisanship in this country has resulted in such polarization that people don’t want to believe what’s true anymore. Instead, they tend to blame the news media for giving them information they don’t like, for bad news and for news that offends their sensibilities or presumptions.”

Three Long Island school districts are teaching a version of SBU’s news literacy program in their high schools, Schneider said, and a Coney Island middle school is providing sixth- to eighth-graders with an hour of news literacy instruction every week.

The truth remains the truth, however, and accuracy in reporting is critical, especially in a democracy. We should all, therefore, make a concerted effort to ferret out fake news. At the same time, we must never abandon reliable news organizations. They are the glue that binds our society together.