What you need to know about fake news

by Jesse Goodwin, Staff Writer

In recent weeks, some pundits have speculated that false news stories shared in the run-up to the presidential election may have influenced its results.

Most of these stories are published by websites that intentionally distribute misinformation to readers in order to drive traffic from social media. They overwhelmingly favor President-elect Donald Trump, bearing sensational headlines that make false claims such as “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President” and “Donald Trump Protester Speaks Out: ‘I Was Paid $3,500 To Protest Trump’s Rally.’”

Such stories have continued to circulate since the election results were declared, especially on Facebook. Most recently, a story claiming that Ford Motor Co. had decided to move its truck production from Mexico to Ohio after Trump won the presidency went viral on Facebook after it was published on Nov. 16. It was actually based on a CNN report from August of last year, long before Trump was declared the Republican nominee for President.

The influence of these stories was noted by BuzzFeed editor Craig Silverman, who analyzed the top-performing news stories from the three months leading up to the election. He compared the 20 top-performing stories from so-called “fake news” websites with the 20 top-performing stories from mainstream news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, and NBC News.

The 20 stories from fake news websites generated over 8 million shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook, while the 20 stories from mainstream news websites generated a total of more than 7 million shares, reactions, and comments.

Silverman’s study also noted the partisan slant of both fake and mainstream news. Nearly all of the 20 fake news stories favored Trump, while several of the 20 mainstream news stories favored Hillary Clinton. But the mainstream stories were more truthful, including an opinion piece from a former CIA director who endorsed Clinton and a pro-Clinton analysis of Trump’s various scandals, such as the recently settled Trump University lawsuits.

Many fake news websites are operated by satirists like Paul Horner, who has made a career of writing false news stories. He became well known in 2014 when a piece that claimed he was British graffiti artist Banksy went viral.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Horner expressed regret for helping proliferate fake news, which he believes helped Trump win the presidency. “I thought they’d fact-check it, and it’d make them look worse,” he said. “I mean that’s how this always works: Someone posts something I write, then they find out it’s false, then they look like idiots. But Trump supporters—they just keep running with it! They never fact-check anything! Now he’s in the White House. Looking back, instead of hurting the campaign, I think I helped it. And that feels [bad].”

As reports continue to indicate the growing influence of fake news online, Facebook has faced criticism for allowing it to circulate. After CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a post that the suggestion that fake news influenced the election was “a pretty crazy idea,” the resulting backlash prompted him to write a later post clarifying, “We have already launched work enabling our community to flag hoaxes and fake news, and there is more we can do here.”

An unofficial “task force” of Facebook employees has formed to confront the issue, with one saying that “fake news ran wild on our platform during the entire campaign season.” When the Wall Street Journal reported that Google would begin banning fake news websites from its advertising program, Facebook began banning the sites from its own advertising program, the Audience Network. However, this will not prevent fake news from showing on the News Feed.

Do you know someone who shared a fake story?

Photo Courtesy: Bloomberg

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