Check your sources: how fake news spreads so easily on social media

By Savana Dunning

UT freshman Ethan Cavazos has seen how fake news circulates on social media first hand.

“People will be like, ‘Donald Trump’s favorite color is yellow’ and it’ll have one-thousand retweets and it’s like no, If you just do a quick fact search you will find that his favorite color is killing Hispanics,” Cavazos said jokingly.

The spread of misinformation through social media websites that Ethan is referring to is a familiar topic in the on going national conversation about fake news. While the internet has allowed people to consume more information at a faster rate than ever, it also has made misinformation harder to detect.

“What we need to remember is that misleading information has been around forever but now it’s very easy to create things that look real that travel at the speed of light,”Julie Smith, Webster University communications professor and media literacy expert, said. “Because in many cases we’re more interested in what we believe than what is true, we’re more likely to share things without checking.”

The younger generation of adults, what some call the Millennial Generation, have grown up with the internet and many use it to get their news. According to a 2016 study by Pew Research Center, half of American young adults aged between 18 and 29 get their news from online sources. In 2015, The American Press Institute said 88 percent of young adults consume news on Facebook at least occasionally.

UT Journalism Professor Paula Poindexter said that one of the biggest problems with using platforms like Facebook for news consumption is that the source of this information is so hard to pinpoint.

“Where you’re getting the news from matters,” Poindexter said in a press conference for News Engagement Day. “And if you’re getting the news from a place that is credible then you should be in good shape, of course you should still be skeptical and check multiple sources, but if you’re reading news and you have no idea where this came from and you’re believing it, then it is a very serious problem.”

Economics senior Susan Lu has encountered this source verification issue when interacting with her friends as well.

“I have had a lot of friends send me links to news articles and then I find out the website that they got it from is a variant of The Onion or something,” Lu said.

The Millennial Generation is not the only generation with this problem. A Pew Research Center study done in 2015 suggests that Millennials are equally as trusting and mistrusting of various news sources as Generation X and Baby Boomers are.

“I think that, at least people my age, I’m 49, we have grown up thinking that whatever’s on a screen is real because we didn’t grow up in an era where we could create things to put on the screen, whereas you all have been creating things for the screen all the time, so you know that if you see something on a screen, you can tell if it is created by CNN or the Washington Post or Joe Schmoe down the street” said Smith.

Both Poindexter and Smith call on media outlets to increase transparency by informing readers on how their news is reported on in order to combat fake news. Poindexter claimed that the lack of transparency in news reporting is a serious threat to the trustworthiness of mainstream news, which has seen a constant decline in the public eye for years.

“All of this just leaves the public in the dark and because it leaves the public in the dark it’s really hard for the public to trust what you’re doing,” said Poindexter.

This rise in distrust in legacy news organizations like The New York Times and the Washington Post has led to the rise in alternative yet dubious news content online.

According to Smith, the responsibility is on the media consumer to determine whether or not the information they are receiving from the internet is valid and to educate their peers on media literacy.

“We can’t change the sender of the message, we can’t change the message, though we can educate the receivers,” said Smith. “The best internet filter we have is between our ears.”

Cavazos, someone who actively consumes news online several times a day, shares this sentiment.

“I read and hear things with a sense of healthy skepticism. I need things to be fact checked, obviously,” Cavazos said. “I try not to believe things the first time because more often than not I’ll find that it’s not the complete truth.”