Dismantling Disinformation, Part 3: The “Fake” News Media?

More than half of U.S. adults think journalists should be the ones to solve America’s disinformation problem.

Dylan Fabris
Dec 21, 2020 · 5 min read
Banner: Icons for government, social media, news media, and nonprofits on an amber background. News media is highlighted.
Graphic by Olivia Velten-Lomelin

This article is part three in a series about how different groups can prevent the harmful effects of disinformation. Read part one, about governments, here, and part two, about social media companies here.

Americans are losing trust in traditional news media. The constant barrage of fake news and disinformation is leaving many worried about the quality of information being spread about important topics like COVID-19. On top of that, some bad actors are abusing Americans’ relatively high trust in local news sources by creating fake local news websites to spread lies and biased talking points. These disinformation attacks have many sources, and most Americans don’t blame journalists for creating the disinformation problem. However, more than half of U.S. adults believe that journalists are the ones who should fix it. So, what can the news media do to stop the spread of made-up news and disinformation?

Concept map diagram: Combating fake news: A. Preemptive, B. Immediate, C. Long term. Collaboration between Gov, Tech, & NGOs.
Graphic by Olivia Velten-Lomelin; Adapted from Haciyakupoglu et al.

News organizations must take certain preemptive, immediate, and long term measures if they want to help stop the spread of disinformation. Preemptively, news organizations can prepare for disinformation by creating fact-checking sections on their websites. While some publications choose to show some editorial bias in their content, it is important that fact-checking columns remain as neutral as possible to gain trust with all readers. These sections can be permanent additions to their publications like The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column or PolitiFact, which was originally a project of the Tampa Bay Times.

Alternatively, publications can take an issue-focused approach by specifically setting up a system to check falsehoods related to certain important events, like elections. The Washington Post, for example, is maintaining a running list of election-related disinformation. Similarly, USA Today has been updating a page full of coronavirus disinformation since March. By predicting which events (like elections, censuses, and crises) may need to be fact-checked with a closer eye, publications can prepare ahead of time to ensure that they have strategies in place to call out falsehoods and compile an accessible list for people to easily find the truth. Once an issue-focused fact-checking project is done, publications should consider turning them into longer-term projects — both Fact Check and PolitiFact started as election-year projects in 2007, but have since been converted into permanent features.

After preemptively setting up fact-checking resources, publications must immediately respond to viral disinformation. If a particular lie is trending, publications should post links to fact-checking articles on social media with relevant hashtags, so people looking to learn more can quickly and easily find the truth.

If fake local news websites are discovered, legitimate local news organizations should quickly and firmly denounce the site and expose its true creators. In 2019, the Lansing State Journal did just that, reporting on the existence of almost 40 fake news websites, which were created to look like local print newspapers’ sites. In reality, they were part of a network of websites created to spread deceptive, algorithmically-generated news stories.

A screenshot of  Lansing Sun’s website, which appears to be a legitimate news site.
This may look like a screenshot of a local news website, but it is really one part of a centralized network of over 1,000 publications which publish algorithmically-generated news stories with a conservative bias. Source: Lansing State Journal; Screenshot of Lansing Sun homepage on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019.

Legitimate news sources can still play a part in spreading misinformation. Publications must take certain long term steps to ensure that their stories are accurate and helpful to the communities they serve. To achieve this, news organizations should try to educate their audience while simultaneously changing their norms internally. One of these internal changes should be to educate journalists about science and research. Often, journalists will take a single study and turn it into a sensational news article without fully reading the study or checking its validity. That’s how we end up with so many articles with dubious headlines like “Smelling flatulence could help you live longer, scientists claim.” Publications should ensure that all journalists — especially those covering scientific research — are qualified to dive deeper into the research they are reporting on and able to weigh the costs and benefits of publishing those articles before the research can be peer-reviewed by other experts.

Fifteen educational YouTubers play a game of Telephone to demonstrate how news reports about scientific studies can sometimes end up saying something totally different from the original study.

News organizations must also take into account the historical, political, economic, and social contexts of the environment in which they are reporting. By acknowledging the struggles of marginalized communities, news organizations can gain more trust from the members of those communities. This year has seen a flood of disinformation targeting people of color. If publications acknowledge past and present biases while building diverse newsrooms that are representative of the communities they serve, news organizations can build trust with members of marginalized groups and ensure that these groups do not remain vulnerable to hostile disinformation attacks.

Finally, journalists should not simply report the news, they should also try to educate their audience whenever appropriate. The internet is an interactive medium, so news websites should make the most of that interactivity. True/false quizzes, like this one about mail in ballots, can help readers understand where their assumptions are incorrect. As our worlds become ever more cluttered with information, news organizations will need to become creative teachers to help ensure that the public can tell the difference between what’s real and what’s fake.

In the next article in this series, we will take a closer look at what nonprofit organizations can do to help fight disinformation attacks online.

To learn more about fact-checking in the age of digital disinformation, check out Miriam Attal’s series about AI-driven automated fact-checking systems.

More from this series:

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Dylan Fabris

Written by

University of California, Santa Cruz, 2020 — Politics • Research and Marketing Intern at humanID

humanID

humanID offers an entirely private and secure Sign In solution for apps and websites across iOS, Android and the web. humanID is nonprofit, open source and part of the Bluenumber Foundation. We will use this space to post regular updates for the wider community.