Could “fake news” be a blessing in disguise?

BOSTON – Everybody’s talking about “fake news,” but not everyone likes the term.

Some prominent voices in the worlds of science and journalism expressed their disdain for phrase in a panel session on the Saturday of the 2017 AAAS Annual Meeting.

“It is not a good term, at least for many of us in real news,” said Seth Borenstein, senior science writer at the Associated Press. “When you see these fake reports, they are not news. You are giving them the credence of reality of truth by tossing the word ‘news’ on there.”

Borenstein said people should leave out the word “news” and simply call these reports “fake.”

Daniel Kahan, Professor of Law and Psychology at Yale, went further in his disdain for fake news.

“This is a cancer,” Kahan said. “A cancer on the body of enlightened democracy. It’s something that should be taken very seriously.”

The AP has gone further in its attempts to eliminate fake news by partnering with Facebook to fact check potential false news posts.

If enough Facebook users flag a post as fake, it will be passed onto five third-party organizations to be fact-checked. Those organizations include ABS News, AP, FactCheck.org, Politifact and Snopes.

Facebook said in a news release that if a story is identified as fake, there will be a link to a corresponding article explaining why it has been flagged. However, users will still be able to view and share these posts.

The Washington Post also increased its efforts to extinguish fake news with an extension for Twitter named RealDonaldContext, which identifies if Trump’s tweets are false.

Neither of these attempts will eliminate fake news from being published, and there are skeptics questioning the effectiveness of these methods.

“I think Facebook’s fake news button is unlikely to work,” said Dominique Brossard, professor and chair in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, another speaker at the panel. “It’s not so clear-cut about what’s fake news and not.

“We are all the public. We are all human beings, and we all fall into the traps of working the news through our bias, processing information through our world views.”

One speaker noted that “fake news” had had a positive impact on the public’s awareness of false information.

Julie Coiro, associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Rhode Island, said she teaches students how to be critical thinkers about online information.

When assessing the quality of online information, Coiro emphasizes the fittingly-named acronym SCAM, which stands for Source, Claims, Arguments and Make a decision.

“This is hard, even for adults,” Coiro said. “It takes a lot of cognitive effort. Who wants to stop, when we can click so quickly, to actually think: Wait a minute, who wrote this, and what does that mean for the information that’s on this page?”

While fake news isn’t new – Coiro has been teaching and researching this issue for the past 15 years – people are now more aware of the ease with which fake information can find its way online.

Julie Coiro is a professor of reading in the School of Education at the University of Rhode Island, where she aims to inform students about how to detect fake news. Photo courtesy of Julie Coiro.

 

All of this raises the question: Has this been a blessing in disguise?

“It’s been a huge blessing,” Coiro said. “It’s a little frightening that it took this much to get people worried.”

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