By: Laura Saini
In a small town in Veles, Macedonia, teenagers profited off sensational headlines that targeted Trump supporters in the 2016 presidential election. They created headlines that grabbed the readers’ attention like, ‘Pope Francis Forbids Catholics from Voting for Hillary,’ and ‘JUST IN: Obama Illegally Transferred DOJ Money To Clinton Campaign!’ However, according to NBC, the stories were mostly fake, and negative headlines towards Hillary Clinton were the most profitable. Teenagers in Veles profited the more social-media users clicked and shared the fake-news stories, earning a penny-per-click. This fake news phenomenon is troublesome for communication professionals as they try to combat it and even define it.
“Fake news is knowingly false information made for some kind of game or end result,” said Maggie Farley, a digital media professional and fellow at American University (AU).
Farley spoke at a fake-news panel Monday Feb. 27 at AU, along with Laura Gross, Jason Boxt and Anthony LaFauce. The panelists said that journalism attempts to give readers the full context so they can decide for themselves what to believe. However, the news media still must rely on profits to continue running. Sometimes that means promoting sensational headlines.
“Adversarial headlines help promote more clicks,” said Anthony LaFauce, vice president of digital communications at Porter Novelli, a public relations firm. “That doesn’t mean content is untrue, but some integrity is undermined by the business nature of the industry.”
There is a fine line that journalists must walk to attract readers but still present accurate information. Attention-grabbing headlines draw people to stories like moths to a flame, which in turn grows profits.
According to Pew Research, only 47 percent of people who get their news on smartphones click to read the article. The other 52 percent only read headlines. This fact can encourage the media to create more click-bait content, meaning headlines are created for the main purpose of generating online advertising revenue. For the sake of profits, headlines try to be eye-catching but can also be misleading. But where does the line from a sensationalized headline cross into fake news?
“Fake news is knowingly false information made for some kind of game or end result,” said Maggie Farley, a digital media professional and fellow at AU.
There is a difference between a journalist who makes a mistake in a rush to punish and someone purposefully posting inaccurate news stories to deceive people. The teenagers in Veles purposefully posted sensational stories to make a profit, which is fake news.
“There are protocols old-school journalism goes through,” said Gross, principal at the public relations firm Scott Circle. “Like fact checking and getting two or more sources. The orientation is not to deceive.”
Combating Fake News
Mainstream news organizations are starting to run campaigns to emphasize the importance of truth in a post-truth world. For example, The New York Times ran a television ad for the first time in seven years. It promoted the idea that although the truth may be difficult to know today, it is more important than ever. It emphasizes that journalism can help the public make rational, informed decisions.
“I was a journalism major and I truly trust our journalism and our democratic society,” Gross said. “But with social media, everything is different. Fake news spreads like wildfire. Stories don’t have to have sources, statistics or studies.”
Organizations such as politifact.com and Fact-Check.org are working with Facebook to combat fake news in social media. The aim of Fact-Check.org is “to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.” Facebook is now flagging stories that are considered inaccurate. The link will contain a disclaimer stating that the facts are disputed by fact-check.org or other organizations.
“If they see that it has a disputed link, hopefully people won’t share the article around,” said Eugene Kiely, director of Fact-Check.org. “The sooner the correct information is out there and presented in a way that people can access it at the same time they’re getting the misinformation, that’s the ideal situation.”
However, there is no guarantee people will stop sharing the disputed links.
“People are going to believe what they want to believe,” Kiely said. “Sometimes even when presented with accurate information people don’t want to acknowledge it.”
Fake news can be problematic because it affects public policy. Kiely gave the example of healthcare. If members of congress are reading fake news about health care, they can use this false information in the healthcare bill.
“It could have a negative impact on public policy because people are making conclusions based on false information,” he said. “They’re going to come to false conclusions.”
Fake news can also cause potential violence. During the 2016 election, there was a fake story circulating of Hillary Clinton operating a hidden, child sex-trafficking ring in Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in DC. This news story caused Edgar Welch, 28, from North Carolina, to allegedly fire three shots in the restaurant with an assault rifle. No one was injured, but this fake- news story motivated Welch to enter a restaurant with a gun and demand to investigate the non-existent sex-trafficking ring.
These fake-news stories tell information that readers want to hear, but they have no basis in fact, no sources and no statistics. However, they do have real-life implications.
“The reason it’s so hard to fight fake news is because it identifies with intense emotions and doesn’t provide the context,” Farley said. “If it makes you really angry or really excited, it’s not likely true. That’s a red flag.”