Kristi Paskey, left, and Mackenzie Krumme try to distinguish fake news from real news in a workshop at Madison Central Library.
Pope Francis endorses Donald Trump for president. ISIS leader calls for Muslim voters to support Hillary Clinton. Obama bans the Pledge of Allegiance in schools. These stories were shared, liked, retweeted and regarded as fact by hundreds of thousands of people during the 2016 presidential campaign.
But never fear. The librarians are here!
On a night in late February, at a workshop at the Madison Central Library, Anjali Bhasin takes on the challenge of the day: how to identify fake news.
Bhasin knows her stuff. She teaches information literacy at the UW-Madison School of Library and Information Studies. The audience includes a few scholars, a high school teacher, a person interested in journalism, a blogger and two avid newsreaders (who confessed to “not being very tech savvy”).
“Internally, we all have biases. So if you see something that fits your own worldview, you’re more likely to believe it,” Bhasin tells the group. “When a story goes against your viewpoint, that’s when you turn on your critical thinking skills. You start looking at sources. You check if there’s something sketchy about the website. We are way more hesitant to investigate claims or call something fake news if we want to believe it.”
Thankfully, librarians have developed simple criteria for evaluating news and determining information credibility. Fittingly, the acronym is “CRAP.”
It stands for: currency (how current is the information?), reliability (does the creator provide references of sources for data or quotations?), authority (is the creator or author reputable, and has the publisher disseminated false information in the past?) and purpose (is it fact or opinion?).
“There is so much information out there now, that organizations that traditionally check facts just can’t keep up. By the time something is disproven it can be floating around out there for a while” says Bhasin. “That’s why it has to come back to the individual. If we’re disseminating information that’s not credible to our friends or people in our social networks, are we then less credible on some level?”
And there’s the rub. Identifying fake news comes down to self-awareness, doing your homework and not contributing to the problem.
However, L.G. — a spunky 91-year-old who wanted to be referred to by just her initials because she didn’t want “the FBI to check her out” — says that credible news organizations aren’t perfect either.
She points to news coverage in 2008 of President Barack Obama’s former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Video of the pastor saying “Not God bless America, God Damn America” at the pulpit went viral that year. The subsequent backlash was enough for Obama to distance himself from his mentor.
“I remember this article in the Chicago Tribune, and they just printed the negative. They left out a lot of information,” says L.G. “When he made that ‘Goddamn’ comment, he was making a statement about the Iraq War. Wright was a medic in Vietnam. He saw all the bloodshed and the horror. That’s what he was condemning. Why didn’t the media do their research and put it in context?”
“Fake news” means different things to different people. It’s traditionally defined as propaganda or hoaxes designed to trick people. To some here tonight, it’s just sloppy journalism. One person thinks of fake news as satire publications like The Onion.
Kristi Paskey, a Lodi high school teacher, notes that “fake news” is also used to discredit real news that challenges someone’s political narrative or ideology. “As a teacher, I see The New York Times as a reliable resource but have a lot students who do not,” says Paskey. “They’ve been told that some [outlets] are always fake news, and they believe that.”
Trump has mastered the art of using the “fake news” label as a rhetorical bludgeon. Last month, he tweeted: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”
One participant said he was confused by a story in The Postillion with the headline, “Trump wants to deport American Indians back to India.” The article includes tweets from Feb. 13, claiming to be from the president’s official twitter account @realDonaldTrump: “I want those indians in India ASAP. Delicious food, love korma, but dangerous people with bows and arrows. Get smart US. #illegalsout.”
Is this fake news? Here’s your chance to hone your fact-checking skills and run it through the CRAP test.
Total Facebook engagement between August and election day (according to an analysis from Buzzfeed)
• Fake news: 8.7 million
• Mainstream news: 7.3 million
Quicks tips to identify fake news (from UW-Stevens Point)
• Domains that end “.com.co” that impersonate real news websites
• Lack of author attribution may, but not always, be a red flag
• Use of ALL CAPS
• Does it make you REALLY ANGRY?
Other fake news headlines
• “WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS” (The Political Insider)
• “RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE To Reunite and Release Anti Donald Trump Album” (heaviermetal.net)
• “RuPaul claims Donald Trump touched him inappropriately in the 1990s” (World News Daily Report)
• “FBI Agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apparent murder-suicide” (Denver Guardian)