​Workshop Offers Tools for Fighting Fake News

by Kevin Cummings, Messenger Staff Writer

Three Sewanee librarians provided insights into detecting fake news during a public workshop on April 18 at the Jessie Ball duPont Library.
Following a well-attended workshop in March, only a few people stepped out into the rain to attend the encore. But, as they munched on cheese and strawberries, attendees learned tools to weed through nefarious information on the Internet.
Fake news sites make money from advertisers based on clicks and often provide misleading information as part of scams or for political, social or other reasons.
“It’s not just about spotting fake news, that’s only half of what we want to do; the important thing is we want to find reliable news,” noted Dann Wigner, instruction and information literacy librarian.
The library’s website on fake news, <library.sewanee.edu/fakenews>, offers plenty of resources, including a list of more than 900 fake news sites, a graph on media source biases, and numerous fact-checking tips.
Amanda Sprott-Goldson, learning and access librarian, noted that fake news is not a new concept and cited the Great Moon Hoax of 1835, where “The Sun” newspaper in New York City printed articles featuring outlandish claims of life on the moon like man-bats, unicorns and bi-ped beavers. She said false information in print seems to have spiked in the 19th Century.
“Things like transatlantic and transcontinental cables, linotype and high speed electric presses coupled with a larger population and a larger reading population created this perfect storm for lots of fake news,” she said. “There was an appetite for fake news and they had the technology to carry it out.”
The presenters summarized the top three checks for spotting fake news, including a “visual check” for fakes with questions like: Is the website poorly designed? Are there ads for products not easily recognizable? Does the headline use all capital letters and provoke strong emotions?
The second check is to “site check” by looking for Internet addresses similar to popular news outlets, but not the same. For example, <nbc.com.co> is meant to mimic <nbc.com>.
“The imposter news sites are probably the most insidious,” Wigner said. “They look like real news sites and are usually pretty deep into the concept until you say, ‘I’m not sure about that.’”
Also, the librarians recommended reading the “about us” section on websites and considering who wrote the article and if it is biased. They recommended doing a Google search on authors.
The third is to “fact check,” which includes checking other reliable sources on the same issue and finding out if other sources are even covering the story; if not, then the article is likely fake.
Another tip from presenters included researching pictures from an article; some fake news sites will swipe pictures from other sources. Right-click on the image and choose “search Google for image.”
Also, check the dates for old stories that are not current to relevant events and utilize experts like librarians and established fact-checking websites, they said.
Another important aspect is for someone to consider their own biases and whether they believe a story only because it supports their views.
Heidi Syler, instruction and information literacy librarian, said there are several reasons why people believe and share fake news. Some of those include being in an echo chamber, where a person reads only the types of news that support their views, which are shared among friends of similar views and fed to them constantly because of website algorithms.
Another reason Syler said fake news becomes believable is through repetition and information overload, as well as avoidance of news that doesn’t satisfy what people want to believe.
Jump Off resident Marianna Handler, who attended the workshop, said she prefers the lighter side of social media, like puppies and kittens.
“There’s just so much stuff I’m not sure about,” she said. “There’s obviously a lot of fake news around and I usually trust my instincts. I have found that you click on something and it takes you to something totally different, like ‘Trump is getting a divorce.’”
Workshop organizers, in addition to identifying fake news with a darker purpose like click bait, hoaxes and imposter sites, also pointed out that satire websites such as “The Onion,” publish fake news as humorous entertainment.