“Fake news” is more than only the phrase the president uses to brush aside narratives he doesn’t like. It’s a real thing, and something we should all be on the lookout for .
An image of Parkland student Emma Gonzalez tearing up a transcript of the U.S. Constitution ran viral over the weekend, sending some corners of social media into a frenzy.
There was one problem, however: It was wholly fake.
The actual photo came from a Teen Vogue video shoot featuring her and some of the other Parkland students. In the real clip, Gonzalez is considered tearing up a paper shooting target.
The fact-check was swift, but a lot of damage was done, as the altered image continued making the rounds.
It’s easy to be deceived by online hoaxes — so we spoke with someone whose chore it is to spot them every day.
Managing editor Brooke Binkowski wrestlings with the importance of truth and figuring out how to stop the spread of hoaxes every day for the highly trusted fact-checking website Snopes.
The site, launched in 1994, began as a collection of fact-checks on some of the internet’s early urban legends. Wanted to find out whether or not that tale about the murderer with a hooking for a hand was true? Snopes had you encompassed. Needed to know whether your favorite brand of bubble gum is filled with spider eggs? The answer was just one click away.
In more recent years, the site has taken on more serious topics, online hoaxes, and “fake news.” Did Donald Trump wade into the water of a inundated Texas city to save two cats from drowning after Hurricane Harvey?( No .) Did Barack Obama congratulate Vladimir Putin on his 2012 electoral victory?( Yes .)
Binkowski spoke with Upworthy about how to deal with increasingly sophisticated hoaxes we all encounter online( and gave us a few behind-the-scenes secrets about how the people at Snopes do what they do best ).
The following interview has been gently edited and condensed in the interests of clarity .
Why does the truth matter, and what damage is there in sharing fake stories ?
The truth matters because without being able to agree on the most basic facts, there is no democracy. Democracy depends on an informed, trained populace in order to survive. To actively suppress curiosity or obscure facts is to actively suppress democratic norms.
When you share fake or misinforming tales, first of all, don’t beat yourself up about it if you were trying not to ! We all fall for it. Some of it is extremely persuading .
I strongly believe that the onus should not be on the individual to sift through all the garbage to discovery good, vetted news on top of every other thing they have going on in their life, as I hear many indicate — that’s why journalism exists. I guess people are overall extremely smart and crave info, but without vetted and transparent info, they fall for conspiracy speculate.
That’s what propaganda and disinformation seize on. If you repeat that pattern across a country, it dramatically erodes these democratic norms. Plus, have you ever tried to talk to a really entrenched conspiracy theoretician?
So I would be as mindful as you can about the causes of tales and try your best not to share disinformation — and if you do, I would try to be upfront about it and delete it so that it does not spread.
Right now is a crucial time to be mindful, even though I just said the onus shouldn’t be on the individual. It shouldn’t , but we simply don’t have enough running journalists to go around right now, because our industry has been allowed to breakdown in the name of executive profit.
Can you walk us through how Snopes fact-checks a narrative ?
We don’t have any one specific route that we fact-check a tale — there’s no real formula for doing so. A plenty of what we do is so disappointing when I describe it to people, because it’s not magic. It’s “just” journalism.
I try to give my writers period and space to do the research that they need to do, although sometimes it’s a little difficult when we have “conspiracizing” from all sides. So sometimes, one of us will have to head to the library to pull books or go over to the local university to look through newspapers on campus.
A lot of the time we do old-fashioned reporting. Our faculty is completed the United States and they know their stuff, so I’ll take advantage of that and send them out on the field sometimes. We also, of course, know the recur fake-news and irony delinquents, so that attains it easy, because we can save a lot of hour only by noting that they have an all-purpose disclaimer buried somewhere on their site. Sometimes we do photo or video forensics and FOIA petitions( not that we get a lot of those answered, hahaha ).
We try to be as thorough and as transparent with our run as possible, which is why we have a source listing at the bottom of each page and maybe describe our methodology in a bit more detail than we should — but that’s how we all roll.
Which is also why, on a side note, I find the conspiracy hypothesis about us a bit puzzling. We’re really easy to track down online, we list all our sources, and we try to be as open as humanly possible without also being boring about our methodology.
And yet people still think we’re part of a grand conspiracy. I’m still waiting for my check from George Soros/ the Lizard People/ the Clinton Foundation, though. It’s been, like, 20 years!
…OK, if you’re a conspiracy theorist reading that last sentence, that’s a gag. I already got my checks.
No , no, I’m sorry. I only can’t stop myself.
What can regular, everyday people do to avoid hoaxes and “fake news? ”
My best tip that I can possible devote readers is this: Disinformation and propaganda classically take hold by employing emotional appeals. That is why what Cambridge Analytica did should be viewed through that lens.
One of the more sinister things that I have read that they did, in my opinion( among other things I’m assured that no one yet knows ), was track people who were highly susceptible to authoritarianism, then flood them with violent imagery that was invisible to everyone else on social media, so that they were always in a state of fear and emotional arousal and highly susceptible to an authoritarian message.
That’s the type of person propaganda historically targets anyway — those who feel out of step with society and have strong tendencies toward authoritarianism — but now, groups like Cambridge Analytica are doing it faster and more surgically.
If you’re reading, viewing, or listening to a story that’s inundating you with high feeling, negative or positive — whether it’s fear, rage, schadenfreude, amusement at how gullible everybody else is — check your sources. You are being played. Do a quick search for the narrative, see if it has been debunked at minimum, and/ or look for other sources and perspectives.
One of the most noxious things about disinformation and propaganda is that both weave some truth into their lies, which stimulates the lies much, much stronger.
Something I like to say about political leanings is that the right assumes it has the moral upper hand and the left presumes it has the intellectual upper hand — both are tremendous flaws that are easy to exploit.
Don’t let yourself be exploited. Be on guard. Don’t assume other people are sheep and don’t assume other people are morally bankrupt. Propaganda wants you to assume the worst about your fellow denizens; the people who push it out want the basic textile of society destroyed.
It wants you detesting your devotees, your neighbors, your family members, the guy at the store, the lady at the coffee shop. Propagandists want you distrusting each other, bickering, and unable to agree on the most basic facts — because then they can exploit those crackings further and consolidate power in the process.
Don’t let yourself be taken in.
The basic take-aways for the average person? Get your news from trusted sources, confirm it with a second source, check your own confirmation biases, and get very well known reverse image search tools.
Make sure to visit: CapGeneration.com