False, misleading, and biased reporting, a.k.a. “fake news” or “viral news” has detrimental effects, so how can readers defend themselves from it? Here are some important facts about fake news that will illustrate the danger of this type of media and how to stay protected against it and give the next generation the tools they need to do the same.

Misinformation can be weaponized to influence politics, economics, and social well-being, from potentially affecting elections and referendums to inciting prejudice, confusion, and violence. Deceptive content often appears to be coming from objective news sources, challenging us to work harder to stay informed and discern fact from fiction. However, research shows that today’s web users are not informed enough to take on this task successfully. Information literacy and media literacy must become a greater educational priority. In 2019, we encounter a sea of digital content every day and it is essential that we learn how to process it.

Here are five key facts about fake news you probably didn’t know.

1. Fake news examples are not new

Misinformation has been around in many different forms since the advent of print news 500 years ago, even before verified, objective journalism became a standard. According to Politico, fake news has always leaned “sensationalist and extreme, designed to inflame passions and prejudices.” Pamphlets about witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries led to witch-hunts and murder. War propaganda was created to incite anger and fear toward the opponent, inspiring support for the American Revolution, the Spanish-American War, and the World Wars.

Fake news examples have also come in the form of hoaxes, such as Orson Welles’ notorious 1938 radio broadcast about an alien invasion that led many listeners to panic. It has also been wielded to make a profit. You’ve seen it in grocery store aisles for years–outrageous tabloid headlines propagating dubious celebrity rumors, conspiracy theories, and urban legends. Fake news is not new. But now it’s digital.

2. A fake news website can spread fake news faster than real news

The internet and social media have enabled misinformation to evolve and reach the masses faster and more insidiously than ever before, from deceptive click-bait–sensationalized headlines aimed to generate site traffic and make money through ad sales–to the larger implications of cyber propaganda–meant to manipulate public opinion on a national and even global scale. In a six-week period around the time of the 2016 presidential election, research suggests that as many as 25% of Americans visited a fake news website.

An analysis of Facebook news around this same election found that the top 20 fake news stories generated more engagement than the top 20 credible news stories (from major news outlets). A similar study of content shared on Twitter found that, “falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.” People are perhaps more inclined to share fake content because of the novelty and strong emotional reactions it elicits.

3. Social media proficiency does not correlate with digital literacy

It may be tempting to assume that tech-savvy adolescents of the digital age would know how to navigate internet content better than anyone, but this is not the case. A Stanford History Education Group study of Gen Z’s ability to evaluate information uncovered an alarming lack of knowledge. Researchers studied nearly 8,000 middle school, high school, and college students, testing them in several areas, including distinguishing between a news article and an opinion column, identifying sponsored ads, verifying claims, determining whether a website is trustworthy, and judging when a social media post is a useful source of information. “Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media and fake news channels, they are easily duped.”

4. Schools are incorporating digital literacy into curricula

Evaluating content extends beyond news pieces. So much of today’s academic and professional research and information-consumption takes place online and it is vital that kids and adults are capable of conducting reliable and ethical research and thinking critically about the deluge of content they come across. They should be taught how to distinguish reliable sources, data, and photos from falsities, bias, and satire; give proper attribution by citing sources and avoiding plagiarism, and understand primary and secondary sources. Civic online reasoning is a critical skill in the modern culture of information-gathering. Fortunately, lawmakers have started to recognize this in the last few years. Though much work remains to be done, several states have proposed legislation requiring schools to incorporate instruction on digital citizenship, including internet safety, media literacy, and information literacy.

5. Businesses are developing countermeasures against misinformation

As education standards evolve around this issue, so too are social media platforms and search engines. On social media sites, newsfeed content visibility is largely based on engagement, with no consideration of content accuracy or objectivity. One of the major facts about fake news is that fake news sites often game the system by buying bots to comment on, like, and repost their content, artificially boosting its popularity.

Twitter and Facebook have ramped up their efforts to suspend bots and suspicious accounts and have created tools to enable users to report fake news. Facebook invests in building up local news through its Journalism Project Community Network. Google gives money to fact-checking organizations and media literacy companies, made changes to its algorithm and autocomplete tools, and established the Google News Initiative to help credible stories rank higher and demote fake news and other low-quality content. Google and Facebook have also taken steps to prevent fake news sites from earning ad revenue.

From educators to legislators to business executives and parents, everyone has a role to play in protecting the integrity of online content and preparing young people to engage online safely and successfully. 

Digital Wellness Network

The Digital Wellness Network is a public-private coalition of corporations, nonprofits and educators committed to mitigating the negative impact of unhealthy technology use by empowering students with the skills to make safe and informed decisions about technology.