Hey, mom, you never said I’d have to fight fake news and fiery dragons to find truth

Americans have become seriously challenged by a new cottage industry that produces weapons made in the U.S. and overseas: Online sites that specialize in fake news.

The sites are thriving. The recent election may or may not have been swayed by fake news. Regardless, we discovered Americans have difficulty in telling real news from fake news.

The dilemma knows no age boundary. An 18-month study by Stanford determined young people—middle school, high school and college students from across varying societal and educational levels—are easily “duped” by information on the internet. The study results, released Nov. 22, gave a grim conclusion: “…we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish.” {Read the Stanford study.}

What you’ll learn in this blog: How fake news threatens America…How failures of the mainstream news media fostered the creation of fake news sites…Ways to spot fake news…Examples of fake news sites…five tips to help you. (Time it should take you to read this blog: five minutes or less.)

Even President Obama has jumped feet-first into the fray about fake media, this during his recent trip to Europe. While some Americans may have the short-sighted view that fake news sites are merely day-to-day hassles, the president offered a broad perspective of why Americans should be deeply concerned about fake news. “If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems…We won’t know what to fight for. And we can lose so much of what we’ve gained in terms of the kind of democratic freedoms and market-based economies and prosperities that we’ve come to take for granted.”

Where is the truth? With all the fiery dragons of fake news soaring about, I’m often unsure. All I can tell you is wha

So, then, adults can be duped. And so can the next generation. It doesn’t bode well for America, does it?

Blame it on fast-paced, easy access to information. Blame it on an America too busy to go beyond headlines. Blame it on the education system that produced Americans who fail to take a critical look at things. Blame it on just ol’ fashioned bias, people eagerly willing to believe news that reinforces their personal opinions. Blame it on Facebook. On Twitter. The Internet. You name it. Who can we believe? The New York Times? Breitbart? The president? The president-elect? Mom?

The issue of truth vs. lies has always been a tough nut to crack. You know, the eye of the beholder and all that.

But now, more than any period in our recent history, Americans are bombarded by many shades of truth, innuendos, partial truths, mind games, hyperpartisan (extreme bias in favor of a political party), attempts at satire, and outright lies. At times, it seems as if we’re seeing an evil fire-breathing dragon blowing flames against a castle made of ancient, crinkly, yellowed newspapers. (Yes, do a fact check on my hyperbole. When was the last time any of us saw a fire-breathing dragon? Would you believe in the dragon if you were told by a fake news site that one such beastie exists?)

BuzzFeed News, a reputable Internet company that reports on social news and entertainment, with a focus on digital media, announced Nov. 16 that an analysis it conducted showed that fake election news on Facebook created more engagement among readers than news reported by well-known mainstream media outlets. During the last three critical months of the election, 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions and comments on Facebook,” Buzzfeed reported. In comparison,  the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news websites generated only 7.3 million on Facebook.

In other words, readers looked more often at fake news than news reported by such mainstream media as the Washington Post, New York Times, NBC News, and others. Did those who went to the fake news sites believe what they saw? We don’t know, yet. Did it influence the way they voted? Again, don’t know. And, most importantly, how do we explain all the lying when our young children ask about it? Do we just respond, well, there are fire-breathing dragons that you have to watch out for.

{Click here to read the BuzzFeed analysis.)

According to some online sources, the number of sites that offer fake or partly true news, satire on news, and news reworked into hyperpartisan slants could be in the hundreds. Buzzfeed has reported that more than 100 U.S. politics websites have been created and are run by teenagers in  the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The driving force: Money, the advertising revenue that can be generated by these sites.

{Read the BuzzFeed article about the Macedonia websites.}

A hundred (or even a few hundred sites) may not seem like much in comparison to the billions of pieces of information that make their way every year onto the internet. The use of Facebook is staggering. More than 750 million people are active Facebook users; 50 percent log in on any given day. They spend 700 billion minutes a month on Facebook. The average user has 130 Facebook friends. For Twitter: 695 million peopled are registered account holders; 342 million are active users; 135,000 people sign up every day; and the average number of tweets each day is 58 million.

Mark Twain’s shoes: The lies created by fake news can go a long way in a short time. If you don’t believe me, turn to Mark Twain, who said, “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

What happens is this: A fake news site posts an article on Facebook, with a screaming headline and a story containing false or partly true information. Users who are partial to believing such things share it through Facebook and often Twitter, and, in turn, some of those recipients share it with their own online groups.

{NPR reporter Laura Sydell  aired a Nov. 23 story about a man in a Los Angeles suburb who may earn $10,000 to $30,000 a month running fake news sites. One of his sites was responsible for a fake pre-election story that said a FBI Agent suspected in Hillary Clinton email leaks was found dead in Denver in an apparent murder-suicide. Within 10 days, the story received 1.6 million views. Read Laura Sydell’s story…}

Eventually, other fake sites pick up on the fake news story and may or may not rewrite it into their own twisted views before electronically distributing it. And thus the cycle begins again. Within only a day, or even just a few hours, the fake news is suddenly taking up residency on the electronic real estate of the monitors of possibly millions of readers. And now it has become “real, truthful” news.

It has become so bad, all of these fake news shenanigans, that, if Facebook tells me that I’m alive, I’ll check my pulse just to make sure it’s true.

If Facebook tells me that I’m alive, I’ll check my pulse just to make sure it’s true.

Same with Twitter. Even with its 140-character limitation, Twitter users can easily transmit inaccuracies and lies for personal, business or political gain.

Take, for instance, two Nov. 17 tweets from president-elect Trump. After a conversation with the chairman of Ford, Mr. Trump tweeted the “news” that the car manufacturer will keep its Lincoln manufacturing plant in Kentucky rather than move it to Mexico. Then, Mr. Trump sent the second tweet, and it was interpreted by some readers as the president-elect bragging that he was the person responsible for keeping the plant in Kentucky. As it turned out, though, Ford never had plans to move the plant to Mexico. Nonetheless, Mr. Trump gave himself credit where no credit was due. And he would have gotten away with it if a reporter hadn’t double-checked the president-elect’s supposed “facts.”

{Fact-check the information in Mr. Trump’s Ford tweets}

Mr. Trump isn’t the only politician, CEO or average American to take advantage of Twitter and Facebook for his or her own personal gain. There is plenty of blame to spread around among both political parties, corporate bigwigs and lowwigs, and Mr. and Mrs. and Ms. America.

Media war: During the last two weeks, a Media War of sorts has broken out against fake news sits. The mainstream media has published multiple articles about these fake sites that draw in readers with wild, made-up stories. The fake stories are often accompanied by the carrot of clickbaiting, a term for sensationalist headlines of the type we haven’t seen since the Yellow Journalism Days of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer in the late 1890s.

{Don’t forget to take the short survey at the end of this blog.}

In the last few days, Facebook, Twitter and Google have started taking steps—merely baby steps so far, in my opinion—toward boxing out fake news sites, largely by preventing the sites from making money through advertising revenue. I suspect the problem won’t easily go away. Some fake sites make a lot money from advertisers, while others have political agendas to promote. Sites are run by tech-savvy people; they will continue to find a way to keep profiting from fake news.

Even more troubling, some sites are run specifically to undermine America’s reliance on the news media—the Fourth Estate—that historically has been a watchdog of government, injustice and social norms. Fake news sites are trying to unweave the fabric of America for their own greed, twisted political agendas and, in some disgusting and filthy cases, just plain ‘ol fun.

Fake news sites are trying to unweave the fabric of America for their own greed, twisted political agendas and, in some disgusting and filthy cases, just plain ‘ol fun. 

There is no doubt in my mind that the slithery rise of fake media largely resulted from failures of the mainstream media over the last decade. Here we can blame the internet that gave rise to an uncontrollable and vicious 24-hour news cycle, which has resulted in a pack mentality where reporters and editors often only take enough time to skim the surface of an issue just so they can beat rivals to the proverbial punch. Newspapers—once the beacons of truth, fairness and independent thinking in America—are going the way of the dodo bird as the media is unable to adjust to the loss of advertising revenue. Less advertising revenue = cutbacks in the editorial staff = less time available for developing thorough and accurate stories. The ailing mainstream media also faces the fact that every person who owns a cell phone and has internet access now has the power to become a news reporter who can easily send news to thousands of people, if not millions.

Meanwhile, an elitism has slipped into many corners of the news industry, causing news scribes to lose contact with us common folk in the Rust Belt, the McDonald’s and greasy spoons of the West, on the farms of the Bread Basket, and in the busy offices and slow-paced retirement homes of the East. Nonetheless, us common folk are doing just fine wielding our electronic communication power to become reporters of our own news events and personal opinions. And, as the heated and angry presidential campaign showed, many people no longer rely on the mainstream media for news or opinion leadership. Instead, they exert their own power in Facebook and Twitter.

Artwork by the New York Magazine to illustrate its article about questionable news sites.

Artwork by the New York Magazine to illustrate its article about questionable news sites.

Naively optimistic? Now, having vented these concerns (I’ve got others about the media but I needn’t dwell on them here), my observation is simple and maybe too naively optimistic. Regardless of all the current challenges, the mainstream media—the national newspapers and TV networks, the local daily newspapers and weekly journals—is still pretty accurate in the complicated task of reporting news, and light years years ahead of journalism in other countries. Right now, there is a lot of tough soul-searching going on at news desks and in editorial board meetings throughout our nation. I have faith that all will work out just fine, hopefully sooner than later.

But for now, fake news sites are reaching farther and farther out every day in an attempt to grasp the golden ring of public opinion. They have no intention of disappearing quietly into the night.

Intimidation: Fake news sites have struck back through the use of intimidation and more lies. Recent examples included online attacks against Merrimack College assistant professor of communications, Melissa Zimdars, who posted a list of questionable news sites on the internet. However, she removed the list Nov. 17 as a safety measure because she, her students and colleagues received threats and harrassments, the Los Angeles Times reported. For example, NaturalNews.com, one of the sites on her list, branded her as a “crybully” who has “a masters degree in Crybully Engineering and a Ph.d. in F###ktardery Studies.”

Hum, well now, name-calling always gets to the truth, right? Jesting aside, I perused sites on Professor Zimdars’ list before it was removed from the internet and I can say they’re ones I’ll steadfastly avoid in the future.

PolitiFact and the related PunditFact use a Truth-o-Meter to rank news information from true, mostly true, half true, and pants of fire (not true).

PolitiFact and the related PunditFact use a Truth-o-Meter to rank news information from true, mostly true, half true, and pants of fire (not true).

Where is the truth? With all the fiery dragons of fake news soaring about, I’m often unsure. All I can tell you is what I do. Yes, yes, I see the great irony. I claim in this blog that you can’t believe many things in the media, yet here I am asking you to believe me. With that thought in mind, feel free to take what I say in the tips below with the proverbial grain of salt. And do what Archie Bunker advised: Look it up! (Suggestion: Make sure you find a site that deals in truth.)

Mark Twain: “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

Mark Twain: “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

Tip 1: Rely on a variety of the mainstream media outlets. You might, of course, think these news outlets are biased and, as candidate Trump kept saying, “rigged,” but they are the best we have in our country: Time, The Atlantic, Forbes, Washington Post, New York Times, Associated Press, and Wall Street Journal, as well as NPR and the ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS nightly news. I also read some reputable sites that at appropriate times lean to the left (more in line with my political leanings): Huffington Post, Slate, The Guardian, The Daily Beast and theSkimm. I also dip into regional outlets like the Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Kansas City Star and Boston Globe.

All of this takes time, and I’m lucky because, in retirement, I have time. But if you’re short on time like most Americans, just follow one or two of the mainstream media outlets.

The following is a small sampling of fake news sites, along with a summary of one of the stories each published or my comments about the site. You may have seen the stories during the election campaign; some gained huge audiences on the internet, in newspapers and on TV.

  • AmericanPoliticNews.com. Relies on sensationalism, shocking headlines and stories with questionable accuracy.
  • BigAmericanNews.com. Here’s an example of a sensationalist headline for one of its articles: “Indiana restaurant charges ‘gay tax’ to gay customers, cites Religious Freedom Bill as explanation.”
  • Breitbart.com. This is an ult-right, pseudo-news site which is trying to snake its way into the ranks of mainstream media. Breitbart’s former executive chairman is Steve Bannon, Trump’s top campaign advisor and now the president-elect’s chief advisor on strategy. Political pundits have accused Bannon of giving voice to racists, white supremists, sexism, misogynists, and anti-semites.  
  • BurrardStreetJournal.com. Reported that President Obama said he will not leave office if Donald Trump is elected.
  • ConservativeState.com.  Created a false quotation for Hillary Clinton. The quote said, “I would like to see people like Donald Trump run for office; they’re honest and can’t be bought.”
  • EagleRising.com. Published an article that claimed Hillary Clinton used a body-double during the campaign.
  • EndingtheFed.com. Announced a lie that said Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump.
  • Denverguardian.com. This site reported the fake story about the FBI agent’s murder/suicide death in Denver. A Nov. 23 internet search for the site found that it described itself as “Denver’s oldest news source and one of the longest running daily newspapers published in the United States,” a lie. All of the site’s “news” content was removed by Nov. 23. {Read a Nov. 23 article about how the Denver Post debunked the Denver Guardian story.}
  • LiberalAmerica.org. Reported that Trump met with India business partners in violation of a ‘blind trust’ agreement. (Note: There is no law that says the president must put his business in a blind trust.)
  • LibertyWritersNews.com. Blatantly makes up news for shock value.
  • NationalReport.net.  Published an article about Rudy Giuliana blaming Hillary Clinton for the widespead destruction of bee colonies. This site was discussed in Laura Sydell’s NPR story mentioned above. The site was also responsible for a popular fake news story that said food stamps could be used to buy pot in Colorado.
  • ThePoliticalInsider.com. Reported a lie that said Wikileaks confirmed Clinton sold weapons to ISIS.

Tip 2: Double-check information. One of the gravest mistakes you can make is to look at only one source and believe its message is the truth. When I see online news that seems outlandish, I go to the mainstream sources mentioned early in Tip 1 to find out if they reported about the issue.

If they haven’t, chances are the original source is purposely presenting incorrect information. Use your common sense. Do the double-checking especially if the original news makes you angry. Anger is the best way to keep readers returning to a site—and this translates into success and dollars for the bearer of fake news.

In addition, check out information on reputable online fact-checking sites: Fact.Check.org, Snopes.com, PolitiFact and PunditFact.

Tip 3: Avoid news sites with sketchy names. Be careful of websites with odd names and sites that end in “lo” or  “com.co.” These types of sites tend to offer fake, nearly fake or hyperpartisan news. Some might deal in satire, but their information is still inaccurate. Satire has a strange way of suddenly becoming absolute truth for some people.

Tip 4: Be wary of bloggers

There’s catch phrase that I hear people say now and then: “If it’s in print or on the internet, it’s got to be true.” They relate this for the sake of humor, of course. But I’ve found that some people unwisely believe bloggers too readily, often because some bloggers are well-known or their blogs are posted on trusted mainstream media websites. Bloggers typically make the effort to convince you of their points of view—yes, we bloggers are peddlers of opinion. PunditFact is a good place for fact-checking bloggers.

Tip 5: Be very cautious about believing what you see on Facebook and Twitter.

Both have an enormous impact on truth and lies in America and, for that matter, around the world. And each is an easy place to publish false information with little punishment, if any.

Archie Bunker: "Look it up!"

Faced with the tough question of whether a news article is fake or real? Take advice from Archie Bunker: “Look it up!”

Always remember that stepping across the threshold from truth into a lie can have an enormous impact not only on your internal self-esteem but also on how others view your values and integrity.

Let me offer an example: On the Wednesday before the presidential election, Fox news anchor Bret Baier reported an exclusive: FBI sources claimed Hillary Clinton would be indicted over her emails and the Clinton Foundation. This “news” was damaging to the Clinton campaign. Then, two days, Baier publicly apologized for airing the story, which, he admitted, was not true.

Regardless of the widely spread news of Baier’s admission, the original story continued to circulate on Facebook. I saw it posted on the site of a friend. Even though this person and I disagreed on candidates, I always took the person to be a straight shooter.

I assumed the person hadn’t seen Baier’s correction, so I sent along a polite message, with a link to Baier’s apology for the error. I figured the person would want to know and delete the post. I was wrong.

This reply came back to me: “I don’t care if the false news is false. She deserves it.”

Finally, remember what Mark Twain said about a lie traveling so fast and far while truth is putting on its shoes. If you’re tempted to read or share something that you suspect or know is a lie, half-truth or blatant exaggeration, don’t.

Put on your shoes instead.


Want more info? Click on the links below: 

This blog’s author, Gary Kimsey, is a former newspaper reporter (Kansas City Star) and former editor at Denver Monthly Magazine, HealthWord and Colorado State magazine. He also worked in public relations for Colorado State University and University of Colorado Health. He is now retired and writing his own works while living part of the year in the Colorado Rockies and the rest of the time in Independence, Mo.