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The Future of Alternative Facts
This essay is part of a series exploring the future of UNLV and our impact in Southern Nevada and the world. Here, communications studies professor Emma Frances Bloomfield advocates for a more thoughtful way of consuming and sharing news. She will be giving a University Forum Lecture at 7 p.m. Oct. 18 in the Barrick Museum auditorium about stories and science communication. It is free and open to the public.
Winston Churchill famously said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” A lie is oftentimes more exciting or more intriguing than the truth. Research and vetting take time, while sharing a salacious lie takes an instant.
Churchill likely would be stunned by how fast lies spread today. With the ease and accessibility of sharing and posting online, the internet and news media are experiencing a flood of uncorroborated information. A few friends on Facebook sharing an article or two may seem trivial, but the oftentimes slow, or absent, vetting process has fundamentally changed our concepts of “truth.” The problem is even more serious when our politicians and leaders take fake information as gospel. Repeating lies creates the illusion of truth, so much so that we are living in a “post-truth” world. A world of fake news.
A 2015 Pew Research Center survey reported that 64 percent of respondents thought fake news was causing “a great deal of confusion” about basic facts. Nearly a quarter of respondents (23 percent) said that they had shared fake news themselves, knowingly or unknowingly. Social media sites like Facebook are working on their own algorithms and behind-the-scene computations to reduce its presence on their site. While some argue that it’s hard to attribute fake news to large consequences, such as the 2016 presidential election outcome, others argue that the rise of fake news has dramatically shifted news consumption and the media landscape.
The spread of fake news has relatively benign origins. Media outlets aim to be the first with stories to attract attention. The pressure to have high circulation and viewership can lead to less fact checking or following up on sources. Now that the internet allows everyone to publish and social media makes the process instantaneous, the news cycle has sped up dramatically. We haven’t yet developed vetting processes and techniques that would allow us to keep up with this fast-paced news. We used to rely on journalists to do this for us, but now there is too much news from too many sources not to take matters into our own hands.
Working on a campus and living in a city influenced by the Greenspun family, I find it impossible not to think of the potential consequences that fake news has on an informed citizenry. As a pioneer in Las Vegas media, the Greenspun family has influenced the creation of the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs and its focus on developing solutions to our city’s needs in ethical and prudent ways. Hank Greenspun argued that the most important part of democracy is “the profession of journalism,” because it helps craft the truth and guide us to make informed decisions in our lives. When fake news exists in any amount, the truth is threatened, because it must now compete with other information also claiming to be true.
Considering that websites thrive on clicks and advertising views, it is unlikely that we will see an end to “click-bait” headlines or provocative fake news stories anytime soon. So, what can we do to combat the presence of fake news? Here are the key steps I hope students learn before they don their graduation caps:
In the rush of contemporary life where being busy is a point of pride, we can learn to pause. When reading a headline or checking our social media sites, we can take the time to consider information that seems meaningful or important before immediately sharing. Time Magazine reports that 55 percent of readers spend fewer than 15 seconds reading articles. If an article does have important, truthful information, isn’t it worth a few more seconds to consider before sharing?
The pause provides an opportunity for thinking. What is your instinct telling you? When faced with a headline like “Toothpaste is poisonous to children” (an actual headline a friend of mine shared on Facebook), we must consider the likelihood of such statements. If it’s extremely unlikely, it makes for a great, albeit untrue, headline. Things that sounds incredible should pique our attention, not to automatically share, but to think more deeply about their potential accuracy.
When faced with an unlikely headline, take a few more seconds to check and verify it against other sources. Debunking the toothpaste story took me 10 seconds: I typed the headline into Google and found a link from Snopes, a reputable debunking website, as the first hit. We must ask ourselves or research to find out: Is this a known satirical or fake news outlet? Is this information backed up by other articles, or is this small publication the only one with the inside scoop? Be skeptical of outlets that seem to have unique access, especially when they are not large or traditional sources. It is good practice to balance sources from both sides of the political spectrum, seek out relatively neutral or unbiased outlets, and explore both domestic and international outlets for consistency.
After the three steps of pausing, thinking, and checking, it is likely that we will be able to stop many fake news stories from being shared. Without eyes, clicks, and shares, these stories will (one can hope) become unprofitable, and thus decrease in number. By valuing our own critical thinking skills and taking the time (even a few seconds) to process information we read, we can ensure that the information that we consume and share is as accurate as possible.
I envision a future where being knowledgeable and informed about news and politics is more important than being “first.” I imagine a world where the quality and accuracy of our information are recovered as our standards for news. In a world of status updates and 140 character tweets, we must not let the human penchant for critical thinking and truth be overshadowed by convenience.
Emma Frances Bloomfield teaches courses in persuasion, rhetorical theory, and the rhetoric of science. A UNLV faculty member since 2016, she studies how the public uses language to engage in controversies, specifically scientific ones.
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