Although fake news is a big issue for today’s media, particularly in the aftermath of the presidential campaign, it has been a problem in the journalism world for more than 100 years. “There are records of fake news going back as far as Lincoln that were used to [try to] derail his election,” said Dr. Cliff Jernigan, an associate professor and chairman of Hofstra University’s Department of Journalism, Media Studies and Public Relations.
What is new, as Jernigan and others in higher education have pointed out, is mobile communication and the proliferation, importance and power of social media in the daily lives of millions of people, offering anyone the ability to publish information, true or not, anywhere at any time — and giving fake news plenty of inexpensive growing space.
An extreme example of the potential harm of widely circulated, but completely made-up, “news” reports was last Sunday’s arrest of 28-year old Edgar Maddison, who entered a North Carolina restaurant with an assault rifle because, he said, he was investigating “Pizza Gate” — a fictitious online story that accused the restaurant’s owner of being involved in a child sex operation.
Fake news is something that journalism professors at Nassau County universities have been discussing with their students, and teaching them to identify and address. John Friedman, an associate professor of journalism at SUNY Old Westbury, said that everyone — not just journalism students — needs to think critically before they mistakenly share false information online. “If it’s questionable — like a blog no one has ever heard of — don’t pass it on,” Friedman said. “If it comes from a questionable source, then label it as such on your social media network.” Other identifiers he cited are excessive use of exclamation points, unneeded capitalization and an angry tone. “There’s a certain conspiratorial term to some of them, too,” he added.
Sometimes, fake news isn’t so easy to identify. Last month, The Washington Post published information from two independent research teams at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, which reported that a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign created and spread misleading articles online to promote a victory by Donald Trump. The Post article also highlighted the research of ProporNot.com, an independent group that identified more than 200 websites that report fake news. The validity of ProporNot.com’s research, and the Post’s article, have since been called into question by several media organizations, which have claimed that the website’s research was unscientific and that the Post never should have published information from it.
Jernigan said that all professors in Hofstra’s journalism and communications department are vigilant about teaching sound story and fact verification practices, using a variety of tools — from traditional approaches to fact-check answers to the questions who, what, when, where and why, to more modern resources like the Verification Handbook, which offers advice on using and verifying information in the online world as news breaks.
Photojournalism isn’t exempt from harm from false reporting, and can be aided by web applications that do “reverse image searches,” like Google Images and TinEye. “Because we use image recognition, we can detect changes that have been made to an image,” explained Leila Boujnane, CEO and co-founder of TinEye.com, adding that she has seen “tons” of examples of doctored images. “If someone on social media or [a] website puts out a piece of news — like [a] bomb dropped on Afghanistan, and you see a series of images coming out of that story, you can verify the images by uploading [them] to our website and see if we’ve seen [them] in the past.”
Boujnane cites other websites — such as Yandex and Bing — that offer similar services, but she encouraged researchers to use them all. “No one in the world should be verifying data from a single source,” she said.