Fake news is dangerous to democracy — learn how to ferret it out


Did you hear the one about how Mike Pence called Michelle Obama “the most vulgar first lady we’ve ever had?” How about the news that the pope endorsed Donald J. Trump? Those were among the most shared and commented-on stories on Facebook in the months leading up to the presidential election.

And they both were false.

A recent BuzzFeed news analysis found that, “In the final three months of the U.S. presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets.”

Last week, one of the most prolific writers of fake news spoke with the Washington Post. Paul Horner’s satirical posts generated as much as $10,000 a month in income. And, by his own admission, probably helped get Donald J. Trump elected.

“Honestly, people are definitely dumber,” he told the paper. “They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything.”

It wasn’t just Trump supporters believing and spreading misinformation during this campaign.

Maybe you saw a Trump meme with the following quote, attributed to a 1998 People Magazine interview:

“If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.”

Also false.

Snopes.com reported that it “found no interview or profile on Donald Trump in 1998 (or any other time) that quoted his saying anything that even vaguely resembled the words in this meme.”

Post-election, many pundits declared that Facebook and Google have a fake news problem. I disagree. It’s not just Facebook and Google, We all have a fake news problem. And it’s one many that of us are not willing to admit.

My former Miami Herald colleague, Arnold Markowitz, received belligerent replies when he pointed out falsehoods in friends’ Facebook posts.

A typical retort: “Truth is in the eye of the beholder” and Snopes.com “is a liberal fraud.” Others referred to fact-checkers as “lefties”.

After Melissa Zimdars created a Google doc to help people evaluate news sources, she was harassed by readers of some of the websites she had cited. She has since taken it down and is working to “develop it more fully.”

It’s as if, swamped by information, many have retreated into a postmodern distrust of absolutes. But there is a difference between the philosophical rejection of abstract, universal “truths” and the necessary acceptance of verifiable fact. “Freedom” means different things to different people — and its value may be culturally determined. But facts are not subject to interpretation. Neither are they partisan. Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, it is still true that George Washington was the first president of the United States.

Perhaps it’s possible, as Horner suggests, that much of the fake news this election helped Trump. But just because misinformation helped one’s candidate this time, it doesn’t mean it won’t help the other side next time.

And, elections aside, who wants to live in a world shorn of fact? It is a hellish scenario that leaves everyone vulnerable to manipulation. Fortunately, we can learn to be more astute readers.

When I asked Markowitz for his tips on spotting fakery, he said: “I do it intuitively and with the benefit of a 42-year news career largely spent dealing with liars, swindlers and all kinds of phonies. You can learn a lot from people who never tell the truth.”

Most of us can’t afford to spend 42 years in apprenticeship to the truth.

But each of us can learn the basic lie-detector skills that old-school journalists perfected: Is this properly sourced? Have other outlets reported it? Zimdars’ short-lived fact sheet offered useful tips for judging the legitimacy of a website, including: “If the story makes you REALLY ANGRY it’s probably a good idea to keep reading about the topic via other sources to make sure the story you read wasn’t purposefully trying to make you angry (with potentially misleading or false information) in order to generate shares and ad revenue.”

Now that everyone is publisher of their own tiny media empire, it is even more important for social media users to learn to vet the information they share.

Eric Tucker had about 40 followers on Twitter when he saw a line of buses in Austin and assumed that they were secretly transporting anti-Trump protestors. The buses were actually hired by a company called Tableau Software for a conference. But by the time Tucker corrected his mistake, the news had gone viral. Tucker’s defense, quoted in The New York Times: “I’m also a very busy businessman and I don’t have time to fact-check everything that I put out there.”

We can no longer afford this casual relationship to the news we spread. We need to make time to fact-check. And we need to teach our children basic news-evaluation skills.

Miami Dade Public Schools have a good record of teaching kids how to be informed citizens. Already, students receive training in media literacy as part of the language arts curriculum. But many still confess to getting their news from sites like Tumblr. Much more can be done.

Many resources are already available. The News Literacy project can provide classroom material. Teachers can invite fact checkers to discuss what they do. Parents can set an example by being skeptical social-media users themselves.

We can’t all learn the way journalists like Markowitz once did. But we can make sure young and old are prepared for a post-truth world where everyone is a journalist and mass manipulation is as easy as setting up a website and calling it news.

Ana Menendez is the author of four books of fiction, including “In Cuba I was a German Shepherd.” She lives in Miami.