Too often news organizations play a major role in propagating hoaxes, false claims, questionable rumors, and dubious viral content, thereby polluting the digital information stream. Indeed, some so-called viral content doesn’t become truly viral until news websites choose to highlight it. In jumping on false claims and publishing it alongside hedging language, such as “reportedly” or “claiming,” news organizations provide falsities signiﬁcant exposure while also imbuing the content with credibility. This is at odds with journalism’s essence as “a discipline of veriﬁcation” and its role as a trusted provider of information to society.
News websites dedicate far more time and resources to propagating questionable and often false claims than they do working to verify and/or debunk viral content and online rumors. Rather than acting as a source of accurate information, online media frequently promote misinformation in an attempt to drive traﬃc and social engagement.
News organizations are inconsistent at best at following up on the rumors and claims they oﬀer initial coverage. This is likely connected to the fact that they pass them on without adding reporting or value. With such little eﬀort put into the initial rewrite of a rumor, there is little thought or incentive to follow up. The potential for traﬃc is also greatest when a false claim is new. So, journalists jump fast, and frequently, to capture traﬃc.
News organizations reporting rumors and unveriﬁed claims often do so in ways that bias the reader toward thinking the claim is true. The data collected using the Emergent database revealed that many news organizations pair an article about a rumor or unveriﬁed claim with a headline that declares it to be true.
A claim makes its way to social media or elsewhere online. One or a few news sites choose to repeat it. Some employ headlines that declare the claim to be true to encourage sharing and clicks, while others use hedging language such as “reportedly.” Once given a stamp of credibility by the press, the claim is now primed for other news sites to follow-on and repeat it, pointing back to the earlier sites. Eventually its point of origin is obscured by a mass of interlinked news articles, few (if any) of which add reporting or context for the reader.
The focus of fake news is often thought of as being created by the mainstream media, but social media is also a predominant aggregator of fake news. For example, somewhere along the line it became common practice to share memes on social media, with a significant percentage of readers presuming the content to be fact, rather than fake or satirical. In fact, a recent study by Eschelon Insights and Hart Research found that adults ages 18 to 49 trust news and political information shared from friends more than news delivered from other sources.
Today, rumors and gossips make their way online and quickly ﬁnd an audience. It happens faster and with a degree of abundance that’s unlike anything in the history of journalism or communication. Rumors constantly emerge about conﬂict zones, athletes and celebrities, politicians, election campaigns, government programs, technology companies and their products, mergers and acquisitions, economic indicators, and all manner of topics. They are tweeted, shared, liked, and discussed everywhere. This information is publicly available and often already being circulated by the time a journalist discovers it. What we’re seeing is a signiﬁcant change in the ﬂow and lifecycle of unreviewed information—one that has necessitated a shift in the way journalists and news organizations handle content. Some of that shift is conscious, some have thought about how to report and deliver stories in this new ecosystem. Others, however, act as if they have not, becoming major propagators of false rumors and gossips.
News organizations are meant to play a critical role in the dissemination of quality, accurate information in society. This has become more challenging with the onslaught of hoaxes, misinformation, and other forms of inaccurate content that ﬂow constantly over digital platforms. Journalists today have an imperative and an opportunity to sift through the mass of content being created and shared in order to separate true from false, and to help the truth to spread. Unfortunately, as this paper details, that isn’t the current reality of how news organizations cover unveriﬁed claims, online rumors, and viral con-tent. Lies spread much farther than the truth, and news organizations play a powerful role in making this happen.
Many news sites apply little or no basic veriﬁcation to the claims they pass on. Instead, they rely on linking-out to other media reports, which themselves often only cite other media reports as well. The story’s point of origin, once traced back through the chain of links, is often something posted on social media or a thinly sourced claim from a person or entity. Among other problems, this lack of veriﬁcation makes someone easy marks for hoaxsters and others who seek to gain credibility and traﬃc by getting the press to cite their claims and content.
What you want to verify may not, of course, be a spoken or written claim but material – photos, videos, blogs or other content – sent to you or published online. In the digital age, photographs, video footage, text documents, websites and Twitter and other social media feeds can all be falsified. The most important thing to do when sent a material is to engage your brain.
Most media organizations utilize a range of hedging language and attribution formulations to convey that information they are passing on is unveriﬁed. Headlines are frequently used to express the unveriﬁed claim as a question.
Ultimately, it is up to users to spend the time to fact check information that is presented to them and to use discretion before sharing something that could be inaccurate. Until technology can catch up with this problem, it is the responsibility of the platforms and the users to remain vigilant and to share content that is legitimate and factual.
A conflict of interest can create an appearance of impropriety that can undermine the reliability of a content source. Any media organization has a conflict of interest in discussing anything that may impact its ability to communicate as it wants with its audience. Most media, when reporting a story which involves a parent company or a subsidiary, will explicitly report this fact as part of the story, in order to alert the audience that their reporting has the potential for bias due to the possibility of a conflict of interest.
The presence of a conflict of interest is independent of the occurrence of impropriety. Therefore, a conflict of interest can be discovered and voluntarily defused before any corruption occurs. A conflict of interest exists if the circumstances are reasonably believed (on the basis of past experience and objective evidence) to create a risk that a decision may be unduly influenced by other, secondary interests, and not on whether a particular individual is actually influenced by a secondary interest.
A conflict of interest is a set of circumstances that creates a risk that professional judgement or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest.
We live in a digital world. This means that we are constantly surrounded by information. A large amount of this information is solid, reliable, and verifiable. Sadly, there is also a lot of untrue “information” circulating the internet. This “information” which seems to be every bit as popular as actual and verifiable knowledge. So, what do we do? We must work hard to discover what is true, and what isn’t, or at least what seems to be untrue.
This means that to an extent we can fight to uncover what is true and what isn’t. That’s something which is great about a digital world. We can fact-check ourselves and others. This is something which is genuinely important. A single mistake, no matter how small, could result in anything from losing your trust to becoming the target of an internet backlash or even legal repercussions.
Misinformation and other invalid contents are published for a variety of reasons. Some post it to smear an adversary, others enjoy “trolling” forums to watch others’ reactions, while some post “clickbait” in order to entice potential customers to view their ads. Regardless the motivation, publishing inaccurate reports can have catastrophic results.
If nothing else, publishing falsehoods can harm reputations, causing brands to lose current and potential customers.
In a world where fame can happen overnight (due to an astonishing discovery, or a viral video for example), it is important to ground oneself in knowledge and the pursuit of knowledge. Also, we live in a world where false statements can just as easily become viral as true ones and where untrue beliefs can seem to go unchecked, it’s easy to become discouraged about the truth and the pursuit of it. In order to achieve the best possible world, it is necessary to push towards the truth.
More pointedly, think about your experiences with Facebook. Every time we login to our accounts, we’re often bombarded with information, making it difficult to sort through content and find facts. As more and more false information lands in front of us, it is becoming more difficult to identify something as inaccurate, especially if it has been shared tens of thousands of times.
What can be even more challenging is finding the original source of the fake news or meme once it goes viral. If a source cannot be found, it is next to impossible to hold someone responsible for misinforming people. Those people whose photos are stolen for the purpose of disseminating fake news have no way to take control of their intellectual property and stop the viral image from being shared.
This is the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs. This biased approach to decision making is largely unintentional and often results in ignoring inconsistent information. Existing beliefs can include one’s expectations in a given situation and predictions about a particular outcome. People are especially likely to process information to support their own beliefs when the issue is highly important or self-relevant.
The tendency to cherry-pick information that confirms existing beliefs or ideas explains why two people with opposing views on a topic can see the same evidence and come away feeling validated by it. This cognitive bias is most pronounced in the case of ingrained, ideological, or emotionally charged views.
Failing to interpret information in an unbiased way can lead to serious misjudgments. By understanding this, we can learn to identify it in ourselves and others. We can be cautious of data that seems to immediately support our views.