There has been a lot of hubbub over fake news lately. The elevation of Breitbart’s Steve Bannon to White House status and the recent shooting at a Washington pizzeria that was associated with the “pizzagate” conspiracy theory played a role in the current fascination with fake news, but the proliferation of fake news outlets on the internet was bound to cause a stir sooner or later.
I realized several years ago that a lot of the articles that people were posting on Facebook were simply not true. Some were poorly researched or misinterpreted real events, but others were intentionally out to deceive. Some deceptive sites included disclaimers that they were “satire.” Others did not.
Now a new survey by Morning Consult shows that we probably don’t need to be worried too much about fake news. The poll found that Americans have internal BS detectors that are more highly refined than they are generally given credit for.
The survey asked participants to rate 13 popular news organizations, some real and some fake. What the pollsters found out will astound you!
A bipartisan sample rated one notorious fake news site, Alex Jones’ Infowars, as less credible than The Onion, a popular satire site. You heard that right. The conspiracy site, with a recent story headlined “METHODIST CHURCHES CONVERTING TO ‘VIRTUAL MOSQUES’ FOR MUSLIM MIGRANTS,” was deemed to be less believable than a site that carries on its masthead the Latin motto, “Tu stultus es,” which, when translated, means “You’re an idiot.”
The news outlets that were believed to be most credible were ABC, CBS, NBC, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and CNN. Each of these outlets was considered credible by more than 60 percent of respondents. Favorability for these outlets cut across party lines, although Democrats rated almost all outlets as more credible than Republicans. Fox News and MSNBC followed, each with 55 percent favorability. NPR scored credible with 51 percent and the Huffington Post with 46 percent.
Bringing up the rear were Steve Bannon’s Breitbart at 19 percent, The Onion at 18 percent and Infowars at 17 percent. The Morning Consult does point out that both Breitbart and Infowars were unfamiliar to almost half of the respondents. In both cases, of the people familiar with the sites, a larger number considered them not credible than credible.
When the results of the survey are broken down along party lines, the results are largely the same. The main change is that Fox News is the most trusted news source among Republicans while it ranks just above The Onion for Democrats. The three major networks and the WSJ rank high among both parties.
The rock bottom rankings for Infowars and Breitbart are richly deserved. While Infowars was a conspiracy site from Day One, Breitbart went from a real conservative news site under Andrew Breitbart to a page that is now known for hysterics about Jade Helm laying the groundwork for martial law and accusing Republicans of colluding with Democrats on “amnesty,” which became the site’s code word for any immigration reform proposal.
Breitbart and Infowars aren’t the only offenders. There is a whole cottage industry of “citizen journalists” who are actively misinterpreting or making up news. At one point, I started compiling a list of fake news sites, but it was impossible to keep pace with new web pages. Among the stories that I have seen are claims that the Affordable Care Act included language to create a secret police force, that Obamacare medical codes showed that Obama was going to bring the guillotine to America as a method of execution, and, of course, last year’s claims that secret tunnels under Wal-Marts were being used as staging areas to prepare for martial law that would keep President Obama in power.
If you are tempted to believe these and other stories floating around the internet, don’t. They were all 100 percent fake.
To avoid being taken in by fake news, work on enhancing your own internal BS detector. Here are a few tips:
- If you don’t recognize the site as a real news source, be skeptical. Look carefully, some fake news sites closely mimic the names and pages of real news sources.
- If it has a clickbait headline, don’t bother.
- When in doubt, look for links to the primary source that the writer used. Most legitimate news sites and blogs will link to their source material. If there is no link, use Google. If you can’t find the real story with Google, it probably doesn’t exist.
- Misspelled words, incorrect grammar and inflammatory language are red flags. Legitimate news sites have editors and at least make a pretense of being objective.
The bottom line is to take everything with a grain of salt and learn to fact check for yourself. In the brave new cyber world of Infowars and Breitbart, if it sounds too stupid to be true, it probably is.