If you haven’t heard about the fake news story, “Pizzagate,” you can search for it on Google, or read this article at the New York Times. The rumor was basically that a pedophile ring was operating out of a pizzeria linked somehow to Hillary Clinton. It was just one more nutty story circulating on the Internet, like the secret tunnels connecting Walmart stores, internment camp trains, and President Obama’s plans to invoke martial law rather than leave office. The story got serious when a fellow showed up at the pizzeria with an assault rifle, fired a shot, and announced he was investigating. That followed a string of harassment and death threats directed at the restaurant. This story might have been funny, but then the shooting started.
The problem is that some part of the population appears ill-equipped to deal with the barrage of information from the Internet, where a respected news web site looks very much like a fake news site, where bad actors, foreign governments, criminals, pranksters and political operatives abound. Charts and graphs are published by non-existent organizations that have official-sounding, but made up names. I am appalled that my own friends repeat fake news on Facebook. There are people who reflexively disbelieve any established news or governmental source, but then latch on to crazy stories from the likes of Alex Jones and his InfoWars brand. At least some have suggested that Donald Trump would not have been elected president without fake news.
Some have suggested that Facebook censor fake news. Facebook, in return, has agreed to cut off advertising revenue through Facebook to fake news sites. I don’t think that will have any effect. I personally spend a lot of time debunking these stories on Facebook and try to embarrass the people who spread them.
Critical thinking and evaluating the reliability of sources is something that we as parents should teach our children, and it should be a core mission of schools. Unfortunately, many of our parents and teachers lack the skills themselves.
A modest proposal
Social media sites have a “Like” button. On Facebook there is also Haha, Sad, Angry and Love. Why can’t they add “Fake”? Just as people enjoy being liked, they might be deterred from posting fake news if their posts were fake, and it would be a crowd-sourced resource to help identify fake news. Tools could be added for social media users to filter content based on their “Fake” preferences. If you agree, share the idea on social media.