All the news that's fake to share

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A popular joke that I've seen over the past several months goes something like this: I possess a device, small enough to hold in one hand, that gives me access to all the knowledge of human history. I use it to watch cat videos and argue with strangers on the Internet.

It's funny, and it's not.

The people of the world are more closely connected than ever before, thanks to modern technology. I can send a message on my cell phone and transmit it to someone literally on the other side of the world. Instantly.

I can take a picture of my grandson smearing cake all over his face at his first birthday party, upload that photo to my Facebook page, and share it with hundreds of friends, all by punching two or three buttons.

And, yes, I can watch cat videos or argue over politics with complete strangers. As someone remarked over dinner just tonight, I can go to Youtube and find a video tutorial for just about any project I can think of.

Technology has made it easier than ever before to share information, and that is a wonderful thing.

But there is a flip side to that: Technology also has made it easier than ever before to share disinformation, and that is a horrible thing. It's particularly troubling to me as a journalist.

Good, well-trained journalists know that the most important thing we have is our credibility. Every time I write a news story and put my name on it, my credibility is being tested, The same is true of this newspaper as a whole. If we were to knowingly print false information -- or even if we did so unknowingly by failing to verify what we printed -- our credibility would disappear. Now, that's not to say that we don't make mistakes sometimes. Mistakes do happen, because we are human. And trust me, when we do make a mistake, our readers are very quick to bring it to our attention.

Somehow, though, alleged "news stories" that are completely fabricated are all over the Internet. I'm not talking about a reporter covering a meeting and not quite understanding a complex issue, or a typo in a headline. I'm talking about stories that are totally made up, most often with a political slant. The people who write these fake stories aren't making a human error; they are fully aware that they are disseminating disinformation. And they don't care, frankly because there's a lot of money to be made in fake news.

Of course, fake news isn't new. Tabloids like the National Enquirer have been peddling fake stories for years. But I've never met anyone who actually believed anything they read in the Enquirer. On the other hand, I can go look at my Facebook feed right now and probably find two dozen examples of people sharing fake news stories generated by websites with legitimate-sounding names.

Not long before last month's presidential election, a very good friend texted me to ask if I had heard about an FBI agent and his family being murdered. I had not, but a little research revealed an online story "reporting" that an FBI agent investigating Hillary Clinton's emails had been killed along with his family. Less than 10 minutes more research revealed that the story was completely fabricated, simply made up by a fake news site to generate page views that in turn generate advertising revenue.

I'm sure some of you have seen that fabricated news story. Perhaps some of you have even shared it. I'm not asking anyone to change their political views, or to stop sharing accurate, factual information. But I would kindly ask that you consider the source, try your best to verify what you're sharing, and consider the impact that sharing false information can have on our community and our country.

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Scott Loftis is managing editor for Carroll County Newspapers. His email address is CarrollCountyNews@cox-internet.com.