Poynter forum highlights the fake news problem

The First Amendment Foundation and a local chapter of the League of Women Voters Florida held an event last week to discuss the surge of fake news in websites and social media over the past year.

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Telling the difference between false and real news or something in between can be a real nightmare. It's even harder with the proliferation of information (and misinformation) sources from newspapers, radio, and television to websites, Facebook, Twitter and — why not? — Snapchat.

The egregiously false headline "Pope Francis endorses Trump for president" became one of the most popular stories on Facebook during the 2016 election, and even outperformed real news on social media and traditional media outlets.

To highlight the phenomenon, the First Amendment Foundation and the St. Pete chapter of League of Women Voters Florida held a panel discussion called “Fake News vs. Real News & How to Tell the Difference” last week. The event had panelists Amy Hollyfield (PolitiFact), Matt Brown (WFTS), Graham Brink (Tampa Bay Times) and moderator Tim Nickens (Tampa Bay Times) who talked, on March 30, about how to identify where a story comes from, and what’s behind it.

You may remember Donald Trump’s first press conference as President-elect when he pointed at CNN’s Jim Acosta and said: "You are fake news!" and refused to even hear Acosta's question. Since then, the Commander in Chief of the USA has filled his Twitter feed with the words “fake news” in referring to major media outlets such as The New York Times, ABC, and CBS after they published unflattering or critical coverage of Trump.

Do we blame Trump?

Stories posing as real news are nothing new. It goes back to ancient times, with campaigns of disinformation during the Roman wars and along the 20th century with the Nazi propaganda filled with Anti-Jewish messages. But also, the appearance of blogs and social media in the 2000’s changed the way people produce and consume the news.

"One thing that people don't notice is the algorithms that help [to] drive [the information]. The things that a computer can do just to make it fly into thousands of people's streams," Hollyfield said. "But it's also the fact that advertisers will pay for it."

Of course, the US Presidential election, in November 2016, triggered a surge in the number of searches for the phrase 'fake news' on the Internet. This political event contributed to the surge of incredible news that were a terrific political weapon that helped galvanize Trump's supporters — and demonize his opponent.

Politicians like Barack Obama and Rick Scott also employed "fake news" during their campaigns — and that was before Trump launched his faux birtherism controversy. There was also a surge of false stories in 2000 during Bush and Cheney's campaign.

“I don’t blame Trump for it; I think he’s taking advantage," Brick, who works as an editor for the Times, said.

But he's certainly not helping, either.

In February, in front of thousands of fans in Florida, Trump alluded to an alleged attack in Sweden.

"We've got to keep our country safe," the president said. "You look at what's happening in Germany. You look at what's happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden. They took in large numbers. They're having problems like they never thought possible."

It was just one inaccurate reference to a nonexistent terrorist attack or incident by those in his administration. Prior to that, Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway cited the "Bowling Green massacre" that never happened, and White House press secretary Sean Spicer referred, not one but three times, to an attack in Atlanta, later clarifying that he meant to refer to Orlando.

Of course, not only the government or politicians reproduce these stories. There is false news about everything. From the story about an Ebola outbreak’s prompting a quarantine in Purdon, Texas; the world’s first successful head transplant; restaurants using rat and horse meat to make their chili and a lottery winner who died after gold-plating his testicles.

The proliferation of blogs and websites used to “made up” stories, has proven to be an issue difficult to confront. While social media allows for the rapid spread of information.

Where are the reporters?

Hollyfield, of PolitiFact, said she remembers the proliferation of falsehoods during the 2008 election, but that the problem has since ballooned out of control.

“Now there are websites that are completely fake, they’re out there for fun,” Hollyfield said. “I do think is a serious problem, and a lot of it rests in the consumers of news. They need to be smart about what they’re looking at, understanding news sources [and] compare them to a trusted news source.”

But, according to the panelists, more than fun, this type of websites attracts advertisers and brings money to the owners.

And often, it's up to the often resource-strapped media outlets to root out quickly-spreading lies.

“Reporters have become more wary. Each side gets exactly the same amount because sometimes one side is just simply wrong and you have to show that in the story. That can be difficult to do in a daily story that you only have some hours to work on; that’s a little easier to do if you have more time,” Brink said. “The other thing that helps with that is reporters who have expertise.”

Brown (of WFTS) said he hopes to have more conversations with people on both sides of the political spectrum, since the more people that disagree with one another have more conversations, the more they’ll want to get to the truth.

“I don’t think people want to be fooled, regardless of what their’ beliefs are. I think media as a whole, we need to earn back some of the respect we once had,” Brown said.

According to Brown, the change will happen if people just talk to one another and pay more attention to other’s opinions.

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