Oh really? Dealing with fake news

Written by: Bernardo D’Agostino, Elisa Tognozzi, Federico Spoletini

Fake news are stories invented by anonymous writers to profit from clicks or spread propaganda. They affect people on an emotional level and they lead to the phenomenon of post-truth. It happens when “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, as defined by the Oxford dictionary.

Such a phenomenon is nothing new to human experience. In the 8th century a forged Roman imperial decree was created, the Donation of Constantine, in which the emperor Constantine apparently gave the power over Rome to the Pope. It took another 600 years for the decree to be debunked. History is rife with examples of this kind, and highlights just how hard it is to dispel an untruth.

With the arrival of modern technology and the birth of social media there has been an exponential increase in the traffic of fake articles. They spread into a wide range of different fields such as politics, sports, gossip. Fake news writers use the outrage of the public to get shared through  titles that are deliberately designed to stand out in the internet. They are oftentimes never checked and can be posted by anyone with an internet connection, who in this way can easily trick less experienced people.

A recent example that made a huge uproar was the one reported by WTOE 5 news: “Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president”. This article was viewed by millions of Americans.

But why do people believe fake news?

Are we all so dumb? Or is it all due to the cloak and dagger work of the illuminati?

After hours of research we arrived at the conclusion that there are several reasons for this. First, since most fake news stories are related to personal beliefs, it is obvious that people tend to defend their opinions without having an objective view.

This is demons
trated in a study published last year in Nature magazine that underlines that challenging someone’s political beliefs activates the same areas of the brain involved in personal identity and emotional response to threat.

These scans on the left show the brain reacting to political statements (depicted in yellow and red) and non-political statements (shown in green and blue).

Another reason is that titles are structured in a way that render them very credible:

“YouTube prankster Adam Saleh claiming that he was kicked off a Delta Airlines flight for speaking Arabic”

“Is “racism” why Adele beat Beyoncé at the Grammys?”

“Venezuela bans CNN for lies”

All of the above titles, believed by a lot of people, were published on leading news outlets despite being utterly false.     

Fake news could also be potentially dangerous, as they can discredit a person’s public image
with accusations in a matter of seconds or radically change people’s voting opinions in a country. And they can even result in terrible situations such as the pizzagate scandal, which caused a real shooting in the pizzeria where it was believed Hilary Clinton was running a human trafficking operation.

Even when surfing on social network we often find fake news because people do not check them. Considering we are internet’s generation!

The fact that they can be viral in a short time before the denial is published is particularly damaging. It stands to reason, therefore, that this increasingly widespread feature of our lives must be reduced.

How could we avoid the spread of fake news?

We have to be able to recognise real news from fakes. Here there are some useful tips that can help you:

1)Check the source against other sources

2)Use a fact-checking website

3)Check who is writing the article

4)Check the date on the post

You should follow these “instructions” before sharing news on the internet and on the social networks.

“I think only education can solve this problem”. This is the view of Pat Winters Lauro, a professor at Kean University in New Jersey who has analysed the problem at length. She argues that we must develop a personal critical sense and be aware of the many misleading or downright false stories on the web.

It should be pointed out that Fake news can also be used in a “positive” way as a parody to
entertain people on the internet. In recent years many pages have been created full of funny fake news stories, and talk about current affairs in an ironic way. Examples of this include “Lercio” in Italy and “the Onion” in the U.S., websites famous for headlines like: “Anglo-iranian immigrant tries to enter in USA: police cut him in half and let only one part pass”.

One thing is certain: There is much complexity surrounding fake news, involving cultural change and the way people are now communicating as a result of the increased connectivity and freedom to produce and publish provided by technological advances and social media. It is likely that fake news and post-truths are phenomena which are going to spread even further in the coming years. We believe that awareness of what is happening and a certain healthy scepticism and carefulness regarding news in general is a useful first step in ensuring that we are not duped or feeding into a dishonest trend in society that is of little benefit and may even have drastic consequences in the long run. In the truest sense of the word, we are advising each other and others to be critical and to question things with particular intensity. This is a skill we can all develop and that should ideally represent a part of education going forward.




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