Is Fake News the Problem or Are We?


Fake news stories, which are often hard to discern from those that are true, have permeated the daily news cycle, especially online. Nora Carol Photography/Getty Images
Fake news stories, which are often hard to discern from those that are true, have permeated the daily news cycle, especially online. Nora Carol Photography/Getty Images

While yellow journalism has existed longer than the term coined to describe it, recent events like the 2016 presidential election have created a new fervor around understanding — and, more importantly, identifying — fake news versus real news. After all, we live in an age where more than 62 percent of adults in the U.S. get their information from social media sites, with radio and print news lagging far behind. Stuff They Don't Want You to Know hosts Ben Bowlin, Matt Frederick and Noel Brown sniff out the facts in an episode of their podcast.

The problem with fake news is that users have become pretty terrible at recognizing it. Many fake news sites are savvy enough to spoof URLs posing as trusted news sites (washingtonpost.com.co, for example), or to make sure their format is similar enough to a real news site that hopefully, we won't look too closely at it.

On top of that, as Ben and Matt explain, sites exploit a neurocognitive instinct present in every human being — confirmation bias, or basically, our desire to be right. When we read or hear fake facts that happen to agree with what we already believe, we are much quicker to accept them as true. But more than that, we're much less likely to be persuaded that those facts are fake, despite being presented with evidence. Instead, we double down on our beliefs, so even if an article is proven to be false, the damage is already done.

There are quite a few different types of fake news, too. There's completely false news, which is the easiest to spot and usually sports giveaway headlines like "Rosie O'Donnell Gives Birth to a Shoe." But there is misleading news, too — news that sounds like it could be real but isn't. Misleading news is often as simple as an out-of-context quote or picture masquerading as evidence to support a wildly inaccurate story. Then there's highly partisan news that skews or omits facts to support an agenda. This can be fairly easy to spot as well, but is also the hardest to shake from that ol' confirmation bias.

Another problem with fake news is that it's incredibly profitable to produce. One NPR report traced a fake news site directly to the creator's door, and found that he made anywhere between $10,000 and $30,000 a month. That's a pretty sweet incentive, and thanks to that, it's not likely that fake news will be going anywhere anytime soon.

Websites like Google and Facebook have made strides to curb the amount of fake news we see on their sites, but there's a lot you can do to guard yourself from believing and sharing false information. If you sense yourself agreeing with something a little too easily, it might be worth a closer look.

Grab a shovel, people — it's time to dig a little deeper with Ben, Matt and Noel. Click on the podcast player to learn more about fake news and how you can decipher it from the real thing.