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Editorial: Americans need to learn to recognize the fake news designed to skew opinion

It’s so real and so pervasive that it has a name, one that already rings disturbingly familiar: fake news. It’s the production and dissemination of false information meant to influence the direction of American life by deluding anyone unsuspecting enough to swallow it.

Social media was drowning in fake news during this presidential election, often aimed at undermining Hillary Clinton. A share of the fake news was blamed on a sophisticated propaganda campaign by Russia.

What role, if any, it played in the election of Donald Trump is unknown, but the risk it holds for democracy is clear.

Democracy relies to a significant extent on a public well enough informed to make wise decisions about its own government. If those decisions are based on misinformation purposely created to skew the views of some portion of the electorate, then self-government begins to deteriorate.

It’s a scary thought, especially given some of the fake news spread during the campaign: That Clinton was mortally ill? That she molested children in a pizzeria in Washington, D.C.? That opponents of Trump beat a homeless veteran to death? That voting was rigged to ensure Clinton’s win?

Who believes this stuff? Yet, sadly, there is an open market for the preposterous. It’s not hard to find people who believe even the most absurd stories, as long as the stories support their own prejudices.
The only good news out of this is that, for people who want to, this pernicious trend is easy to counter. First and foremost is to pay attention to that nagging question in the back of the head. This only works for those who take the time to think, but it’s effective. Be doubtful, even – maybe especially – of convenient information that supports your worldview. If something seems unlikely or too “good” to be true, check it out. The Snopes website is a good place to test the veracity of internet bling.

Second, adopt the journalist’s code and insist upon corroboration. If your mother says she loves you, get a second source.

That’s the difference between real and fake news. Real news is reported by professionals with a commitment to accuracy and objectivity. It is checked and edited. Time and money are put into the serious work of providing information that is factual and valuable. It’s meant to inform, not to manipulate.

Contrast that with the findings of a recent New York Times story that looked at a fake news report that buses were being used to transport paid protesters to an anti-Trump rally. It was posted on Twitter by Eric Tucker,  co-founder of a marketing company in Austin, Texas.

It was false. The buses had been acquired for a software company’s conference. Nevertheless, it was shared at least 16,000 times on Twitter and more than 350,000 times on Facebook.
When a Times reporter asked Tucker why he didn’t check out his information, he replied: “I don’t have time to fact-check everything I put out there, especially when I don’t think it’s going out there for wide consumption.”

Yet people believed the story and among them, apparently, was Trump, himself who – either gullibly or manipulatively – was soon complaining about paid protesters.

It’s a hazardous trend for any democracy that intends to sustain itself. Social media sites, especially Facebook and Twitter, need to combat a practice that is bad for them and worse for the country.

Even more important, consumers have to learn how to distinguish between what is real and what is fake. When voters make decisions on any candidate or any party based on false information, they and the country that relies on them are being abused. That’s too dangerous to go unchallenged.

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