Drawing a distinction between fake and real news is going to be hard for those Facebook and Google employees tasked with banning offending sites. But it shouldn’t be so hard for you, the consumer.
Melissa Zimdars, assistant professor of communication and media at Merrimack College, has made a list of more than a hundred problematic news sites, along with tips for sorting the truthful from the troublesome. She talks with Brooke about how to be a savvy news consumer in a misinformation-filled world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Drawing a distinction between fake and real news is going to be hard for those Facebook and Google employees tasked with bird dogging offending sites, but it shouldn’t be so hard for you, the consumer.
Melissa Zimdars, professor of communication and media at Merrimack College, has made a list of more than a hundred problematic news sites, along with tips for sorting out the truthful from the troublesome. She got into the fake news sorting racket after a hot tip.
MELISSA ZIMDARS: Someone alerted me to the fact that when you searched for the popular vote on Google, the first Google news item that came up was a fake news website saying that Hillary Clinton lost the popular vote.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
MELISSA ZIMDARS: And that's when I was like, yeah, we need to teach our students [LAUGHS] how to navigate this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell me what the reaction’s been to the doc?
MELISSA ZIMDARS: I received hundreds of emails saying, oh, this made me think about a particular website that I go to a lot. Maybe I need to read more broadly. Or some people said, yeah, I've been concerned about this website too. But I will say in the last 24 hours the tide has turned a little bit. A lot of the websites on the list are now encouraging their readers to send me information about how they feel. [LAUGHS] And so, now there's been sort of an onslaught of personally negative commentary from them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you’re getting trolled.
MELISSA ZIMDARS: Majorly trolled, yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In fact, hasn't Breitbart and other websites fingered you as a target in the latter part of this week?
MELISSA ZIMDARS: They most definitely have. I seem to have become the poster child for censorship and for rejecting alternative points of view, in favor of “the media," in quotes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. You have basically lumped a bunch of these fake news sites or semi-fake news sites into four categories. Flat-out fake is number 1. Reports in a way that's connected to the truth but lacks context quotes, verifiability is 2; 3 is just plain click bait, 4 is satire. And, of course, some of them can be all of those things. Part of the reason why you’ve gotten legitimate pushback is because satire sites don’t want to be on a list marked “fake.”
MELISSA ZIMDARS: Yeah, but I will say, actually, several satire websites sent me links to their list saying, we don't want to be confused as actual news. You should add us to the list.
I think satire is fantastic. I think it serves a really important political and social purpose. But satire can also be misunderstood, and has been, and a lot of communication studies show this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, how do you account for the fact that click bait is increasingly becoming a practice among reputable news sources that put a headline which could very well be misleading, like one in the Huffington Post: “Bernie Sanders could replace President Trump with little-known loophole.”
MELISSA ZIMDARS: Yeah and what’s crazy about that example is it was meant to teach people about click bait headlines and verifying resources, but undoubtedly that got shared [LAUGHS] by people who only read the headline.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you characterize Breitbart as a 2 and a 3. Tell me why.
MELISSA ZIMDARS: So a 3 is often because they rely on hyperbole. Just scrolling through a lot of their headlines, there seems to be sometimes a disconnect even between the headline and the article. But they've also published a lot of stuff during the election that isn’t really verifiable. And really good journalists have looked at that coverage, especially now that Bannon is part of Trump's team. I think it kind of vacillates between stuff grounded in truth that's potentially informing to readers of the website but other content that does a disservice to their readers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's get to the sites that are downright false. This was probably the most useful part of the list for me. How can you identify them?
MELISSA ZIMDARS: Their web design, you can almost always tell - all caps, exaggerated Photoshopped visuals and oftentimes just by their strange domain names. So instead of msnbc.com, you have msnbc.com.co.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You said we should avoid websites that end in “lo” as in Newslo.
MELISSA ZIMDARS: Yeah. That tip came from a blogger by the name of Ed Brayton. You know, these sites might have a bit of accuracy to them but they’re usually detextualized or contain otherwise false or misleading facts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Then there are the things that are cleverly designed to mislead, like an old article circulating as if it's breaking news.
MELISSA ZIMDARS: The first thing to do when you open something that interests you is to look immediately at the date.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you do about the in between sites like Buzzfeed Community Posts or Forbes’ blog? They’re certainly not fact checked, but they do exist under the banner of legitimate organizations.
MELISSA ZIMDARS: Exactly. And I think that makes it more difficult for people to navigate because they see the Forbes logo and they assume it's going through the same editing process. So I feel like there needs to be greater awareness than buried at the bottom of the post that this was submitted by a reader or a blogger unaffiliated or employed by those websites.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Probably the single-most helpful hint [LAUGHS] you, you’ve given readers is to do a gut check. If this story makes you really angry, it's probably a good idea to keep reading about the topic on other sources.
MELISSA ZIMDARS: Yeah, these stories can make you really angry, due to capital letters, due to the types of terms they use, like, “So-and-so will destroy Donald Trump” or whatever it may be. These sources are definitely coming from a certain perspective. Persuasive opinion writing isn't a problem but when it's framed as more neutral or objective style reporting, that's when there's a problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you suggest that it wouldn't hurt to check the About Us tab on the website.
MELISSA ZIMDARS: If you can find one. [LAUGHS] Sometimes when you're on these sites, it’s very difficult to figure out even who is publishing the website. So if there is an About Us tab, definitely check it. Otherwise, see if there’s Wikipedia pages. See if other websites have reported on them. But I think part of the problem is a lot of people whose message is in these websites, even if they find another website saying that that information or the website is false, they might think that these other critical websites are just trying to prevent the truth from coming out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, but the thing is, is that if you keep digging, if you really care enough to get beyond your own confirmation bias, you can come to the truth.
MELISSA ZIMDARS: Totally. And I think all of the discussion about fake news is, at the very least, generating a discussion. I even had family members texting me that they had never thought about this before and now they feel like they will pay attention more to what they’re circulating. And most of the emails I receive echo the same sentiment. And that's the goal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We’re going to post a link to your Google doc in onthemedia.org. And Melissa, I want to thank you so much for doing this.
MELISSA ZIMDARS: Thank you for having me.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Melissa Zimdars is a professor of communication and media at Merrimack College. You can find a link to the “Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Fake News Edition” at our website, onthemedia.org.co - just kidding, just onthemedia.org.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman and Paige Cowett. We had more help from Micah Loewinger, Sara Qari and Leah Feder. And our show was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Casey Holford.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schacter is WNYC’s vice-president for news. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.