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How to tell the difference between real and fake news

News outlets have been fighting a losing battle for some time. The internet changed the way we consume media for good and traditional publishers are still struggling to find a way to monitise their businesses. Paywalls have had little success. And rather than pay for information, people instinctively seek out answers on free platforms.

This has given rise to satirical and sensationalist mastheads generating traffic with controversy or humour – never letting the facts get in the way of a good story. For the first time, fake news could have had a significant outcome in the 2016 American election, and could have a significant impact on global politics. In fact, analysis by Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman shows that fake news articles outperformed real news on Facebook in the final month leading up to America’s election day. The network’s algorithm amplifies trending news – whether it’s real or fake – and has no journalistic discretion. Facebook has since admitted that it needs to do more to combat false information, but there is little indication of how or when this might occur.

Reading between the lines

Dr Kristy Hess, Senior Lecturer in Communication at Deakin University, has researched the relationship between Facebook and news media and says, ‘Facebook is not held to account the same way that mainstream media is when it comes to upholding and sharing accurate, reliable information.’ The challenge for readers is to interrogate what they’re reading rather than simply believing anything that aligns with their values.

It is unfair to place all blame on social networks, though. Bias creeps into even the most respected mainstream news outlets. ‘This is going to be an increasingly important point of distinction for journalism as we move further into the 21st century. It’s not just about issues of trust and reliability, it’s about legitimacy,’ Dr Hess points out and adds that individuals can work to develop their own news consumption and analysis skills so that they’re better equipped to make fair assessments of the information they’re provided with. ‘We often develop opinions based on where we stand in the world, our background and life experiences. We must try as a society to listen to alternative views and be open-minded when forming opinions,’ Dr Hess suggests.


'We often develop opinions based on where we stand in the world, our background and life experiences. We must try as a society to listen to alternative views and be open-minded when forming opinions.'

Dr Kristy Hess,
Senior Lecturer in Communication, Deakin University

Checking the source

According to Dr Hess, the rise of fake news only reaffirms the future of reliable journalism. She argues that the next generation of journalists will be ‘the beacons of accurate, reliable information. This is how they will be able to maintain legitimacy in the digital age,’ she explains. Increasingly, as readers become aware of the proliferation of fake news, they will increasingly seek to verify the facts, which is why traditional media outlets with a strong reputation are not yet done for.

However, she adds that Facebook sets a good example in terms of distribution of news and audience engagement. ‘Journalists can learn much from the Facebook model of using their position to help connect people and to help readers make sense of issues or guide them in times of crisis,’ Dr Hess says. Facebook has argued that it is the channel that people access rather than the news creator which is why it ‘distances itself from any ethical responsibility’.

Dr Hess believes many news outlets that drive their audiences to consume news content on Facebook need to rethink their approach if they want to remain economically viable and build loyal audiences. ‘They should be using Facebook purely as a promotional tool and trying their best to direct online traffic back to their own websites to build advertising,’ she concludes.


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Dr Kristy Hess
Dr Kristy Hess

Senior Lecturer in Communication, Deakin University
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