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Not fake news: how to sort out fact from fiction

(Patrick Sison, Associated Press)

SALT LAKE CITY — With less than two weeks to go until Election Day, political ads – and yes, fake news, too – are popping up on social media. But how do you know what’s real, what’s not, and who’s behind it?

In the first part of our two-part series, Truth and Trust, we take a closer look at how to sort the fact from the fiction on social media.

“That takes a lot of effort for regular folks,” Shannon McGregor, a professor at the University of Utah, says. She researches the world of social media and politics, including how ‘bots’ in Russia and even domestically generate messages and spread them automatically.

“The idea is to sort of create distrust in democracy and distrust in one another,” McGregor explains.

The FBI has learned that sometimes, the same bots produce messages for right and left, or conservative and liberal, audiences, covering topics like gun laws, LGBTQ issues, and more. McGregor says we’ve all been played, and the solution is to challenge ourselves more as news consumers.

“We’re more likely to believe something that’s not true if it aligns with our political beliefs or with our worldview,” McGregor says.

Once we see reports from organizations that don’t stick to facts and first-person sources, it gets even more confusing.

Fake news: a rallying cry?

“Their reports sort of come from a factual basis, but then they pile on a bunch of partisan commentary¬†and pass it off as news,” says Matthew Jacobsen, a digital producer for KSL. He’s one of the people here at KSL who hears from our audience about the stories on our website and social media accounts. He says they can be very passionate.

“They like to jump to the ‘fake news’ [accusation], which is sort of a rallying cry lately, just for things that you don’t agree with,” Jacobsen observes.

Just this month, Facebook created a ‘war room’ designed to delete fake accounts from bots producing misinformation and users who violate the company’s terms of service.

McGregor is skeptical.

“I guess their P.R. team is doing a good job,” she says, “but I’m not necessarily optimistic that a room of 20 people is going to fix this problem.”

On the upside, McGregor is grateful Facebook is forcing political advertisers to register, even mailing them postcards to verify each advertiser is who they say they are. In fact, KSL had to go through the same verification process as a news organization.

“However, they’re not requiring people who are placing political ads to disclose who is paying for the ad on Facebook,” McGregor says. “We, as consumers of that ad, we don’t know who it is.”

She points out digital advertising and storytelling must eventually have the same regulations as other media.

“Matching television ad disclosures, which we’ve had for a long time, where every political ad has to say, ‘paid for by so-and-so,’ and disclose whether or not it’s approved by a candidate,” she explains.

Researching fake news

A growing body of research is exploring the idea that both Russian bots and bots from other countries including the U.S. may be leveraged to influence political thought, but also that people, not just bots, may be doing so. At Data & Society, researchers are specifically studying media manipulation, the idea that spreading false information can be ‘weaponized’ to sow discord.

Other researchers have raised concerns about the use of algorithms, such as Facebook’s Edgerank, to sort content by social media networks, suggesting that the nature of algorithmic content feeds creates an environment in which that which someone already believes and agrees with becomes amplified, and diverging viewpoints are suppressed. On the flip side, news consumers appear to be catching on. The Reuters Institute Digital News Report of 2017 found an uptick in the number of people turning to messaging apps to share information rather than social networks, because they felt they had more control over what they see and share.

Tomorrow, in part two of our series, Truth and Trust, we’ll examine ways to fact-check and verify what you see on social media.

Contributing: Becky Bruce