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Why we believe fake news

Tribune News Service logo Tribune News Service 10/22/2020 By Rebecca Heimbrock, iGeneration Youth
diagram: Fake news is a lucrative business. © iGeneration Youth/iGeneration Youth/TNS Fake news is a lucrative business.

Does any of this sound fishy?

“Leftists have launched a group funded by corrupt organizations to hold social media accountable.” “Hydroxychloroquine will cure coronavirus.” “Tap water is turning frogs gay.” These are all stories that have been peddled by misinformation sites such as Breitbart and Info-Wars — sites whose goal it is to scare and further radicalize far-right America.

Breitbart News Network is a platform that has been described as “far-right” by the Washington Post. It peddles theories about the Democratic Party’s funding in many articles. One such article, titled “Weaponized Whiteness: Meet Extremists Shaping Joe Biden’s 2020 Agenda,” claims that “a task force on criminal justice reform charged with shaping Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s public policy agenda and intended to guide the Party’s 2020 platform is composed of extremist members with radical views.”

Not all fake news is political. News outlets like the Daily Mail peddle celebrity gossip and exaggerated news articles. Its history of false information and clickbait headlines such as “Woman, 63, ‘becomes PREGNANT in the mouth’ with baby squid after eating calamari” has led to the site not being considered a reliable source on Wikipedia. In an interview with CNBC, the founder of Wikipedia stated the Daily Mail “mastered the art of, I’m sad to say, of running stories that simply aren’t true.”

But what allows misinformation platforms such as Breitbart and the Daily Mail to become so popular? Fake news is a lucrative business. Ali Velshi, a television journalist at NBC and MSNBC, explained in a 2017 news video that “with each click, fake news creators are raking in the bucks.” The sites make money from ads and clicks.

“The ads you see next to a fake news story aren’t placed there by the advertiser. Facebook, Google, and others determine the ads you see when you click on a fake story,” Velshi said. “With no actual human oversight, it’s an automated form of advertising that rewards high traffic to fake news sites, rather than good content or accuracy.”

Dr. Nathan Heflick, a senior lecturer at the University of Lincoln in the UK explained in a post on the Psychology Today blog what drives people’s fake news consumption. He said “naive realism” and the “bias blind spot” lead people to “think that information that aligns with our existing beliefs — even if it is fake — is more credible than information that does not.”

Naive realism is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the commonsense viewpoint that our perception of the external world is a direct copy of it.”

In an interview with iGeneration Youth, Heflick elaborated on the concept, saying: “If you belong to a group that has a certain belief, you’re going to think that it’s objective, that it’s true, and that it’s rational. When you hear the fake news, you’re more likely to believe it if it comes from your group or supports your beliefs because it matches your reality.”

There’s also a connection among these blind spots, fake news, and social media. “If someone challenges (your belief) on social media, you don’t take their criticism seriously because you think you already have the truth,” said Heflick, who has a Ph.D. in social psychology. “You’re really more likely to reject someone’s idea if they’re criticizing you on social media compared to being in person, partially because there’s no face-to-face.”

Fake news is not limited to right-wing platforms. Sam Levin, the Los Angeles correspondent for the Guardian, wrote about the rise in left-wing fake news in 2017. “On the left, there are numerous styles of misinformation that appear to be gaining traction,” he stated. He cited examples of fake news, including blatantly fabricated stories, deceitful and hyperbolic headlines, viral memes with tenuous connections to the truth, and poorly sourced articles featuring inaccurate visuals.

Fact-checking websites can help audiences distinguish fact from fiction. The fact-checking-site Snopes defines itself as “the internet’s go-to source for discerning what is true and what is total nonsense.” Twitter has also begun fact checking tweets and recently introduced a new label for Tweets containing synthetic and manipulated media.

The social media site said that “similar labels will now appear on Tweets containing potentially harmful, misleading information related to COVID-19.” Twitter’s goal is to “make it easier to find facts and make informed decisions about what people see on Twitter.”

Time will tell if Twitter’s measures work and other social media platforms adopt strategies to combat fake news. Even if they do, it remains necessary for audiences to use fact-checking sites and keep a critical eye on the news they consume.



Rebecca is an iGeneration Youth reporter living in Fairfax, Virginia. Read more stories at


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