Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Samuel from West Valley City, UT. Samuel Wonders, “How does content (sponsored fake news) work?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Samuel!
Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard the term "fake news" used quite a bit over the course of the past year or more. In the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, fake news has been big news, but what exactly is it?
Although it can take a wide variety of different forms, fake news usually consists of stories that purport to inform on current events but have no basis in fact. These stories are often accompanied by tantalizing headlines that encourage sharing on social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter.
Sites or outlets that publish wild or untrue stories for purposes of satire or parody are usually not considered fake news. For example, when Wonderopolis published "Why Is the Internet Shutting Down?" on April 1, 2017, users understood it was an April Fool's joke and not a true story.
While the focus of fake news in 2016 tended to be politics, you'll find fake news stories on just about any topic you can imagine, including entertainment, popular culture, and health and wellness. Because it's so easy to publish information on the Internet and share it on social media, fake news stories can quickly go viral and be accepted as truth by many people before fact checkers have a chance to debunk them.
Why would people create fake news? In the case of politics, fake news articles might consist of deliberate disinformation intended to sway popular opinion for or against a certain candidate. In most other areas, the motivation is money.
In today's online world, advertising revenue is often generated by enticing users to click on links to read content. Fake news stories with wild or tantalizing headlines tend to entice users to click through to learn more, generating revenue for the author of the fake news in the process.
Is fake news really a big deal, though? Shouldn't it be easy to spot? Unfortunately, the answer to that question appears to be "no."
Researchers recently studied a large group of high school and college students to determine their ability to assess the credibility of information sources. Researchers concluded that today's students showed a "stunning and dismaying consistency" in their inability to effectively evaluate the credibility of information they read online.
So why is it so hard to spot fake news? First of all, fake news is generated to look and sound like real news. If readers don't critically evaluate it and consider multiple sources to determine what's true, it's easy to get duped.
People also have a tendency to want to believe things that are consistent with beliefs they already hold. This is particularly true in the area of politics. If you don't like a particular candidate, you're much more likely to believe a fake news story that paints that candidate in a negative light.
Social media also plays a role. If a fake news story is shared by a friend that you trust, you might be less inclined to investigate the story's accuracy. If the story goes viral and you see it in multiple places, the fact that it's everywhere makes it look more legitimate.
Compounding the problem is the fact that many legitimate news agencies now use their own sensational headlines on new stories, especially those targeted at social media, in order to compete with fake news for clicks. When real news and fake news look so much alike, it's obvious that fake news is going to become harder to spot.
So how can you identify and counteract fake news? Fortunately, large technology companies, like Google and Facebook, have pledged to crack down on fake news. By working with fact-checking organizations, they can more effectively identify and label fake news while reducing its ability to go viral.
On a personal level, we must all learn to read like fact checkers. We must learn to evaluate critically all the information we consume online. Rather than relying upon a single story shared on social media, we must dive deeper to consider multiple sources before accepting something as fact, especially if we intend to act upon that piece of information.