UB Librarians Discuss How Fake News Creates a Cycle of Misinformation

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by Ashley Inkumsah, courtesy of The Spectrum

When Cynthia Tysick sees a news story on social media, she diligently fact-checks it on Snopes and PolitiFact.  “I’ve suddenly become the fact-checking guru on my Facebook feed,” Tysick, head of UB (University of Buffalo, NY) Educational Services said. “People are not happy with me, but it’s a service I bring.”

Tysick and her colleagues in UB Libraries feel students should have the ability to filter out real news from fake news. Fake news websites shell out dishonest and misleading information disguised as actual news, leaving many unable to tell the real from the fake. President Donald Trump has also blasted mainstream news organizations like CNN and The New York Times, calling them untrustworthy fake news organizations.

Tysick and her colleagues prepared a guide with tips from real news sources like The Washington Post and PolitiFact on how to detect fake news. The guide defines fake news and discusses how yellow journalism was used as a sensationalist tactic in the late 1800s to get people to support the Spanish War. It also gives lesson plans for instructors to educate their students about fake news.

Tysick’s team also put together a broadcast with sensationalized fake news that they’ve seen on Facebook or Twitter and they asked students if the story was “fact or fake.” They will reveal whether the story is true or false on Friday.

“We’re librarians, we’re in the business of information and if there’s going to be misinformation [and] disinformation, we need to alert the students on how to spot that because there’s nothing worse for us than something that’s completely wrong [that] just gets perpetuated over and over again so we want to kind of squash it as quickly as possible,” she said.

Tysick defines fake news as information presented to the public that has bias or is meant to scare individuals to believe information without factual evidence to support these claims.  Many students say they don’t trust the mainstream media and prefer to get their news from social media or YouTube, yet these students do not specify exactly what they distrust.

The Spectrum surveyed 222 UB students last year asking them where they get their news. Facebook and Twitter were the second and third most popular sources of news.

“The problem with Twitter and Facebook is that the information is stripped of its context, so all you see is one image, one poster, one meme, whatever you want to call it, with no reference to where it came from so if you’re gonna rely on that then you’re going to have problems because you don’t know that it came from somewhere like The Onion because whoever plunked it in their Facebook post took all the information out so what you see is out of context,” Tysick said.

Tysick said she also compares different accounts of the same stories from CNN, Fox News, BBC and sometimes NPR.  She’s found mainstream news organizations interpret information differently for the same news stories. She said journalists are not supposed to cover news from an interpretive lens, but should just stick to the facts.

“We kind of see [fake news] as the telephone game where one person tells one thing and then the next person adds their misinformation to it, so if you can, stop it right in the beginning,” said Bryan Sajecki, an Undergraduate Education librarian. “Librarians are essentially the gatekeepers of information and really help to find the good stuff and to be able to have that filter embedded into your head early on, that way you can figure out what’s good and what’s not and if we can be that person that’s where we wanna be.”

Nicole Thomas, who is also an undergraduate librarian, thinks many people have a hard time telling the difference between opinions and facts.  “A lot of times with Fox News and things like that, we have people sitting around the table offering their opinion but any journalist knows that with news, you’re not allowed to give your opinion, you just state the facts and so people I think have a hard time telling the difference between the two,” she said.

Tysick said during the 2016 presidential campaign fake news made supporters from both political parties “more energized than they had been before” because someone would see something that was negative against their candidate and they would lash out on social media.

Sajecki said the back and forth fighting between the two parties is like “simply poking the bear.”  “Everyone was willing to just fight about something,” he said. “There was so much upheaval between both candidates and both parties that it just became the perfect storm.”

Tysick said fake news caused a snowball effect.

Trump continued to lash out against the media, recently referring to journalists as the “enemy of the American people.” Thomas thinks good journalism is needed now more than ever in light of Trump’s recent slew of attacks against the media.

“I definitely think that Trump is using these tactics to confuse average American people that he can get into the heads of,” Thomas said. “Of course he doesn’t believe the news because it’s not necessarily putting him in a positive light and he’s pretty much attacking anything so whatever he says some of his followers are going to believe it and go along with it.”

Thomas thinks the mainstream media should continue to persevere to get these stories out and continue to present the facts because “the truth is going to come to light.”  “I think what’s happening now is you have journalists coming out and they’re saying ‘we have a code of ethics, we have something we’re supposed to follow, we need to go back to that document and go back to what our roots were,” Tysick said

Sajecki said determining whether a news story is true or false can be just as simple as a quick Google search.  “Google it,” he said. “That’s a very easy way to figure out if there’s a paper trail for the story they’re looking at. Always look for the author [his or her] self, look for the credibility of the resource, look for any sorts of references.”