Fake News Goes Viral

Americans must thoughtfully, vigilantly evaluate the news, particularly on social media.

With an overabundance of tainted, and often just made-up stories filtering into their news feeds, the American people are barraged with fake news. In the political arena, where citizens rely heavily on transparent leadership, misinformation must be countered.

At a Brookings Institution symposium on the misinformation crisis last week, a panel of researchers and journalists tried to dissect a media crisis that is undermining democratic values now more than ever.

Fake news is nothing new. The fierce newspaper competition at the turn of the 20th century produced an era of sensational yellow journalism. Now, thanks to the internet and the explosion of social media, sensational, phony stories can reach millions of people – and be spread to millions more – in a matter of hours.

We populate our social media feeds with people who share our viewpoints. We skim over mundane stories from reliable sources in favor of outrageous headlines from questionable sources. We buy into the presentation of misinformation – and then share it – because it seems plausible or because our friends and family shared it. In doing so, we are losing our allegiance to the truth.

Fortunately, we have the power to reclaim the truth. Fact-checking sites are available to quickly differentiate between truths and lies. As FactCheck.org Managing Editor Lori Robinson told the Brookings audience, these sites monitor politicians’ claims and rebuke false assertions to combat the quick, digital spread of misinformation. Fact-checking sites also serve preventative functions, as politicians are more likely to tell the truth if they know they are being publicly monitored.

More simply, a healthy skepticism about the validity of sources and stories can go a long way to combat the spread of misinformation. We may be facing a long battle against fake news, but with thoughtful and skeptical approaches to reporting, we can move toward becoming a more informed public.

While we need a government that supports a free and independent press, we also need a press that aims to provide accurate information and a citizenry that values the truth. Reforming the misinformation crisis starts with us. If we demand the truth, especially when it’s uncomfortable, we can find it.