The Indivisible: Conejo Guide to Avoiding 'Fake News'

Over the past year, the concept of “fake news” has become a bipartisan obsession – though each end of the political spectrum uses the phrase to connote very different types of communication. And particularly since the election last November -- whose results confounded media projections, and seemed in many ways driven by the spread of false or untrustworthy information about the candidates -- the need to be able to identify, and reject, “fake news” has become a touchstone of media literacy.

Indivisible: Conejo’s Issue Action Team on Press Freedoms has created this primer on how to spot “news” that lacks credibility, and how to structure and vet our media consumption as well as our sharing of information on social media (Facebook, Twitter and other platforms). It’s worth remembering that everything we share on the Internet via social media – whether it’s our own opinions and factual statements, or shared articles and videos -- reflects on ourselves and on the organizations with which we’re affiliated. Therefore, the best bet is always to make certain before posting that the information we’re sharing is legitimate and accurate – and fact-checked if necessary.

Rule #1: 
Keep in mind that the spread of misinformation is equally dangerous whether it comes from the right or the left. Of course, even the most reliable news sources get it wrong now and then, and the blending of fact, analysis and opinion in contemporary journalism – often within a single article or video clip -- has blurred the lines of we used to call “objectivity.” However, the traditional “mainstream media” organizations still have the best reputations for reliability in their news articles and broadcasts, and are most likely to issue immediate retractions/corrections/clarifications if they make errors.

At the other end of the spectrum, a panoply of websites have sprouted up over the last decade, and particularly over the last two years during Campaign 2016, whose credibility is in constant question. Some of them cover every issue and event with a partisan angle; others exist for little reason other than to earn money for their creators, manipulating facts taken from other sources and turning them into pseudo-“news”; and others are intentionally, maliciously false, designed to undermine the credibility of a person, group or perspective on an issue.

Among the many types of less-than-credible news outlets and articles that should be avoided whenever possible, and hopefully never passed along to others:

-- Fabricated content. Many times recently, we have heard about purely fictional “news” stories that have been created maliciously, to deceive or confuse the reader. Sometimes the motivation for creating such falsehoods is ideological, to turn readers toward or away from a position or candidate. Other times, as in the cases of numerous anti-Clinton articles that were traced to web publishers from Macedonia and other unexpected sources, a pure profit motive was in play, as higher numbers of “clicks” generate increased revenue for many websites that sell advertising.

-- A corollary: Clickbait is a phrase now used to describe internet “news” or features with sensational, hyperbolic or provocative headlines, designed to lure a user onto a website or garner the page views that drive revenue. A clickbait piece may be false or poorly researched, but isn’t necessarily malicious in nature. However, numerous partisan sites (on both the left and right) have adopted the trend of generating clickbait headlines by taking kernels of truth from an article in the mainstream press, twisting those facts to outlandish extremes of logic or speculation, and then slapping an inflammatory headline atop the post.

-- Poor journalism is hardly new, but it’s a particular curse of the internet era, as the ease of creating a website and publishing professional-looking material has enabled a cottage industry of “news” reporting that has not undergone the traditional editing and fact-checking that has long characterized the “mainstream media.” Meanwhile, the pressures of the 24-hour news cycle sometimes lead even the most reputable publications to cut corners in pursuit of speed and the “scoop.” The results of all this include a deterioration of accuracy in reporting; the misrepresentation and oversimplification of facts, whether intentional or not; misrepresenting or oversimplifying information; the inadequate vetting of sources; and the use of biased or loaded terminology.

-- Then there’s Native Advertising -- Paid content designed to match the look and tone of the media outlet where it appears. Often these are the “articles” you’ll see in a side column, or at the bottom of a news website. The presence pseudo-“news” advertising can erode the reader’s trust in a publication.

With all these ascendant threats to the credibility of the information that floods our Facebook feeds and other sources, a heightened sense of caution is not only useful, but necessary for each of us as we consume the news. Here are some tips for remaining vigilant in the face of the “fake news” onslaught, and not falling prey to the temptation to pass along incorrect information and clickbait just because you find yourself outraged in the moment:

1. Check the source first! Before you even click on an article that catches your eye, check below the headline to see where it was published. In recent months there have been numerous attempts to chart the outlets that are more or less likely to propagate credible reporting or “fake news.” (Scroll down to see the best one we've found so far.) If you see that the source of an otherwise-interesting headline or article is a site generally considered not credible – or if it’s one you’ve never heard of – you might want to just keep scrolling.

2. If you have clicked through to an article that you found enlightening/engaging/enraging, but you are not satisfied that the post is legitimate, think twice before sharing it. Remember that sharing an article lends your own credibility to it – and if it turns out to be “fake news,” your own reputation is at stake.

3.  If you see a suspicious (or obviously fake) article posted by a friend who you assume is well-meaning, let your source know. The fewer links to disreputable “news” that remain on social media or elsewhere on the internet once they’ve been debunked, the better.

4. If you find yourself wishing to share an article, or some information that you’ve received from a source whose veracity you question, do some fact-checking. Usually it takes only a minute or two of research to confirm or refute what you’ve read by finding a more credible, trustworthy source.

Some Fact Checking pointers:
1. Is the story from a credible news source, or is it “sponsored” content found on an otherwise credible site?
2. Is the headline more sensational than the content?
3. Does the article elicit a strong emotional response?
4. Is the language exaggerated?
5. Is it satire? (If so, label it as such before sharing.)
6. Check the date. Is the post outdated, or is it a distorted report of a previous event?
7. What is the domain register? Websites with URLs ending in .co, .lo, or other unfamiliar registers should be viewed with suspicion.
8. If the article is not on a mainstream news site, or is clearly a product of second-hand reporting, is the source of the information listed at the bottom of the post?
9. Are human sources quoted directly, or are their remarks paraphrased or summarized? A lack of direct, recent quotations is always a red flag.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of well-respected services devoted to rooting out fals information, particularly in the political realm. Here are a few of the best-known fact-checking websites: project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, with funding from the Annenberg Foundation): (an independent, self-sufficient entity funded via advertising):
Washington Post Fact Checker(originator of the “Pinocchio” test): Pulitzer Prize-winning website created by the Tampa Bay Times):

Here are some sources of more in-depth media analysis:
All Sides exposes bias and provides multiple angles on the same story so you can quickly get the full picture, not just one slant.
False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical “News” Sources A comprehensive list of unreliable “news” sources, created by Professor Melissa Zimdars. Her original document, “Tips For Analyzing News Sources,” and her interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education offer more.
The Center for Media and Democracy is a national watchdog group that conducts in-depth investigations into corruption and the undue influence of corporations on media and democracy.
The Verification Handbook provides tools, techniques and step-by-step guidelines focusing on user-generated content (UGC) during emergencies.

Many members have noticed, and in some cases lamented, the fact that the Indivisible: Conejo Facebook page is tightly controlled. Posts, to date, have come solely from the organization’s leadership, and even the comments under posts usually have been limited to topics immediately relevant to the organization and its activities.

The reasoning behind this policy is a desire to keep the Facebook page focused on the actions our members can take to effect change, and on upcoming events and milestones within the organization. It was decided at the outset that Indivisible: Conejo's Facebook page and website will be much more effective tools for our members if the organization’s mission does not get lost within a freewheeling discussion forum, or particularly in the flood of information and opinion (credible and not) that members can find elsewhere on their social-media feeds anyway.

All of that is not meant to prevent Indivisible: Conejo’s members from engaging in dialogue with each other, or from furnishing ideas and information to the Action Team leaders and the group’s administrators. Indeed, the goal of the 15 Issue Action Teams is to provide forums in which all of the organization’s members can share information and perspectives on the issues facing the nation, research those issues and the public officials who will be acting on them, and serve as a primary source of actions in which the entire membership can participate.