Fake news phenomenon blurs lines between reality and fiction

Concerns for reporting standards heighten during hotly contested political year

By Ryan Loyd - Digital Journalist

SAN ANTONIO - Fake news has been making the rounds on social media. It gains traction because what appears to be real is actually fake, and that news strikes a chord for targeted audiences on all sides of the political aisle.

The crackdown on fake news has begun. Rogue Facebook employees united recently and announced they would be a task force against fake news.

Headlines including the recent escape of drug king El Chapo, how a restaurant became a child trafficking stop, and President Obama's ban on the Pledge of Allegiance in schools all are examples of recent fake news stories.

Dr. Luis Hestres teaches digital media and communication at UTSA. He admitted that he's even fallen for fake news.

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“I have a Ph.D. and I’ll confess that I’ve shared a couple of stories from those sites as well," he said. "Thankfully, people have corrected me in time, so I didn’t spread them as far and wide as I could have. I’ve done it. A lot of very intelligent people I know have done it and continue to do it to this day.”

But he reminds news consumers to stay vigilant. People have to train themselves to check sources.

“I’m cautiously optimistic," Hestres said of the problem deescalating. "I say optimistic because we seem to be waking up to this problem.”

Recently, the presidential election flourished on fake news. President-elect Donald Trump's win has caused a wave of concern that he will go after legitimate news sources who report news.

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Media lawyer Stacy Allen said it is technically possible that Trump could undo libel laws in place that protect media organizations when they aggressively report factual news. But he said it may not come to fruition because of half a century worth of case studies, including the example of the New York Times vs. Sullivan in the 1960's.

“It would be highly unlikely that even a highly-motivated president could unwind not only Sullivan, but the 50 plus years of precedence that have followed and fleshed out that protection for the news media," he said.

Allen said that both parties have gone to bat for the media, because it's essential to the democracy of the United States.

"If he really chose to pursue that path, he would (not) have any success in changing a well established body of law that exists to protect the press’s ability to aggressively question and pursue stories about public officials with the recognition that that is a fundamental bulwark of our democracy and our form of government," he said.

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For one, the compositions of the Supreme Court would need to be changed dramatically with more than two justices who agree with Trump being appointed to the high court. He also said that to amend the First Amendment, two-thirds of each chamber of Congress, and three-quarters of states, would have to cast a vote in favor.

Fake news can be tricky to spot. But there are a few guidelines to help keep it in check.

  • First, Hestres said if it's too good (or bad) to be true, it probably is. Also, look at the logos and design of a website.
  • Head to trusted sites you know to provide real and accurate information.
  • Check the website's address, or URL. The address can be a big clue. The real ABC News site address is ABCNews.com. A fake site that has distributed fake news is ABCNews.com.co. The suffix ".co" is the red flag.
  • Check your sources. Do you recognize the sources being cited? Google them. It may take a little extra effort, but it will prevent a misunderstanding.
  • Don't spread the information on social media unless you're sure the information is accurate.

Journalism programs like those at Texas A&M San Antonio are teaching students about the rise of fake news. Jenny Moore, director of student media, takes the issue seriously.

Asked in an email how she is approaching the topic, Moore said she discusses with the students how they get their news. The main source for students, she said, is social media.

"We do talk to our journalism students about Facebook and Google's business models to help them understand how misinformation is proliferated and shared," Moore wrote. "I think Facebook and Google both made a good move early this week by taking aim at the sites’ revenue sources, but that’s just really the beginning. What methods, algorithms, site-by-site sleuthing are the companies going to use to determine real (verses) fake news?"

She said she tells her students to understand social media as a revenue-driven marketplace, and to follow a diverse set of news rather than obtaining it all from one source. 

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