Identifying Fake News

Dec 19, 2018

Consumers of news get overloaded, and Texas Tech librarian Brian Quinn decided that he wanted to help people understand how to differentiate accurate information from the questionable sort. He’s giving presentations each semester on fake news. 

“The quality of information has become an important issue because we place value on information being objective and accurate and use that as the basis for making good decisions, informed decisions,” Quinn says. “If you don’t have that then how can you function without good, objective, unbiased information. You need that in order to function in the world.”

   In his PowerPoint presentation, Quinn defines fake news as having intent to mislead, being sensational to grab attention and written for financial and political gain, having exaggerated or false headlines, and erroneously labelling as false any information one disagrees with.  

  Fake news, his presentation slides state, is bad journalism, which is shoddy, lacking or having been poorly researched, filled with errors or deliberately misleading. 

  He says fake news may seem a recent phenomenon, but it’s not. And the Yellow Journalism of William Randolph Hearst in the late 19th century and tabloid journalism of the early 1900s aren’t the earliest examples.

“There are people who say this has its roots in a long tradition going all the way back to the beginning of western civilization with the Greeks and Romans. They had their own controversies about different political factions in Greek and Roman culture—arguing with one another about what was true and not true. Fake news is contemporary phenomenon but has roots in culture that goes way back.”

  Quinn says confirmation bias is real and prompts people to discount information that doesn’t support their beliefs. Jean Pearson Scott, who attended Quinn’s most recent fake news presentation, says consumers of all political stripes have a high hurdle. 

“We’re overloaded with so much and trying to sort it out,” she says. “I think this tendency to gravitate towards the news we want to hear is just a strong bias that we all have.”

  Quinn’s slides include information about various types of fake news categories, for which consumers ought to be wary. He cites fake and hoax news websites, clickbait sites and sites that are strictly satire. 

  And sharing suspect news stories online adds to the danger of fake news.   

“If it’s something that is provocative, something that is unusual, they’re compelled to share it with other people online and that’s how stuff goes viral and spreads very quickly. A lot of the appeal of fake news has to do with the nature of the medium lends itself to that kind of behavior,” Quinn says.

    Quinn gathered information for his presentation from various sources, including scholarly ones. Librarians, he says, are in the business of information every day. 

  “The issue of information quality and how information is structured, how it’s interpreted, how it’s evaluated, those are all important issues that librarians deals with everyday. This just seemed like a natural topic for a librarian to explore,” he explains.

   Quinn recommends news consumers consult, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 2009,, and the Washington Post Fact Checker to determine facts’ veracity.

Scott, who works for the university, says the presentation helped her. "It helped to broaden concerns that I've had for really a number of years."