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Friday, October 23, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Fake news a real problem for democracy

Along with the revival of civics classes, our educational system could, perhaps, introduce courses in media literacy, because Americans are in serious need of a reality check.

Fake news articles used to be confined to pass-around emails, which didn’t have the reach or sudden impact they now enjoy on social media. But consider this finding from a BuzzFeed News analysis:

“In the final three months of the U.S. presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News and others.”

BREAKING!!!! THIS IS A VERY REAL THREAT TO DEMOCRACY!!!!”

And that’s the truth. What isn’t true is much of what is written in cartoonish fonts and over-the-top language. We’ve experienced an uptick in letters to the editor based on fake news, and we reject them.

The Washington Post and New York Times lifted the curtain on fake journalism with a couple of timely articles over the weekend. One financially successful venture, LibertyWriterNews, is run by two unemployed restaurant workers who sit on a couch with their laptop computers and guffaw as they hit the “send” button. They admitted to a Washington Post reporter that their inspiration is 19th century yellow journalism.

Generally, people don’t like being played for fools, but when you’re politically motivated to believe what you see, critical thinking skills can go by the wayside. Hillary Clinton implicated in an underage sex ring? This was peddled by a conspiracy site called True Pundit, and it’s false. But if retired Gen. Michael Flynn tweets the claim, it has to have some merit, right? Wrong. And yet, Flynn is President-elect Donald Trump’s choice as national security adviser, a post where facts matter.

The nation has moved from unsuspecting relatives forwarding hoax emails to much more serious terrain. When fake news can go viral in a flash and be passed along by important figures, the facts become muddled and political debates thrown off course.

A case in point, according to a New York Times article, is a man in Austin, Texas, who had about 40 Twitter followers. He photographed a line of buses and tweeted the picture, along with a suggestion that anti-Trump protesters were being bused in for rallies. In fact, the vehicles had transported about 1,300 attendees to a software conference – a fact that was unearthed when a reporter called to ask (what a concept). By the time the Texas tweeter had stamped his original claim “False,” it was too late. It had been retweeted more than 16,000 times and shared more than 350,000 times on Facebook. Trump mentioned it in a tweet.

You may hear about it at Thanksgiving dinner.

The mainstream media isn’t held in the highest regard, according to polls, but newspapers do run corrections and are staffed by professional journalists who try to get stories right. Walk away from that, if you must, but the antidote isn’t fake anecdotes. Choose wisely, and consider the source.

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