Who's Responsible For Spreading Fake News And How To Deal With It In The Internet Age

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The spread of misinformation and fake news via the internet is running rampant. As both a news writer and teaching assistant/college professor, I am in the unique position of not only battling misinformation online, but also in a university classroom. A Stanford University study recently discovered that many preteens and teenagers are unable to detect fake news, despite having tools at their disposal to to determine the validity of content. These future voters and leaders were unable to tell whether or not the articles they read were legitimate, accurate, or unbiased.

Social media does not appear to be helping the issue. Facebook, as well as many other sites, have been accused of interfering with the 2016 American presidential election through the spread of fake news. Most agree that people should be able to detect these false stories, however, who should be the teachers? Should media literacy be taught in the classroom? Are websites obligated to filter their news? Who is responsible?

Last year, I taught a class with a book titled, The Murder of Mary Bean. A young factory worker in the early-nineteenth century died due to a botched abortion. Shortly after her death, an anonymous author created a fictional account of her death in order to promote nineteenth century concepts of purity and piety. The first half of the book consisted of a historical account and analysis. At least half of my students believed that entire book was non-fiction. Since the fictional account was “old” and long-winded, they believed that it was 100 percent truthful.
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As a news editor, I face similar issues. Many news items on the internet are either false or incredibly misleading. We constantly work to find stories that are not only interesting, but are based on true facts and reliable sources. Often times, we are fighting against articles on social media that are pure clickbait.

Gen Z-er’s and Millennials increasingly rely upon social media for their news. Someone I know kept abreast of the recent earthquake in Fukushima, Japan by scanning Reddit. It seems like now, more than ever, we need reliable news sources.

Sites such as Facebook and Google are working to limit the spread of false news stories. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently laid out how the company plans to combat the issue. Facebook’s Trending Stories team was accused earlier this year for suppressing politically conservative news stories. The entire Trending Stories editorial staff was fired and replaced with a computer algorithm. The biased stories, however, were sometimes replaced by Facebook's algorithms with fake news stories that repeatedly cropped up in the Trending Stories section.

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Facebook is improving its technical systems in order to detect what people will flag as false before they do it themselves. It is also learning from third parties to better verify stories and make the reporting process easier for users. Facebook plans to work with journalists in order to learn more about fact-checking and placing warning labels on stories that have been flagged as false.

Google is currently working on a system that would ban websites that misrepresent content from its AdSense advertising network. The company stated, "Moving forward, we will restrict ad serving on pages that misrepresent, misstate, or conceal information about the publisher, the publisher's content, or the primary purpose of the web property.”

Should Facebook and Google even be making the effort to prevent the dissemination of misinformation? Who is truly responsible? Do their current policies prohibit free speech? 


Should schools be responsible for teaching students media literacy? In the past, librarians often showed students how to conduct proper research. Unfortunately, librarians are often some of the first to be let go following budget cuts. It is therefore the responsibility of teachers, who often have few resources and are already bogged down with numerous state curriculum requirements, to promote media literacy?

Should media literacy start in the home? The Wall Street Journal recently interviewed one parent who does not allow his children to use phones. The publication noted, “He and his wife also ask them during family dinners about topics they’ve been exploring, ‘and hopefully challenge them to think’, he says.” Can this model be applied in all households, even in ones where children already have phones and unfettered access to the media?

I can testify as both a teacher and a news writer that misinformation and fake stories are a significant issue. The question remains, however, how do we help students and who is responsible?