Thursday, December 8, 2016

Reacting to Fake News

Fake news may have started as a joke, but it quietly became a trusted news contender in 2016.

Saturday Night Live, the Onion and even Snopes have produced fake news for some time. In the context of SNL and the Onion, it's rather easy to detect the fake. When it comes to Snopes, it's harder because they are all about checking facts to debunk fake stories. Yet they've created their own fakes from time to time to keep readers from becoming overly reliant on what the publishers of Snopes say is true.

Here's one example:
The Mississippi state legislature removed fractions and decimal points from the mathematics curriculum of public secondary schools.
It's not true. But if Snopes says it's true, it must be factual, right? Wrong. Snopes maintains a section of its site for "The Repository of Lost Legends" (TRoLL for short). See One way to tell it's a fake is to check out a link at the bottom of the article: More information about this page. It's very subtle.

If this story appeared on Facebook, how many readers would take it for a fact? There would not likely be anything labeling it as fake news. 

Fact checking is the only personal solution to avoid being fooled or the victim of a scam.

In the Snopes article, these are just a sample of facts to investigate. 
  1. 13 August 1999.  First of all, this is an old date, so it doesn't seem relevant any longer. If a person investigated 13 August 1999 and other major keywords from the story, Mississippi fractions, these results would appear:
    • The original Snopes article
    • A reprint of the Snopes article claiming the story to be true because it was in Snopes; look at the comments: people are skeptical but not misbelieving.  (more than one reprint that offers the story as true)
    • An article that claims Snopes is lying 
    • Nothing from Mississippi government
  2. There are also many Proper nouns in the fake article that are worth checking out. Here are two:
    • senator Cassius de Spain
    • Judith Sutpen, chairperson of the Mississippi Senate Education committee
There is no record of Judith Sutpen as a chairperson of the Mississippi Senate Education committee. The closest coincidence is that she is a character in "Absalom Absalom!" by William Faulkner.  Cassius de Spain is also a character in the same book. A method for coming up with names is starting to emerge--I'd bet Cora Tull and John Sartoris may also be Faulker characters. Suddenly, the story seems manufactured.

Of course, one could also check Mississippi laws.

But it's way easier to react to news like this than to fact check it:
  • "It is true and sad, "
  • "The scariest thing about this post is that I still haven't decided if it's satire or not. "
  • "wow people are idiots."
  • "You know, I could see changing the age at which fractions are taught if it was discovered that a thirteen-year-old understood them more easily than a ten-year-old (or for that matter, a six-year-old faster than a ten-year-old), but I thought the emphasis was supposed to be on more education, not less?"
 And so on.

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