Reading time: ~5 minutes
While having breakfast with a friend recently, the topic of conversation turned to fake internet news stories. I had just received a text message that contained an image of a young Donald Trump above a quote he purportedly gave to People Magazine in 1998 in which he said if he ever ran for president, he would do so as a republican because republicans are dumb and believe everything they hear on Fox News. Seeing this, my friend asked me if I thought the quote was real. The quote seemed far too prescient to me to be real. But not knowing for certain, I responded that I would quickly research it to see whether it was; something I usually do when I am forwarded information like that. A quick search later, I determined that the quote had been debunked in 2015. It wasn’t real.
If I had a penny for every fake news story that was either forwarded or verbally relayed to me during this election cycle, I would have a whole lot of pennies. Of the doozies I received, one of the most memorable was an “article” claiming that the Pope had issued a statement in which he had endorsed Donald Trump for President. Now, think about that for a moment. On its face, that seems implausible for many reasons. Here is just one: it is very unlikely that the leader of the global, billion-member-strong Catholic Church would wade into a vitriol filled U.S. election and attach his religious brand and the authority it conveys to Donald Trump. Nor to Hillary Clinton, for that matter.
Just as every individual member of the press has a responsibility to operate with high integrity and refuse to engage in spinning false narratives, so to do each of us have a responsibility to take steps to verify the veracity of “news stories” we send to our family, friends, and colleagues. Within a few seconds, with a couple of taps on your keypad, you can find out whether that “news story” you so eagerly want to forward is, in fact, true. If the Pope had actually issued a statement endorsing Donald Trump, that news would most certainly have been a top story everywhere, not just on some obscure websites that no one has ever heard of before.
We tend to spread fake news stories because they bolster beliefs we have or positions we hold. They reinforce our sense of being on the right side of an issue. For example: The Pope said I should vote for Donald Trump. I knew I was right about him all along and now I’ve got the Pope’s endorsement to prove I was right. Or, Trump said nearly 20 years ago that Republicans were dumb. I knew it. Now they’ve gone and elected this guy and proved his point. Because these fake news stories support our own internal narrative, we neglect to look at them skeptically, and we miss some rather obvious indicators of their untruth. That is why they spread.
When we spread fake news stories, we are failing to operate in our own highest integrity. And, we become a key part of the problem. Fake news stories cannot spread without you. They cannot spread without me. Therefore, the most important culprit here is the individual who spreads the fake story. Yes, the writer of the story bears tremendous culpability. But that writer’s story won’t get anywhere unless you or I promote it through our networks.
So the next time you receive a news story that you would like to share or you come across one on the internet, take a few moments to verify its veracity by doing a quick search to see where else that story has appeared or whether it has been debunked. Commit to exercising your integrity muscle by taking steps to reduce the chance that you will fall into the fake news trap and become a source of the rampant misinformation with which we are being bombarded.
As Smokey the Bear used to say, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Well, only you can prevent fake news from spreading. Exercise the Power of One – our individual ability to change the world for the better by focusing on our own actions and decisions.