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Before you share a story — even this one — read it all, use your common sense.
July 6, 2017

Innovation Chief Eric Newton on the danger of fake news and the need for the public to become more news literate

“The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent,” said the 28-year-old gunman days after he fired an assault rifle inside a Washington, D.C., pizzeria because he believed the eatery was enslaving children. 

The intel he was referring to was actually a hoax caused by a fake news item, and the December 2016 incident is now known as “Pizzagate.”

That scenario is an example of what could go wrong when people are given false or misleading information. In June, several sites claimed that 87-year-old actor and filmmaker Clint Eastwood died in his Brentwood, California home. Around the same time, Twitter was set ablaze when it was reported that NBA superstar Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs cut off his trademark braids, which he has had since 2011. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg recently vowed to aggressively deal with fake news on his platform, which has an estimated 2 billion users.

Getting taken in by fake news may sound harmless to some, but it can fuel nationwide conspiracies and promote hateful propaganda, and it has the potential to affect outcomes in key global elections.

Here’s the thing about reading a fake news item, according to Eric Newton, professor of practice at Arizona State University: Slow down and use your common sense to discern what’s fact and what’s fiction.

“Consume news from more than one source. … If a story is outrageous, amazing or unbelievable, take a minute to confirm it,” said Newton, who is also the innovation chief at ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “If you can’t find a legacy news source to confirm a story, be suspicious.”

ASU News spoke to Newton about the history of fake news, its emergence in the digital age and why it’s a threat to our democracy.

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Eric Newton

Question: What is your definition of “fake news”?

Answer: Journalists worldwide depend on the Associated Press stylebook. The AP says: “the term 'fake news' may be used as shorthand for deliberate falsehoods masked as news circulating on the internet.” Note the phrase “deliberate falsehoods.” People who produce fake news know it is untrue. They are trying to create mass delusions to make money or otherwise influence our decisions. Fake news is counterfeit, a fraud, a forgery, a hoax, specious, a sham. Fake news succeeds to the extent that it deceives. It’s deplorable.

Mainstream professional journalism is not “fake news.” Even when journalists get things wrong, you shouldn’t call their mistakes “fake news.” Sloppy journalism, maybe. Professional journalists have no intent to deceive. They are trying to get it right. They correct their mistakes.

Saying mainstream media produces fake news is like saying a person who makes a mistake is the same as a zombie. Journalism is imperfect. Even good journalists sometimes shoot themselves in the foot — but most of their self-inflicted wounds are tiny. Fake news, on the other hand, is like a zombie: It wants to eat your brain. People should be able to tell the difference between a paper cut and a monster.

Q: When did fake news begin to emerge, and what has happened to it in the digital age?

A: Fake news has been around as long as news itself. Whenever a new form of media rises, the hoaxers join in. We really don’t know when the first fake news story happened. Perhaps it was around an ancient campfire, when an early Homo sapien realized he could get everyone to run and hide — and therefore have the best food to himself — by jumping up and pretending a tiger was coming.

A famous example of a daily newspaper hoax came in 1835, when the New York Sun printed a series of stories hailing the discovery of life on the moon. The Sun printed a drawing of humanoid creatures with bat-like wings. When real astronomers said it was fake, the paper congratulated itself for fooling everyone. That was a long time before journalism ethics.

Today, through the internet, search engines and social media, fake news can spread around the world in seconds. Anyone can create it. Everyone can share it. Journalists by themselves can’t stop it. In the 21st century, we need new forms of literacy — digital literacy, media literacy, news literacy and civics literacy — to fight back.

Q: What in your opinion is dangerous about fake news?

A: Democracies use common sets of facts to solve problems. Fake news puts toxic facts into our heads. When we let that happen, all sorts of things go wrong. You might drink water you shouldn’t, or not vaccinate your child when you should, or even run into a pizza parlor with a rifle to break up a child sex ring that doesn’t exist. That’s just the start.

Without facts, the worst evils become possible: wars, famines, disease, you name it. When autocrats control the media of their countries and can saturate their nations with fake news, these dictators can commit all manner of atrocities. When an entire society operates under a delusion, millions of people can die.

Q: What’s a quick and easy gauge for the public to use when deciphering what’s a legitimate news source and what’s not?

A: Consume news from more than one source. Use common sense. If a story is outrageous, amazing or unbelievable, take a minute to confirm it. If you can’t find a legacy news source to confirm a story, be suspicious. If a fact-checking organization has debunked a story, don’t share it. If the story doesn’t link to original source material, watch out.

A simple search often can expose fake news sources. But most of all, slow down. Fake news spreads fastest when people share it immediately, without reading it or without thinking.

Q: How can the public become more news literate in the future?

A: I’ve already covered why hoaxers aren’t the same as honest journalists. But I’m glad you asked about news literacy. We all can do more to spread it: educators, technologists, journalists and everyone. News literacy should be universal, part of every teacher’s classroom. Technology companies can better deal with content that is undeniably false. Journalists can be more transparent, showing their sources, and more engaged with the communities they serve. Everyone can look at their media diets and learn how to stop sharing fake news.

We hold in the palms of our hands the most powerful personal communications devices ever invented. They can unlock facts or unleash fictions. Be honest: Do you really know how to use your smartphone? The speed and power of technology has made more urgent some long-standing questions.Here’s one example: Frustrated by the partisan press, Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “the real extent of the state of misinformation” is understood only by people who can use “facts within their knowledge” to confront “the lies of the day.”  

News literacy is teaching everyone how to find, understand, use and even create news that helps people better run their governments and their lives. It hopes to turn everyone into people who can understand the extent of the state of misinformation. Why? Because our system is based on the idea that truth can drive out falsehood, that voters can make informed decisions.

Until we have a news-savvy nation, we’ll never be all we can be.


Top photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

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Why are we so fascinated by storms? ASU experts weigh in.
Both social and traditional news media have become increasingly visual in form.
Smartphone apps like Waze can be helpful in bad-weather situations.
July 11, 2017

Alexander Halavais and Jessica Pucci provide insight into social media's influence on monsoon news coverage

Editor's note: This is part of our weeklong monsoon series; to read the first installation, "Gully washers and boulder rollers: How monsoons shape the desert," click here. For the final story, looking at monsoons from a Native American cultural viewpoint, click here.

Public fascination with the extreme weather of monsoons is surpassed only by the media’s, which has seen some interesting developments in its coverage of storm events in recent years, due in large part to social media’s influence.

In 2012, the Arizona Department of Transportation garnered attention with a dust storm awareness campaign on social media that encouraged people to submit “haboob haikus,” and in 2016, the Arizona Republic dedicated an entire story solely to monsoon social media posts.

Why the fascination with storms to begin with? How does social media play into that? What are the risks and benefits?

To gain some insight, ASU Now consulted with Alexander Halavais, an associate professor in ASU’s School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Jessica Pucci, ethics and excellence professor of practice at ASU’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Halavais specializes in ways in which social media change the nature of scholarship and learning and allow for new forms of collaboration and self-government. Pucci leads social media and analytics for Cronkite News, the news division of Arizona PBS, and also teaches a course in analytics and audience engagement.

Here’s what they had to say:

(Responses have been lightly edited for length and content.)

Alexander Halavais

Question: Why do monsoon and big-storm stories do so well in the media?

Alexander Halavais: I think there are a bunch of reasons. Large-scale weather phenomena are one of the few things that seem to have an effect on everyone relatively equally across walks of life. If you live in Phoenix, a monsoon is going to have an effect on your life, along with your fellow residents. But really large-scale weather phenomena do well in the news media in large part because they are relatively easy to cover and fit into the routines of the journalist. Experts are easy to find, officials have a line ready and there is a clear connection to a local audience. They are, in some ways, tailor-made for the news values journalists favor.

Q: How has social media affected news coverage of monsoon storms?

Jessica Pucci

Jessica Pucci: Monsoons are not only highly visual — we’ve all seen the jaw-dropping before-the-dust/after-the-dust photos — but they’re phenomena exclusive to the Southwest. Visual content plays well in social media; not only is it highly shareable, but Facebook’s algorithm gives weight to video. Add to that striking imagery of a weather event that users outside the Southwest are unlikely to ever see in person, and you’ve got a perfect storm of social attention … no pun intended.

Q: What’s behind that phenomenon? Are people genuinely coming together as a community to inform each other out of concern for the safety of others, or are people just showing off who could get the best Instagram photo?

AH: I think in some cases people may share news or information in order to help others, but often it is an effort to either come together as a community over a shared experience, or to share locally interesting extremes with friends and family not affected. Certainly, there's some showing off going on: When I lived in Buffalo, it was a picture of a wall of snow outside my front door, and here it is 119-degree days or a thousand-foot-high wall of sand moving across the Valley.

Q: What are the risks and benefits?

JP: User-generated content allows newsrooms to cover weather events more widely than ever before — and that’s particularly impactful during monsoons, which can appear drastically different between locations a few miles apart. Reporters can’t be everywhere at once, so engaging with audiences to not only learn and see more, but establish our newsrooms as authoritative, trustworthy sources of information is important.

Social networks — particularly Twitter — help newsrooms get live, real-time weather information into users’ hands quicker than ever, which is undoubtedly a public good. But social media can also hasten the spread of misinformation. It’s critical that reporters and social media managers work diligently to verify audience accounts of weather events before sharing them – a simple reverse image search or provenance check using tools like TinEye can mean the difference between sharing a helpful update and radiating a fake, Photoshopped or old monsoon image.

AH: There are certainly examples of social media being helpful in recovery from natural disasters, but at least locally, storms rarely rise to that extreme. I think they serve a function of reminding people to prepare for such events.

I suspect that the most helpful kinds of contributions are not in images and stories but something a bit lower-level. When Waze users either directly or indirectly help me to avoid flooded sections of the road or accidents, that is certainly helpful. I do suspect that such sharing is helpful, but perhaps in not exactly practical ways. I think it brings local communities together in the face of shared inconvenience and lets us tell stories that connect us, and I think that can be important.


Top photo courtesy of