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Fake news presenting threat to democracy

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This is an opinion column, not to be confused with hard news reporting.


This year, we all saw something unprecedented in American politics that forever changed the face of history and has more than a few of your neighbors white-knuckling it, and I'm not talking about the rise of Donald Trump, although his winning the presidency is proved by public record to be a direct beneficiary of this scourge.

I'm talking about the rise of fake news websites and the millions of people who read, believed and shared in their Facebook news feeds the "stories" published by those sites.

And I mean stories with headlines that I would have thought any intelligent person could see straight through to be false — Hillary Clinton's links to money laundering and sex crimes involving children, that she suffered brain damage, that she started the birther rumors against President Barack Obama, that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump, that President Obama is a secret Muslim, or the latest one, that Trump actually won the popular vote because three million illegal immigrants were allowed to vote.

Chances are you've read one of these "articles" in a friend's Facebook news feed, or perhaps you read and shared one of these stories yourself after finding it ranked high by Google's search algorhythms.

None of them are true, and easily proven false by spending just a little time doing a Google search through the public record, and by using common sense.

But so many people will not check to see if a story is true, choosing instead to reinforce their own beliefs by keeping their attention focused in the echo chamber they've created for themselves on social media with others who have a penchant for believing conspiracy theories, or who honestly believe that "news" shows like Alex Jones' InfoWars.com are legitimate sources of information.

I can hear some of you grumbling, saying I'm the one who's been fooled, the one who's reading and believing the propaganda put out by the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, the one who is whining that Hillary lost the election. If any of those points just crossed your mind, you are exactly the person I am trying to reach.

Listen to me when I say, if you believed any of the above-mentioned "stories" you have been fooled by a group of scammers whose sole intention was to make money off "clickbait" headlines, and who found a way to do it by playing to the suspicions and prejudices of an already polarized American electorate.

They took every conspiracy theory that's been floating around the American conscience for years, wrote them down in a news format, packaged them neatly to look like an official news agency and watched as millions of Americans swallowed and shared their snake oil down to the last drop. Now they are looking to France, where their national elections are underway.

Many of these websites have authentic-looking names, too, like National Report, the Denver Guardian, ABCNews.com.co, and World News Daily Report to name a few. Granted, fake news is nothing new; yellow journalism in legitimate newspapers, or tabloids like the National Enquirer, have been staples of the American media landscape since news reporting began, but this latest generation of fake news takes aim at the legitimate truth, not whether Jennifer Aniston is doing OK now that Angelina Jolie is divorcing her ex, Brad Pitt. And that's where everyone should worry.

So, what do we do? Are we really living in an age where people would rather believe what they want to believe rather than the truth? Have we already gone past the point of no return? How can we tell what's real and what's fake?

That's where it's up to you. First, we must learn to listen to each other again, especially to people who we don't agree with, and be willing to be wrong. That seems to be getting more and more difficult for many people who choose instead to view the opposite tribe with suspicion and contempt rather than understanding or even asking their point-of-view and why they feel the way they do.

Second, we must be willing to be discerning in our consumption of news. Sadly, more than half of Americans now say they get their news solely from Facebook — a company that does not employ a single journalist. This means we are at even greater risk of the loose string of our democracy being pulled to unravel because we are reading and believing information that is designed to undermine facts just to get you to click on it so the writer, and Facebook, can earn a few cents from each reader.

This means, too, as an adult, spending a few minutes determining if what you are reading is false, just like you would spend time making a decision that affects your family with insurance, or the costs of living, without blindly believing one information source.

One easy way to check what you are reading is to visit the website Snopes.com, which exists solely for debunking crazy internet rumors and tales. Just take the headline of the "story" you see, drop it into the Snopes.com search box and it will tell you instantly if that "news article" is true or false.

You can do this with photos, too. Take a screen shot of the image, crop out everything but the photo itself, open Google Images in your browser, drag the screenshot into the search field and it will give you its best guess of who and what is pictured.

If you're reading this and saying to yourself, "Yeah, but who made Snopes.com? How do you know they aren't calling things false that are true? It was probably created by liberals with an information agenda." Perhaps, your first assignment should be looking it up, and realizing that a distrust of information is only healthy to a point.

Third, learn to recognize fake news at first glance. The best way to do this is to use common sense, but since that seems to come at a premium on social media anymore, take your natural skepticism and apply it to what you are reading. Does it sound like something that would be published by The Onion? Does the story not link to an original source? Does it appear on a website that's on The Definitive List of 130 Fake News Sites on Facebook (www.dailydot.com/layer8/fake-news-sites-list-facebook/)? If you answer yes, then it's fake.

British author Joe Abercrombie once said, "Proof is boring. Proof is tiresome. Proof is an irrelevance. People would far rather be handed an easy lie than search for a difficult truth, especially if it suits their own purposes."

Don't let yourself become a mindless sheep while protecting yourself against being a mindless sheep.