Dartmouth Professor Discusses Fake News and Fact-Checking

  • Brendan Nyhan

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, May 05, 2017

Hanover — Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College professor of government and New York Times contributor, opened a talk on Thursday about fake news by showing his audience a moving image called an animated GIF, a popular format in an age of mass online sharing, ubiquitous social media and a slippery grasp on truth.

The image was of a garbage container on fire.

“This is my technical analysis of the role of facts in the 2016 election,” he said, drawing a laugh from the audience of about 20 people.

In just under an hour, Nyhan, who researches misperceptions about politics and health care and writes for The New York Times’ blog The Upshot, outlined the origins, spread and ultimate influence of fake news and offered a few ways to combat it.

The talk, titled “Factual Echo Chambers? Fact-checking and Fake News in Election 2016,” was sponsored by the Institute for Security, Technology, and Society at Dartmouth.

First, Nyhan offered a few caveats.

Fake news is a narrow designation, he said, one that refers to intentionally false information disseminated for profit — to draw as many eyeballs and clicks as possible to internet ads.

Some widely shared examples during the presidential campaign included erroneous stories claiming that Pope Francis had endorsed then-candidate Donald Trump and, in the case of one article from the fictional newspaper The Denver Guardian, saying an FBI agent who investigated Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had been found dead in an apparent murder-suicide.

But in the past few months, people have used the term to refer first to merely misleading content and then — as with Trump, who regularly criticizes the “fake news” media’s coverage of his administration — to information they don’t like.

“There’s a definitional confusion that keeps happening,” Nyhan said.

Nyhan also pointed out that fake news accounted for a relatively small portion of the reams of misinformation coming from hyperpartisan news sources and the candidates themselves.

Nevertheless, fake news gained prominence in the final days of the hotly contested and stunningly negative election when it outpaced “real” news among the most shared stories on Facebook.

Researchers after Nov. 8 discovered that small groups of people, in one case a band of teenagers in a village in Macedonia, had created imitation news sites in search of a quick buck. Fake news creators made thousands of stories and “seeded” them in pro-Trump Facebook groups, hoping they might draw attention.

The researchers also found that between 10 and 20 percent of Americans recalled seeing fake news stories, and many of those people believed them.

Although politics has always been rife with misinformation, Nyhan said, last year’s cycle presented unique opportunities for fake news.

Americans are more open to negative stories about politicians they dislike because their distrust of opposing political parties has grown, even as their feelings toward their preferred party remain relatively warm. Meanwhile, Nyhan said, new commercial incentives and widespread distribution networks such as Facebook have made fake news “a viable business opportunity.”

“I have no easy answers here,” Nyhan told the audience, “but at the same time it’s critical that we not give up on the norms of accuracy and responsibility.”

Technology companies and news providers already are responding, he said.

Online ad network owners such as Google are tightening their qualifications around who can be a member, which may make it harder for the average adolescent in the Balkans to throw up a website and start making money off fake stories. Advertisers are considering regulating who can show their products, too.

Google also is adjusting its search algorithm to display fact-checking articles to users who enter a string of words that matches a common misconception or untruth, Nyhan said.

Finally, Facebook has begun a partnership with the International Fact-Checking Network, a group supported by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, to warn users about potentially misleading or false stories shared through the social media platform.

Nyhan noted that after the election the proliferation of conspiracy theories had swung toward the far left, where people now are wildly speculating about Trump’s connections to Russia.

He also cautioned against calling the age we live in a “post-fact” or “post-truth” era — a term that might indicate there’s no point anymore in trying to correct inaccuracies and seek the truth.

“That suggests that we’ve already lost, and we can’t give that up,” he said. “We can’t give that up.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.