UB students and professors discuss 'fake news'


Political science professor Harvey Palmer thinks the increased popularity of fake news is a “symptom of changes in the media market.”

Social media has left people unable to distinguish real news stories from fake news stories. Websites such as Facebook and Twitter allow virtually anyone to post content to a large audience. Social media gives the public easy access to fake news from unaccredited blogs and websites, which has caused a dissemination of lies, misinformation and conspiracy theories.

Many UB students tend to get their news from social media. The Spectrum asked more than 200 students where they got their news last November and Facebook and Twitter were among the top three news sources.

Fake news comes in a variety of forms. Satirical fake news sites such as The Onion post stories that can easily be confused for actual news. Biased partisan websites such as Occupy Democrats and Breitbart tailor their articles to fit certain political views. Sites like ConspiracyWire spread conspiracy theories based on unsubstantiated information.

Sophia Rogillo, a freshman environmental design major, thinks mainstream news media is unreliable.

“News media is not reliable because it’s funded by private corporations and enterprises with their own goals and objectives to make profits,” Rogillo said.

Rogillo said she often gets her news from Facebook, Snapchat and other “easily digestible” sources.

The Trump administration has accused media outlets such as CNN and The New York Times of publishing fake news.

“After being forced to apologize for its bad and inaccurate coverage of me after winning the election, the FAKE NEWS @nytimes is still lost!” President Trump tweeted on Feb. 4.

Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to President Trump, told conservative radio host Michael Medved that the Trump administration will continue to use the term “fake news” to describe the media’s “monumental desire to attack a duly elected president.”

Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi said people paint the media with too broad of a brush and dismiss mainstream media altogether rather than thinking critically about the information being presented.

“’The media is essentially shorthand for anything you read, saw or heard today that you disagreed with or didn’t like. At any given moment, ‘the media’ is biased against your candidate, your issue, your very way of life,” Fahri wrote in a Sept. 2016 Washington Post article.

People tend to be more trusting of sources that align with their ideology or partisanship over expertise or accuracy, according to Palmer.

“The main obstacle is that it isn’t clear that the public wants accurate information. They’re more interested in information that aligns with their world views,” Palmer said.

Distrust of mainstream media outlets is increasingly common.

Journalism is in trouble. You can’t trust the mainstream [media],” said Divante Robinson, a sophomore media study major.

Robinson prefers to get his news on YouTube rather than mainstream sources like CNN and The New York Times.

Darby Swab, a graduate arts management student, said while she likes sources such as The New York Times and NPR, she trusts people “fighting the good fight” more.

“I like to get news from people who have made it clear they are fighting for the truth, and I like to get it more from these individual people [rather] than the media. For example, people livestreaming and posting about protests that the media is twisting into a riot,” Swab said.

Swab thinks liberal sources are more reliable than conservative sources such as Fox News, but “both sides can twist things.”

“There definitely is liberal media that does the same thing, like saying GMOs are a government conspiracy,” Swab said.

During the 2016 presidential election, fake news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined, according to an analysis by Buzzfeed.

While fake news has some influence on politics, it has “little effect in terms of persuasion,” according to political science professor Jacob Neiheisel.

“You get these echo chambers where people who are already like-minded share things that they sort of agree with anyways,” Neiheisel said.

But Neiheisel still thinks fake news may be able to mobilize people.

“[Fake news] mobilized some of those folks and motivated them to come out to vote [in the 2016 presidential election] a little bit more than they would have otherwise,” Neiheisel said.

In an extreme example of political mobilization, 28-year-old Edgar M. Welch of Salisbury, N.C., fired an AR-15 rifle at Comet Ping Pong on Dec. 4, 2016.

Welch opened fire at the northwest Washington pizza restaurant after reading a fake news story that said the restaurant was harboring young children as sex slaves as part of a child-abuse ring led by Hillary Clinton.

While no one was hurt, Welch’s actions reflect potentially dangerous consequences of fake news.

Neiheisel thinks greater awareness about the existence of fake news will lead to increased skepticism and questioning of the reliability of sources.

Sources are reliable if they are “consistent,” do not have misleading headlines and “help the average person to stand up and know how to make change,” Swab said.

Neiheisel believes “greater suspicion of sources” is the key to minimizing the influence of fake news.

“I think greater suspicion of sources will really cut down on [fake news’] efficacy and probably even its popularity going forward,” he said.

Maddy Fowler is the assistant news editor and can be reached at maddy.fowler@ubspectrum.com