First, we’d like to thank the folks who came to Allan Hancock College last Tuesday afternoon to participate in a forum focusing on fake news.
The event was sponsored by the League of Women Voters, Hancock College, Fund for Santa Barbara and the Santa Maria Times, all of which are stakeholders in emphasizing fact over fiction.
Getting to the truth is not always an easy assignment, especially when “news” is presented on so many media platforms.
A Hancock College professor and panel participant discussing fake news offered excellent advice: Before sharing news you’ve read or seen, answer four questions — who’s speaking, who is the audience, what is the message, and what is the tone of language being used?
These are goals every good newspaper has pursued for decades, and will continue to pursue. It’s the basic premise of newspaper reporting.
The forum discussion also revealed that most students believe media is not trustworthy, perhaps because young people spend a lot of their time on social media platforms, which generally have few rules about reporting the actual facts, or about presenting opinion as fact.
Finding the truth in a story sometimes is more difficult than finding a needle in a haystack.
The relevance of that forum became apparent later last week when students who survived the South Florida high school shooting began speaking out, with conviction, about gun control, shaming lawmakers who refuse to take even preliminary steps toward stopping America’s mass-murder epidemic.
Students rallied in front of the White House, and busloads traveled from South Florida to the state capitol in Tallahassee to protest the latest school shooting, and what seems to be a who-cares attitude among so many elected officials.
And while the vast majority of Americans seem to side with the student protesters, a handful of ultra-conservative trolls set about establishing a new, incredibly low level of deplorable behavior.
Soon after the Washington and Tallahassee student protests, conspiracy theorists were hard at work, flooding social media and cable news shows that would accept such fake news with the notion that the young protesters were paid stooges of the political far left.
An aide to a Florida lawmaker emailed a Tampa newspaper reporter a tip about a protest site photo, and that both kids in the photo “are not students here but actors that travel to various crises when they happen.”
It did not take a lot of research to unravel that lie — both students pictured had faced the gunman, and survived the attack at Marjory Stoneman High.
But the fake-news seed had been planted, that the young people you see grieving in newspaper photos and TV news video are actors paid to show up at every photo opportunity.
The aide who gave the false tip was fired as soon as the fake news began to spread and was quickly refuted. But the information — as fake as it turned out to be — remained out there, making the rounds on social media sites that specialize in hate-tinged rumor. In fact, a video from last summer purportedly showing a student protester with a Hollywood actor, though unrelated to the school shooting, quickly zoomed to the top of the YouTube most-watched list.
There is really no way to stop the flood of fake news. But you can help by arming yourself with information, and do what newspaper editors do every day — question everything.