A Tree Grows on Colfax

“This just isn’t even…. oh my GOD I just don’t understand how people believe this shit!”
I think my mom made this exclamation approximately 18,000 times over Thanksgiving, mainly while scrolling through her Facebook feed, or while recalling something someone posted to the main propagator of fake news stories  social media network. One time, she hid a post about Donald Trump winning the popular vote literally as an anchor on the NBC Nightly News updated us that Hillary’s lead in that count had climbed over two million.
Everyone from the New York Times to the Washington Post to the Wall Street Journal to Buzzfeed has covered the phenomenon of viral fake news during this cycle. Many stories seem to be originating from Russia, though there are plenty that come from elsewhere looking to make money on clicks.
Indeed, a couple of teens in Macedonia threw together a site called DenverGuardian.com to post a story on an FBI agent murder-suicide to cast aspersions on – oh come on, you already know this – Hillary Clinton. As the very real, though hanging on for dear life, Denver Post reported, a quick Google search of the address listed for the Denver Guardian showed that the “newsroom” was located on Colfax. In a parking lot. In a tree.
The great irony to me is that at the same time these fake news stories are being held up as fact by all of our drunk uncles (and aunts apparently), the same people are posting woe-is-us studies showing how high school students can’t figure out legitimate sources of  news evidence. Let’s not bee too hard on the under-18 set while the great majority are citing some site called Freedom Daily because it holds all the .99 cents per pound info to whatever cherries they happen to be picking that day. As NPR likes to show on April Fools Day, most people don’t even read the article; a confirming headline is all that’s needed to click the Look I Told You So Like or Share button.
Like, I don’t think fake news totally swayed this election to the degree that all the major outlet’s are hand-wringing about (see quip about solely reading headlines above). Some impact, absolutely. I mean, the National Enquirer has been on newsstands forever, and people must buy that shit, so apparently some people make stupid fake news a staple of their reading digest. But I’d say the main culpability in this election lies with legitimate news organizations sometimes not even dropping the ball, but not even attempting to catch it in the first place because OH LOOK SHINY THING.
But that’s not the point. The point is that sharing fake news that isn’t the Onion or Andy Borowitz makes otherwise functional adults look like idiots. Don’t be an idiot. I spent a lot of time, and a lot of Other People’s Money (has Trump trademarked this yet?) in undergrad and grad school sussing out good sources. I’m going to give you guys a way cheaper, way faster rundown of how not to give your Facebook friends and family (like my mom) an aneurysm when you Like or Share that post that your mouse or thumb is hovering over.
  • For all things good and holy in this world, actually read the article. Or at least the first few paragraphs. Don’t be the guy that just reads the click-bait headline. In addition to actually maybe learning something if it turns out to be a legit site, it’s a lot easier to tell if a Macedonian teenager is taking you for a ride (and confirming The World’s suspicions that Americans are gullible) if you go to the website.
  • Are there a lot of spelling or grammatical errors? I know everyone gave Gawker and Jezebel and Deadspin hell because they’d misspell a word or not correctly match their subject and verb correctly every now and then, but these fake news sites are rife with errors. If you can’t read the article in a fluid manner, I’ll eat my slipper if it’s a legit site.
  • After you read the article, click on a few other areas of the site. Go see what other stories they have up. If a site is half finished, or there are a lot of blank pages, or pages with error messages, chances are you are on a fake site, my friend. On occasion, things go down. But no one not selling you some ocean front property in Arizona – and I am confident in this blanket statement – lets a website go live with half of it unfinished.
  • I get that when you share things on the social media network or email list of your choice, you are necessarily cherry-picking. However, for your own edification, it’s good to branch out every now and then. Every so often, Mother Jones actually comes up with some great reporting. Most of the time, though, as satisfying as it can be to settle in to the legitimizing vortex of self-same articles, it’s not really a great purveyor of information on the world. Same goes for you, Breitbart and Infowars readers. Though, Mother Jones doesn’t advocate for anti-Semitism and racism and misogyny, so if you’re going to be stuck in an opinion circle jerk, go with MJ. Just throw in some Wall Street Journal for some reality and financial markets news.

There’s so damn much information out there these days – literally I can sit at dinner with three couples who know each other from back home in Indiana and now they all live in Arizona, and I can find on Google Maps one woman’s sister’s house in the subdivision I grew up in with two key pieces of information that aren’t her address. But just because there’s something out there that fits nicely in with your worldview doesn’t make it true. Good journalists mandate at least two independent sources confirm information before they’ll entertain it. It’s a pretty good rule of thumb for the rest of us, too. If something is true, that information will not only show up on Buzzfeed or Bustle or Cracked; it will be a headline on the Washington Post or LA Times or Chicago Tribune. If you must, and I’m holding my nose as I type this, even check Fox News; Megyn Kelly seems to be on somewhat of a roll with her ethics. Even better, purchase an online subscription to a newspaper, or support your local NPR station. Real news and real journalism aren’t free, and those same outlets that were chasing butterflies in the outfield this election cycle can hire better people who will actually keep their eye on the ball if we pay for what we consume.

Otherwise we’ll be stuck with fake news, to go with our fake tyrannical government.

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