Everywhere you turn, you are bombarded with stories of fake news. It’s out of control. We now have the White House banning media outlets and the President avoiding White House Correspondents’ Dinner all because our POTUS feels that the media is making up false stories. Our President took to Twitter (as he often does) to share the fact that he was bowing out of the annual event. Social media has become a huge part of this presidency, as many of Trump’s thoughts and allegations (yes, I went there) are tweeted; oftentimes leaving me personally asking (read:begging) someone to monitor his usage of Twitter and remove him from it.
That’s another story for another day though.
I came across an interesting interview this week on the website Project Information Literacy. Project Information Literacy interviewed a Wellesley College professor named P. Takis Metaxas. Professor Metaxas is the founder of Twitter Trails, a tool he helped design to determine the veracity of posts shared on Twitter. How is this done? Tweets are analyzed using keyword searches and then analyzed to see when it was posted, who first tweeted it, who has shared it, and how far the tweet has spread. Any URLs and images shared are also analyzed. They have determined that spread and skepticism can help in deciding if a claim (tweet) is true or not; meaning, a claim that is highly skeptical with less spread is more than likely false.
It’s interesting to note that these results apply to Twitter alone. Facebook, with its different interface, may yield different results. Why? you may ask. If someone posts something on Facebook and several people comment on it and question its validity, those comments may get hidden and not get seen. A Facebook user would have to click on something to see all previous comments, which many people may not take the time to do.
Professor Metaxas discussed Twitter and its role in swaying political elections. Twitter bombs are propaganda created by bots that target certain users. Detecting Twitter bombs is difficult to do. They are sophisticated and Twitter denies access to their database, making it extremely difficult to find them.
My favorite part of this interview came when Professor Metaxas discussed how we can address the issue of determining which information on social media is true. His number one response?
First, we should draw upon professionals with expertise in recognizing quality in written publications, such as librarians. Librarians are a critical group because they have formal education in doing comprehensive research in a variety of domains, and can detect misinformation much more accurately than the average internet user. It is my hope and vision that groups of academic librarians will provide their expertise to create a Wikipedia-like database that will identify and document websites promoting lies, fake news, and propaganda.
Databases can then lead to the use of plug ins that would warn readers of a site’s use of fake news. This can also lead to advertisers refusing to work with those that share fake news. All of this would help greatly in the fight against spreading false stories.
Professor Metaxas also places the onus on us. We need to hone our critical thinking skills and learn to question what we read and hear. How can we do that? By using the scientific method! Most importantly though, we need to examine our own thoughts, stereotypes, and beliefs. These are the very things that may be clouding our judgement and they prevent us from seeing a truth we may not want to see. This isn’t an easy task but according to Takas, with practice it becomes easier.