Troll farms: Not the stuff of fairy tales

When you think of the term troll farm, what comes to mind? Maybe a scene in a sci-fi book or a game to download onto your phone. But don’t be fooled: the dangerous consequences of troll farms are real and serious.

Those behind troll farms spread misinformation through fake profiles and accounts that appear to belong to real people. Some are designed to amplify bogus support for political ideas; others create confusion and distrust of democratic institutions. Still others do it for personal gain or notoriety.

While most Americans became aware of troll farms upon learning that Russia used them to try to mislead voters during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, trolling goes back farther than that. And this phenomenon is in no way exclusive to Russia. Troll farmers can be individuals, political parties or governments.

Social media platforms have tried to curb the proliferation of these fake accounts, with mixed results. In March, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — which Facebook owns — disabled dozens of accounts tied to a Russian-linked troll network based mostly in Ghana, The Verge reported. The accounts, which fueled racial divisions, attracted more than 300,000 followers. Yet, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Institution for the Future researched state-sponsored trolling in a 2018 report. Researchers found that while the impact of fake accounts and sites could actually be classified as human rights abuses, almost no infrastructure exists for punishing creators. They suggested using international human rights laws to “require social media platforms to detect and, in some cases, remove hate speech, harassment, and disinformation; and implement such requirements in a transparent and accountable manner that respects due process and reinforces human rights.”

A recent article by the New York Times examined the content Russian troll accounts produced in 2016 versus 2020. A side-by-side comparison of posts revealed that trolls have gotten smarter at hiding their true identities. Accounts from 2016 tended to be filled with spelling errors or have an unrealistically high number of followers. Now, trolls copy and paste chunks of text to reduce such obvious errors.

Without these tell-tale signs, internet users must be even more cautious. A November 2019 segment from NPR affiliate WBUR offers advice from Clemson University researchers Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren: Question why you are seeing certain information from a particular account. Be wary of a flurry of inspiring, uplifting content because trolls don’t want to antagonize a community, they want to be part of it. Use caution when encountering content from accounts you don’t know.

Keep that advice in mind, particularly regarding information related to COVID-19, racial justice protests and the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The stakes are high, as misinformation pushed by troll farms can endanger our public life and health and the functioning of our democracy.

Astroturfing: As fake as it sounds

Have you ever come across a product online with thousands of five-star reviews and thought to yourself that something just doesn’t seem right?  You scroll through the comments and they appear to be written by real people. But it can be hard to tell for sure, because businesses and political groups are known to employ a tactic called “astroturfing.”

Named for the brand of artificial grass known as AstroTurf®, the term refers to the mimicking of grassroots support in an attempt to push forward a particular product or political agenda. Political, business or special-interest groups disguise themselves online by posting comments or publishing blogs and letters to the editor. This seemingly independent content gives the impression that there’s genuine widespread support for a movement, issue or product.

For example, in mid-April, when protests began in some states to object to stay-at-home orders aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, the events were covered widely, and initially framed as locally grown, organic uprisings.

However, The Washington Post reported that social media calls to action didn’t actually come from the grassroots. They were funded instead by an initiative called Convention of States, a conservative network of groups and individuals working to amplify the protests to serve an anti-lockdown agenda.

While frustration with business and school closures were real, astroturfing brought money and momentum to the movement in a way that made opposition to stay-at-home orders seem  stronger and more widespread than polling suggested. Other conservative groups, such as FreedomWorks and Tea Party Patriots, also worked behind the scenes to initiate and promote local demonstrations that were anything but impromptu, The New York Times reported.

It’s important to note that astroturfing happens on both sides of the political aisle, and is nothing new in politics or business. For example, in the 1990s, cigarette maker Philip Morris’ public relations firm created a seemingly grassroots pro-smoking group called the National Smokers Alliance. The group paid hundreds of young people to recruit members in bars and bowling alleys, according to Tobacco Tactics, a nonprofit organization based at the United Kingdom’s University of Bath that investigates the tobacco industry. However, social media has given astroturfing a reach and impact it didn’t have in the past.

So before you get caught up in a cause or persuaded to buy a product, investigate the source. Do some digging to find out what group or which individuals might really be behind it. Check to see if organizers or reviewers might have a larger agenda. For more tips, check out our Sanitize before you share advice.

Don’t let confirmation bias narrow your perspective

When we come across an interesting news item online, it’s no surprise that we want to share it with others who also may find it interesting. A Gallup/Knight Foundation survey of more than 19,000 Americans, conducted in the summer and fall of 2017, found that 64% percent of respondents said they “frequently” (27%) or “occasionally” (37%) share such items with their families, their friends or their followers on social media.

According to the report of the survey results (American Views: Trust, Media and Democracy, published in early 2018), more than two-thirds (68%) share information with people who hold views similar to theirs. Fewer than a third (29%) do so with those who hold differing views.

Maybe we really just value familial accord, but when we share something that simply supports our existing views, we aren’t exactly challenging what we — or our loved ones — think. It’s human nature to seek out information that reflects and upholds our view of the world. But when we do so, we may be engaging in confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret and recall information in a way that supports what we already believe. As a result, we’re likely to dismiss credible information that calls our beliefs into question.

When confirmation bias influences how we find and share information, we risk getting an incomplete and inaccurate picture of an issue, event or topic. It can also exacerbate the spread of misinformation. For example, when a social media post strongly resonates with our emotions, we’re more inclined to “like” or share it without verifying that it’s actually true.

The first step in countering confirmation bias is to recognize it in ourselves. Then we can guard against it by getting our news from a wide range of credible sources, reading opinion columns from a variety of viewpoints, and including these varied perspectives in our social media posts.

So remember to gut-check your own biases and seek out information from diverse sources. Then you can weigh in with confidence.

Social media use drives false COVID-19 beliefs

DYK Reboot social media study

A recent survey by The Reboot Foundation indicates that social media plays a large role in promoting myths about COVID-19, according to the organization’s April 2020 report.

Going Viral: How Social Media Is Making the Spread of the Coronavirus Worse noted that containment of the virus depends on individual actions based on credible, factual information. But the “infodemic” around the virus can interfere with the American public’s efforts to access reliable content, particularly on social media. And some content can leave consumers feeling indifferent toward the pandemic or overconfident in their knowledge about it.

The findings from the foundation, a Paris-based nonprofit that supports efforts to integrate critical thinking in daily life, are based on a representative 30-question survey of more than 1,000 people across the country, and the tracking of individual COVID-19-related social media posts.

Key takeaways

  • 29% were misinformed on at least one aspect of the virus.
  • 26% believed that COVID-19 will likely die off in the spring.
  • 10% thought regularly rinsing their nose with saline will help prevent the virus.
  • 12% believed that people created COVID-19.
  • Approximately 20% believed that the outbreak was not a serious issue.

Overconfident

In addition, respondents thought they were more knowledgeable about COVID-19 than they were:

  • More than 55% of respondents claimed that they were “very informed” or “extremely informed” about COVID-19.
  • 42% said that they were “somewhat informed.”
  • 3% felt “not very informed” or “not at all informed.”

Also note

Another recent study examined COVID-19 misinformation on Twitter and found that 25 percent of virus-related tweets contained wrong information. Another 17 percent of tweets spread unverifiable information, according to the study.

Also, the Reboot Foundation funded a study that delivered similar results regarding false health news on social media. Released as a preprint, the study looked at all health-related posts on one of the most popular Facebook groups in Europe. They found that 28 percent of the group’s posts related to health were inaccurate.

Deepfakes: When you can’t believe your own eyes

Remember when you could watch a video and feel fairly confident that the people in it were actually saying and doing what you were hearing and seeing? And if someone had manipulated the video to alter its meaning or context, the fingerprints of fabrication were probably pretty easy to spot.

Those days are long gone.

Digital technology allows just about anyone to create deepfakes — videos that have been digitally manipulated to make a person appear to say or do something that the person never said or did. You may have seen some of the more infamous ones, such as a of Jennifer Lawrence and Steve Buscemi. While that video is largely harmless, it demonstrates how the technology can be used to deceive audiences (and potentially cause harm).

A less sophisticated manipulation, known as a “cheapfake,” targeted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in May 2019. A video of her remarks at the Center for American Progress was slowed down, making her speech sound slurred (and giving rise to false claims that she was drunk).

Some media experts believe that in this presidential election year, cheapfakes will turn out to be a bigger problem than deepfakes. As three current and former Harvard University researchers argued in a piece for Nieman Lab, crude cheapfakes will likely serve the purposes of propagandists better — and are just as likely as more sophisticated videos to draw in those who are inclined to believe.

Lawmakers in California reacted to such concerns by passing legislation that makes it illegal to distribute deepfakes of a candidate for public office within 60 days of an election. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed the measure into law in October 2019. Candidates can sue to stop the spread of videos and can seek financial damages, although the law imposes no criminal penalties.

Technology companies are also taking action against the alarming potential of synthetic video and audio technologies to provoke or confuse voters — or to give politicians a way to dismiss an authentic but potentially damaging video as “fake.” The New York Times reported in November 2019 that Google is developing automated tools to detect deepfakes (an episode of The Weekly, the Times’ investigative journalism television series, featured similar work). Google hired actors to create its own synthetically engineered deepfakes and then used those fakes to train an algorithm to detect those methods of video manipulation. The company is making its collection of fakes available to other researchers trying to build similar tools.

Press freedom isn’t only for reporters, and neither is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Just as the public is the reason that press freedom matters — so that people know what those in power are doing — FOIA, enacted in 1966, gives everyone the right to ask federal agencies for records about what they do.

States have their own open records laws, and the National Freedom of Information Coalition even walks people through the document-request process. “Protecting your right to open government” is the motto of the group, which began as an initiative to support First Amendment organizations with the goal of protecting the public’s right to know.

FOIA doesn’t mean that the public can know everything, though: The law includes nine exemptions from disclosure, meaning that certain categories of information will not be released. They include information that is classified to protect national security and information that might invade someone else’s privacy.

The government’s answers to frequently asked questions about FOIA include: yes, you need to make requests in writing; no, you don’t need a special form; and if a request will take the agency longer than a month, it has to let the person or organization know.

Lack of communication can signal disregard for the law. In March, NBC 7 in San Diego broadcast a report, based on leaked documents, about a secret government database that kept tabs on people, including journalists, who were involved in some way with a caravan of Central American migrants making their way north.

Soon thereafter, seeking to learn more about the database (and the tracking of journalists), the station and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sent FOIA requests to the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Citizenship and Immigration Services. On April 22, the Reporters Committee and NBC 7 sued the department and the three agencies, accusing them of withholding information from the public.

Our right to documents on demand is thanks to John Moss, a California legislator, who said in 1956 when he started his push: “The present trend toward government secrecy could end in a dictatorship. The more information there is made available, the greater will be the nation’s security.”

The First Amendment: What do we know?

It’s good news/bad news when it comes to Americans and the First Amendment.

The good news: Three-quarters of the respondents to a survey about the First Amendment said they support that essential part of the U.S. Constitution and the rights and freedoms it guarantees.

The bad news: Only one (yes, one) out of the 1,009 adults surveyed could name all five of the rights and freedoms it grants.

This is according to the 2018 State of the First Amendment survey conducted last May by the First Amendment Center at the Freedom Forum Institute.

In honor of World Press Freedom Day, let’s review those rights and freedoms, starting with the least-known. Explanations come from the Freedom Forum Institute.

Right to petition: 2% could name this. This is the right to ask the government, at any level, to right a wrong or correct a problem. Its roots can be found the Declaration of Independence: “In every state of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms.” (The original draft of the First Amendment included only “assembly” and “petition.”)

Right of assembly: 12% could name this. This is the right to “peaceably assemble,” even when a majority is opposed to the viewpoints expressed by those who gather.

Freedom of the press: 13% could name this. Decisions by the Supreme Court over the years have given shape to the fact that the government can neither stop information deemed newsworthy from being published nor punish those who criticize the state and its officials.

Freedom of religion: 15% could name this. Thomas Jefferson called this freedom a “bold” and “novel experiment” that defied the Western European assumption and practice of the state’s supporting a particular denomination of Christianity.

Freedom of speech: 56% could name this. “Speech” includes expression such as burning the American flag or engaging “in countless other forms of expression that would be outlawed in many nations but are regarded as constitutionally protected here.”

Actually, this survey is good news on another front as well: Even if it also showed that 40% of those surveyed could not name any of these rights, the best news is, of course, that — know them or not — people can exercise them without fear of government threat.

Press freedom in the U.S. fluctuates

What makes a country free?

The open and unfettered flow of information that keeps a country’s people informed is one measure — and for this, journalists are essential. In recent years, press freedom in the U.S. has fallen as low as 48th in 2019, based on rankings of 190 countries and regions by Reporters Without Borders (also known as Reporters Sans Frontières, or RSF). After moving up to 42nd place in 2022, the U.S. fell three spots to 45th place in the 2023 index.

Through the World Press Freedom Index, RSF tracks how freely reporters are allowed to do their jobs, considering factors such as the number of abuses and acts of violence against journalists, the degree of self-censorship felt by journalists, and the independence of media outlets.

And threats against reporters continue, as Russia’s arrest and detainment of  Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in March demonstrates.

While the U.S. ranking fell to its lowest in 2019 due in part to former President Donald Trump’s ongoing degradation of journalists, including his repeated declaration that the press is the “enemy of the people.” that hostility predates his administration. In April 2019 Sabine Dolan, RSF’s interim executive director, said on NPR: “Even before President Trump, the Obama administration was aggressively using the 1917 Espionage Act to prosecute more whistleblowers than any previous administration combined.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which documents press freedom violations at the national, state and local levels, tracks journalist arrests, assaults, border stops, camera and equipment seizures, surveillance orders, subpoenas and more. This initiative brings together more th. In recent years, press freedom in the U.S. has fallen as low as 48th in 2019, based on rankings of 190 countries and regions by Reporters Without Borders (also known as Reporters Sans Frontières, or RSF). But the nation has slowly reversed that trend, ranking 42nd in the 2022 index.an two dozen press freedom groups and journalism organizations to monitor assaults on press freedoms, and the statistics it collects are used in RSF’s annual report. As it states: “When journalists are obstructed, so is the public’s right to be informed and hold power to account.”

Which means less freedom for all.

Public trust in journalists is down, but in ‘media’ it’s up

“Below is a list of people,” the survey question began. “In general, when forming an opinion of a company, if you heard information about a company from each person, how credible would the information be — extremely credible, very credible, somewhat credible, or not credible at all?”

The global communications firm Edelman asked this question in late 2018 for its 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer (PDF), an online survey of more than 33,000 people in 27 markets worldwide. “Journalist” did not fare well. Only 36% of those asked said that they would call a journalist “extremely credible” or “very credible” as a source — down from 39% the year before.

The most trustworthy source for information, according to 65% of the respondents, was a “company technical expert.” “Government official” was deemed least credible, with barely a third (35%) trusting someone in that position. Between those two extremes, in descending order of trust, were “academic expert” (63%); “a person like yourself” (61%); “regular employee” and “successful entrepreneur” (tied at 53%); “financial industry analyst” (52%); “NGO representative” (48%); “CEO” (47%); “board of directors” (44%); and, as noted above, “journalist.”

Edelman’s annual trust and credibility survey broadly measures what people think of four major institutions in society: government, business, media and nongovernmental organizations. Interestingly, although trust in “journalists” is down globally, when asked about institutions, the responses show that trust in “media” (loosely described as the institution focusing on our  “information and knowledge” well-being) is up from the year before. The not-so-great news is that media remains the least-trusted institution, distrusted in 16 markets worldwide. The U.S. is one of those 16 markets, at a level of 48% “distrust.”

But trust and journalism can be tricky to consider, as Michael Schudson — a historian of the news media and a professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism — writes in Columbia Journalism Review. He acknowledges recent attempts to “engender distrust” in the press, but also notes this:

“Perhaps it’s not surprising to learn that journalism’s self-defined mission of ‘holding government accountable’ is hurting trust. In the past 40 years, ‘accountability journalism’ has come to assert itself as a defining feature of mainstream newsrooms. The news is much less deferential than it once was to institutions and people in power. That may be good, but it also means that a lot of people are going to distrust the media, particularly when their favorite politicians or the parties they identify with are critically appraised or openly confronted by journalistic investigation, information, or opinion.”

Restless public focuses more on staying (and keeping others) informed

There’s an explosion in the number of people paying attention to news, and researchers say that this “massive rise” shows an “urgent desire for change.”

In 2018, 72% of the public surveyed worldwide by Edelman, a global communications firm, said they read, watched or listened to news at least once a week — up a whopping 22 percentage points from 2017. The reason, Edelman says in its annual “trust barometer,” is that an increasing number of people are frustrated by their eroding trust in societal institutions. Determined to be involved and to effect change, people are reading, watching and listening more — and are sharing what they learn. 

And around the world, as the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer (PDF download) shows, people also are growing more picky about the sources they turn to: According to the study, in the U.S. and Canada, 65% of the public said they trusted traditional media; only 34% trusted social media platforms as a news source. 

And worldwide, 73% worry about false information or fake news being used as a weapon.

This is a win for “quality news,” writes Steve Rubel, Edelman’s chief media ecologist, in an assessment of the study’s findings. Too many voices and too much opinion have left people craving real news, he says, adding that the numbers bear out the idea that “journalism is again a beacon of trust in a world of distrust.” (While celebrating the change in consumption, Rubel also notes the relatively low trust in news overall, which in the U.S. stands at 47%.)

Edelman’s annual trust and credibility survey broadly measures what people think about four major institutions in society: government, business, nongovernmental organizations and media. The 2019 study, released in January, links the increase in news engagement with a similar rise in advocacy. Protest marches and walkouts at work are driven, according to Edelman, by the feeling worldwide that “the system” is not working for most.

Regions that lose news outlets become more partisan

There’s a lot to dislike when a local newspaper shuts its doors. As members of the community, we’re less informed about what’s happening around the corner (hey, why is that building being razed? and who’s playing at the concert in the park?). Elected officials are freer to do as they please without the oversight of reporters making inquiries on our behalf.

But one surprising result of the decrease in local news coverage, according to three researchers who studiedthe media’s influence on voters, is how it affects the way people vote: The populace tends to become more polarized.

First, a look at the numbers: In 2006, the total weekday circulation figure (print and digital) for American daily newspapers was 52 million. By 2017, it was estimated to have dropped to under 31 million. And a 2018 study by a professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism noted that there are now almost 1,800 fewer local newspapers than there were in 2004.

Larger national outlets, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today, continue to cover national news, and the internet provides a large stage for their reports. As a result, the three researchers found, national political news is inescapable, and it often focuses on partisan conflict.

So Joshua Darr of Louisiana State University, Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M University and Matthew Hitt of Colorado State University followed what they called a “hunch”: “If people are consuming more nationalized news when their local newspapers decline, they might become more polarized themselves and vote accordingly.”

Focused on split-ticket voting (voting for candidates of different parties when multiple offices are on an Election Day ballot), the researchers compared patterns in the 2012 election in two types of counties: ones that had lost a newspaper and ones that had not. The result: “Voters were 1.9 percent more likely to vote for the same party for president and senator after a newspaper closes in their community, compared to voters in statistically similar areas where a newspaper did not close.”

The researchers ultimately attributed the increase in partisanship to people consuming more national news. They also noted how often such a seemingly small percentage can swing an election.

Their parting plea: Turn your attention, and your subscription dollars, from the “national spectacle” and back to local news, rather than have “political partisanship … inform political choices.”

Public wary of news, information from social media

Did you know? 62% of Americans say social media companies have too much control over the mix of news people see.

A majority of Americans say that social media sites have too much say in the news they consume online.

That’s according to the Pew Research Center, which published its assessment of public opinion in an October 2019 report, Americans Are Wary of the Role Social Media Sites Play in Delivering the News.

The report by the nonpartisan “fact tank” spells out the public’s worries: While 62% believe that social media companies have too much control over the news on their sites, 55% specify that the role of social media companies in delivering the news on their sites results in a worse mix of news for users.

Pew provides additional context for its findings: Yes, the largest platforms use algorithms that tailor what posts people see. But the same sites also allow users to customize their settings. Despite that, many Americans still aren’t sure why certain posts are included in their news feeds — and take little action to change their own settings.

In its survey, Pew asked about seven potential “problems with news.” Although censorship of the news by social media platforms — such as downranking or “hiding” posts with which a platform disagrees (called “shadow-banning”) — has been trumpeted as an issue, only 35% of respondents said they considered it a “very big problem.” The top two concerns were “one-sided news,” which 53% cite as a “very big problem,” followed by “inaccurate news,” cited by 51% as a “very big problem.”

Those concerns are well-placed: As Pew notes, Americans increasingly get their news from social media; more than half (55%) do so “often” or “sometimes” now versus 47% in 2018. About 28% get news on social media “often,” up from 20% in 2018.

Data in this Pew Research Center report are drawn from responses by 5,107 members of Pew’s American Trends Panel who were surveyed between July 8 and July 21, 2019.

Trust in news sources: It’s complicated

A 2018 study by the Pew Research Center found that most Americans expect the information they get from a news organization to be accurate. So why does the same study show that most people also believe that news organizations don’t admit their mistakes?

First, a look at those numbers: The study found that 71% of Americans trust the accuracy of the national news they consume. Yet “about two-thirds of Americans (68%) believe news organizations try to cover up mistakes. That’s more than double the number that trust news organizations to admit mistakes (30%).”

So does the public think that news outlets are reliable and transparent, or not?

Addressing errors has long been a bedrock value and crucial measure of responsible journalism. The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics states, “Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently.”

However, Pew respondents might be right to doubt that reporters faithfully follow this ideal. An “accuracy audit” of 122 newspapers in 2005 found that the rate of corrections was dismal. And that was long before the online landscape transformed the news media.

The authors of  that study, “Accuracy Matters: A Cross-Market Assessment of Newspaper Error and Credibility,” suggested a few reasons reporters might not own up to their errors. First, they might not realize they have made an error because many sources and readers who see inaccuracies never contact the journalist or news outlet. More alarming, researchers said, newsrooms often ignored requests for corrections.

In an era of declining trust in news, the corrections situation, clearly, needs correcting.

In its 2019 report Crisis in Democracy: Renewing Trust in America, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy urges news outlets to update their practices on correcting errors, including sending corrections “along the same online pathways that the original mistake traveled.”

Chasing errors in the ether might not be easy, as evidenced by this attempt to append a correction to a story everywhere it appeared. Still, making the effort is one way to regain trust. 

Even diligent reporters make errors, as then-executive editor of Gizmodo Media Group John Cook told media critic Jack Shafer: “There are a million ways for good-faith reporters to make good-faith errors, which is why good news outlets have a culture of correction.”

That’s a culture the public likely can appreciate. 

The Pew finding is based on a nationally representative survey of 5,035 U.S. adults ages 18 years or older conducted from Feb. 22 to March 4, 2018. 

College students embrace news in theory, anyway

Following the news is a civic responsibility, agree 63% of U.S. college students. Furthermore, 82% say that news is necessary in a democracy. 

“Yes!” you think. “The kids are all right! They know that an informed populace is key to a healthy society.” 

But what Project Information Literacy also learned (PDF) is that when these young adults think of “news,” they are envisioning the highest ideals of reporting — and they’re not happy with what they often see. One overall finding: “Tension exists between idealized views of journalism and a distrust of news.”

The nonprofit research institute surveyed more than 5,800 students at 11 campuses to understand what young adults think about the role news plays in their lives and how they determine what to believe, finding both support and ambivalence.

College students appreciate “the long-standing core principles of journalism — truth, accuracy, independence and fairness.” But 68% also agree with this statement: “The sheer amount of news on any given day is overwhelming.” And 45% believe this: “It’s difficult to tell real news from fake news.”

Several factors drive the students’ dissatisfaction. One is the “fake news phenomenon,” especially “its far-reaching impact on people’s ability to distinguish truthful and accurate news coverage from misinformation and outright lies.” Another is social media’s “avalanche of news that appeals to news consumers’ emotions rather than conveying credible facts.” Students pointed to newsfeeds that mix fact and opinion in pieces whose sources were unknown or unclear, along with headlines and memes that lack nuance and are often followed by torrents of heated reaction.

And they worry about bias, too.

The researchers offer six recommendations for educators, journalists and librarians to consider for this “generation that has clearly grown skeptical of the pretense of media authority” — but that also believes that following the news is a civic responsibility.

The Project Information Literacy study How Students Engage with News: Five Takeaways for Educators, Journalists, and Librarians was published in October 2018 and based on responses from January to June 2018. It was commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Association of College and Research Libraries.

Trust starts with understanding but when it comes to basics, that’s lacking

Half the public is unaware (or only slightly aware) of what “op-ed” means.

That on its own isn’t necessarily a problem. What is a problem is what that and other results from a June 2018 Media Insight Project survey reflect: the chasm in understanding between newsrooms and the public on some basics of journalism.

The Media Insight Project, an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, starts with the premise that the public’s trust of journalism is based on an understanding of how journalism works, including its language. 

It tested this premise through two surveys: one for members of the public and one for journalists. One question for the public was about their familiarity with specific newsroom terms or concepts; journalists were asked whether they thought Americans understood those terms or concepts. 

The results showed “substantial confusion on major concepts. On a battery of nine core journalism terms, a majority of Americans are very familiar with only three of them”: what a political endorsement is, what breaking news is, and what the difference is between a news story and a press release. 

Only 28% of people queried said they were completely or very familiar with the term “op-ed.” Journalists gave the public even less credit; only 15% of journalists thought the public would understand it. (The term is from print journalism and refers to the placement of opinion pieces on the page opposite the editorial page.)

The study’s authors suggest that the news media should better explain itself. And they note: “The low opinion journalists have of their audience may be a major underlying factor that gets in the way of winning back trust. As journalists and their news organizations pursue strategies to improve their relationship with the public, it’s worth noting that the public’s views and behaviors may not be as simplistic or dim as journalists make them out to be.”

Native advertising: Big money, but potential problems

Every industry has its jargon. Lawyers might throw out “prima facie” and expect to be understood; doctors might say ECG and EEG without bothering to explain what they mean.

Journalism has its own words, too. But it’s a worse problem when journalism, an industry whose survival depends on being trusted, uses terms that its customers don’t understand.

In its 2018 study Americans and the News Media: What they do — and don’t — understand about each other, the Media Insight Project asked nonjournalists about several news industry phrases and practices. Among the findings: 57% of the U.S. public say they have little or no idea what “native advertising” is. And only 18% say they are very or completely familiar with the term, which is what journalists call the “sponsored content” that resembles a news article but is paid for by someone trying to sell something. 

Worse: People seem unfamiliar with the practice. “Native advertising” is designed to look like  news, so people can be tricked into reading what they think is straight reporting. But sponsored content has become a moneymaker for outlets, which means that such marketing is here to stay.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code pulls no punches: “Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two. Prominently label sponsored content.” 

But how? In a 2018 article for Nieman Reports, a publication of Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation, Jake Batsell — a former journalist and an associate professor of journalism at Southern Methodist University — offers guidelines for steps the industry can take to maintain trust with its audience when it comes to ads that might look like real news articles.  

Batsell visited media outlets to learn how they explain these ads to their audience. Labeling, it seems, is a good answer: The content that is most clearly labeled as advertising actually often performs better than content that is more vaguely identified. Batsell also suggests attaching a “What’s this?” link so that visitors can click through to learn that the item is, in fact, a marketing piece. 

The Federal Trade Commission has its own rules in place, last updated in December 2015, though Batsell laments that the rules are rarely enforced. 

Clear labeling is best, said Sara Catania, who edited JTrust, a “pop-up newsletter” about trust and journalism in 2017 and 2018. She told Batsell that publishers may worry that they will lose public trust “if they reveal the degree to which advertising influences editorial” — but that, “in fact, the opposite is true. If they don’t reveal it, they will be found out, and that’s much worse.”

Separate news and opinion, says the public and clearly label them, say journalists

Amid accusations that their work is biased, journalists largely agree on one fix that might help: Most think that their news organization should clearly mark what is news and what is commentary.

The finding was part of a 2018 study (PDF) by the Media Insight Project, an initiative of the American Press Institute and the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, which sought to assess the gaps in understanding between journalists and the public and offer ways to fill those gaps with trust. The study surfaced strong opinions from both journalists and nonjournalists about bias and accuracy in reporting.

One of many questions asked of news consumers was how easily they could tell the difference between news and opinion in the news outlets they most frequently read, watched, or listened to.

The study, titled Americans and the News Media: What they do — and don’t — understand about each other, found that 75% of the general public said it was “very” or “somewhat” easy to distinguish news articles from opinion pieces in the news outlet they rely on most often. But only 43% said they could easily tell the difference on Twitter or Facebook. 

Those who subscribe to a newspaper seem more knowledgeable than nonsubscribers: The study reported that 70% of subscribers to local papers said they could easily tell the difference between news and opinion, while fewer than half (49%) of nonsubscribers said they were able to do so. 

Which means a lot of people are confused. And confusion can lead to mistrust. 

The study’s authors then “offered journalists a list of transparency methods that have been advocated by journalism reform advocates and scholars” to build trust with readers, viewers and listeners. The top answer: Nearly 8 in 10 journalists said that their news organization should make the difference between news and opinion more distinct. 

The study goes into some detail about the movement toward transparency (the need for journalists to explain themselves and their work more clearly) — for example, it could be something as detailed as showing journalists’ work methods or as simple as always putting a label on opinion pieces. As the authors wrote: “The public is ready for a relationship with more understanding and trust, if news media can take the right steps to earn it.”

Unsurprisingly, it’s hard to define ‘fake news’

The main agreement Americans have when it comes to “fake news” is that it’s a threat — a very serious one, say 56% of those polled for American Views: Trust, Media and Democracy, a 2018 report from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

But exactly what “fake news” means varies, according to the report, which analyzes the results of the 2017 Gallup/Knight Foundation Survey on Trust, Media and Democracy. 

“People knowingly portraying false information as if it were true”? Yes, that’s always “fake news,” say 48% of those surveyed (46% said that “sometimes” that is the case).

“Journalists reporting stories before they check all their facts and sources to be sure they are accurate”? Yes, “fake news,” agree 35% — although nearly 60% conceded that they would consider that to be “fake news” only “sometimes.”

One startling finding: 28% of those polled said that, yes, “accurate stories casting a politician or political group in a negative light” are always “fake news.” And 50% said they would “sometimes” consider that to be “fake news.” 

Adding to the plethora of meanings, the study provided its own: In setting up that question for those polled, it described “fake news” as “inaccurate information presented as an objective news story and designed to deceive people in some way.” The authors also wrote: “The research community often defines ‘fake news’ as misinformation with the appearance of legitimately produced news but without the underlying organizational journalistic processes or mission.”

Perhaps it’s best to avoid the phrase for the reasons given in 2017 by Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan in their report, Information Disorder: “We refrain from using the term ‘fake news’, for two reasons. First, it is woefully inadequate to describe the complex phenomena of information pollution. The term has also begun to be appropriated by politicians around the world to describe news organisations whose coverage they find disagreeable.”

Wardle, now the executive chair at First Draft, a nonprofit that “addresses challenges related to truth and trust in the digital age,” is also the host of “Misinformation,” a lesson in NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom, in which she outlines five types of misinformation.

People agree across the globe: Lies can be weapons

According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer (PDF), 73% of people worldwide are concerned about “fake news” and false information being used as a weapon. The online survey in 27 markets on six continents included 33,000 respondents, which means that there are a lot of worried people. That 73% of the public is an increase from the findings in the 2018 Trust Barometer (PDF), when nearly 70% of those surveyed wereconcerned about the weaponization of false information.

What exactly does “fake news as a weapon” mean, though? After all, there is no single definition of “fake news”it could mean disinformation, a flawed news report that requires a correction, or even a demonstrated fact with which someone disagrees. A 2017 Edelman “special flash poll” attempted to home in on a meaning;responses included “bad reporting,” “name-calling” and “legitimate threat.”

And “weapon” is just as unclear. For example, hate and misinformation that was spread on social media in Myanmar led to bloodshed and deaths — resulting in a Facebook-sponsored “special human rights assessment” into its presence in the country (PDF). By contrast, Americans live in a country where “weapon” is more likely to mean propaganda, rather than armed mobs — as terrible as the results are in both cases.

To explain the danger Americans might feel, Edelman’s president and CEO referred to Gresham’s Law. As Richard Edelman wrote in January 2018: “Gresham’s Law, based on the 18th century observation that debased currency drives out the good, is now evident in the realm of information, with fake news crowding out real news.”

But there is hope, too, in Edelman’s written piece, for the nearly three-quarters who are concerned about the effects of “fake news”: “People’s concern about fake news and their willingness to listen to experts show that they yearn for knowledge. … Every institution must play its part by educating its constituents and joining the public debate, going direct to the end-users of information. That means taking the informed risk to join the battle for truth so that facts triumph over fears.”