Clickbait & Fake News: A Teachable Moment

Christians. Purveyors of truth, protectors of principle, stewards of integrity … until we pass on a fake news story or get hooked by clickbait.

We want to be good examples to our children and students so we can teach them biblical principles of honesty and integrity (Proverbs 12:17, Colossians 3:9), but it’s far too easy in today’s world to react to and share a story before we think it through.

And then with one click, we can spread a lie to a few thousand of our closest friends.

Addressing this issue is a lesson a family can learn together. Here are some useful tips and activities to help you discern truth and avoid passing on gossip and lies.

Types of content; know the difference.

Spoof or satire?

Spoof and satire sites like The Onion and The Daily Currant are funny, with headlines guaranteed to grab your attention, but many share these stories without understanding that they are reading it at a spoof/satire news site.

This is our cue to teach our kids about satire, irony, and parody.

Sometimes people who do know the difference may share a story, but without any preface or context—which results in outrageous and inaccurate stories being passed around as if they are true news. If you share a story from one of these sites, always include an explanation that it is satire or a spoof.

News or opinion?

My mom and I used to have an evening ritual—we watched Bill O’Reilly three or four times a week, agreeing and disagreeing with Bill and his guests at about 120 decibels. It was all in good fun, because Bill O’Reilly is not a reporter. He is a commentator, a pundit. He shares the news, but delivers it in an entertaining style, loaded with his signature “I’m just an ordinary guy” charm and promise that “the spin stops here.”

The channel name may be “Fox News,” but we can’t lay our responsibility to discern truth on their doorstep.

What’s an even bigger problem is that news reporters seem to have all become commentators, sharing only the most shocking details, or those they deem important, possibly in the hopes of swaying the audience, creating a marketable persona, and getting an anchor chair and a book deal.

The moral of the story is—just because it was on the news doesn’t mean it’s accurate.

Native advertising

Advertisements used to look like advertisements, but banner blindness has caused marketers to look for other ways to get products in front of people and increase clicks. Native advertising can take many forms (advertorials, product placement, sponsored content) but it cleverly blends in with the other content on a site.

An example (and a 2-for-1) is this “article” in The Onion, sponsored by H&R Block:

Search engine ads look a lot like normal search results, except for the teeny-tiny ad icon.

Remember Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom? General Electric Theater? There is nothing new under the sun, my friends.

Verify the source.

A quick and easy way to check a story online is to use the Google search box to search for the site instead of clicking on a link or typing in a URL. The results may yield clues to the veracity of the site. Or use a link scanner.

There are other indications of whether or not a site is legitimate. The most obvious are unusual URLs, such as those with a well-known domain name but end in “.com.co,” which suggests a site is trying to appear as a respected source, when in fact it is a fraud. Poor grammar, spelling, and punctuation are also signs of a lack of quality.

Does the site have an easily accessible “About Us” page that contains information about who owns and runs the site? If not, you should wonder why they aren’t being transparent about their origins and staff writers.

Also, search to see which reputable news outlets are also reporting the story. This doesn’t always work, because sometimes reporters, occasionally known to be human (although I have my suspicions about Anderson Cooper) get caught up in fake news and repeat a story before they’ve done their jobs and checked the sources.

Who is the story’s target audience?

Have you ever had the feeling someone was telling you what you wanted to hear? If the story invokes extreme emotion, whether it’s outrage or smug satisfaction, you should consider whether or not you are being manipulated.

Who benefits from this story?

Will someone get paid if I click on it, like it, or share it? Facebook users may not be aware of the practice of “like farming” which can be used to make money or spread malware. Read this 2014 CNN article with your family to help educate them about some of the problems with social media. Even when a friend likes and shares, you shouldn’t do an online transfer in trust of your character.

Who might be harmed by this story?

Unfortunately, we live in a world where words are not only powerful weapons, but they can literally be heard around the world in a matter of seconds. Some abuse this power to harm others who have wronged them, or who they believe deserve to be persecuted or humiliated. We shouldn’t be accessories to murder someone’s reputation.

We need to remember that allegations are just that—allegations; claims made without proof. Read the article Media Fear Tactics by Gavin de Becker with your family, and make a game with a scoreboard, giving points for every time someone spots one of these uses of “newspeak” that makes a story out of … nothing.

Research before you react.

The above article about media fear tactics is a great place to begin teaching critical thinking skills applied to news stories. Are there missing pieces to the story? What does and doesn’t seem credible? Do they use coded language?

  • Choose a story and research it together.
  • Summarize the key points of the story.
  • Make a fact tree with names, places, and dates.
  • Differentiate between facts and opinions/interpretations.
  • Be aware of how images influence our perceptions of a story, especially a TV news story recreated as a dramatization accompanied by music.
  • Compare your fact tree to the information being shared in various news outlets.

It’s a waste of time and energy to react to something that isn’t real, didn’t happen. Get off the emotional rollercoaster, get the facts, and then find ways to be part of the solution, instead of contributing to the problem.

Don’t share it before you confirm it—but first, ask yourself “Why?”

You’d think such a simple principle would be easy to explain and put into practice, but it isn’t. Our friends and family share stories regularly without any thought to whether or not they can confirm it. Christians are just as guilty as anyone of getting hooked on clickbait and passing on a news story in a surge of outrage or fear. We jump on the bandwagon of liking and sharing because, well, everybody does it.

So, in the midst of all this talk of truthfulness, let’s be honest—we all love the feeling of being on the inside, knowing cool stuff no one else knows, and being the one to break some crazy news story first so we can be the center of attention and see everyone’s reactions.

Sharing news is not always a bad thing; sometimes we want to spread around the joy a particular blessing has brought to us, or ensure that when a friend is about to receive heartbreaking news, it’s done by someone who wants to care for and comfort them.

But most of the time, we are tempted to give in to that part of our human nature that more closely resembles a vulture than a dove. We aren’t wise, and we are far from harmless. We need to talk to our kids about why people (including ourselves) are motivated to create and share stories without verifying facts or considering how spreading a story—true or not—might hurt someone.

I don’t remember where I heard them first, but these are the questions we taught our kids (long before Facebook was a thing) to ask before sharing something:

  • Is it true?
  • Is it kind?
  • Is it helpful?

It takes time and effort to unlearn bad habits and replace them with good ones. Learning to handle clickbait and fake news is an educational activity that can reap long-lasting benefits in your family’s growth in knowledge, wisdom, and understanding.

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There are 20 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I'd love to see someone do a well-constructed study of whether Christians and/or conservatives are more gullible than the general population. Sometimes it sure seems that way.

I see what you mean about tagging parody sites, but it's sad that this seems to be necessary. Part of what makes parody and satire work is that you don't know what it is until you're part way into it. Imagine a comedy in which every one liner is prefaced with "This is a joke:..." It's like the guy who always tells you how funny a joke is going to be before he tells it. Greatly dilutes the effect of what comes next. Satire/parody are supposed to be a bit surprising. (E.g., Swift's Modest Proposal.)

But we have all these folks who have such a deficient sense of credulity, they take these things as literally true.

In their defense though, we live in times that are so often so outrageous, that reality is often self-parody, so to speak. The truth is weirder than fiction.

Somebody said people will always readily believe what they (a) want to be true or (b) are afraid might be true. This vulnerability has been exploited to great lengths in what is now known as "conservatism." So now we have scores of people in what I used to think of as "our camp" who believe everything they hear on "conservative" talk radio or "conservative" talk TV.

Advice to all: locate your "ain't necessarily so" module, dust it off, and press the red button daily... maybe about every 30 seconds, if you insist on taking in "conservative" junk radio and "conservative" junk websites.

End of rant. This is not satire.

Jim's picture

We Tracked Down A Fake-News Creator In The Suburbs. Here's What We Learned

And as the stories spread, Coler makes money from the ads on his websites. He wouldn't give exact figures, but he says stories about other fake-news proprietors making between $10,000 and $30,000 a month apply to him. Coler fits into a pattern of other faux news sites that make good money, especially by targeting Trump supporters.

However, Coler insists this is not about money. It's about showing how easily fake news spreads. And fake news spread wide and far before the election. When I pointed out to Coler that the money gave him a lot of incentive to keep doing it regardless of the impact, he admitted that was "correct."

Coler says he has tried to shine a light on the problem of fake news. He has spoken to the media about it. But those organizations didn't know who he actually was. He gave them a fake name: Allen Montgomery.

Coler, a registered Democrat, says he has no regrets about his fake news empire. He doesn't think fake news swayed the election.

"There are many factors as to why Trump won that don't involve fake news," he says. "As much as I like Hillary, she was a poor candidate. She brought in a lot of baggage."

Bert Perry's picture

I don't know if we are more gullible or not, but historic fundamental antipathy towards "academic" institutions would certainly be compatible with that hypothesis.  More or less "they led the Church astray--what do they have of value?", and all that.  But that said, I grew up in a liberal church, and they believe ten lies before breakfast, too.  At the very least, we are not alone.

How to avoid it?  Being basically observant about how the world works, a bit of history, a bit of logic, a bit of science, and a cool head, and suddenly you're seeing through all kinds of emotional manipulation and statistical trickery.  Reading the context, instead of just the headlines, is a great way of approaching things as well. I must confess it's something of a hobby of mine to try to do this.  

On the light side, looks like brother Aaron has had his fill of interacting with people who are reading conspiracy websites.  As if the black helicopters aren't coming to take us to the FEMA re-education camps after God, gold, and guns are outlawed and confiscated.  :^)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

it doesn't mean they aren't out to get you!

As Christians, we know there IS a conspiracy--of 'principalities, powers, rulers of the darkness of this world, and spiritual wickedness in high places'. However, even though we know there is more going on than what we can see, we don't need to look for a demon behind every gov't official or program.

I think part of it is the neurobiology of emotion, particularly the release of neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine--which, along with adrenaline, give one a 'rush' or 'high'--why else would people do dangerous things for 'fun'? Basically, people get addicted to feeling outraged, disgusted, or devastated.

Then add the lure of creating something viral with the relative anonymity of the internet, and you've got a powder keg.

I don't know many families who watch the news with their kids--kids usually think the news is boring, and parents want to shield their kids from things wicked, scary, or both. However, the kind of shielding that keeps young people from learning how to research, reason, and discern truth from fiction is not doing them any favors. 

 

dlhanson's picture

IMHO, there are many fake news stories coming from what were once considered reputable news organizations, like the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN.  Instead of giving us the facts (who, what, when, where, and why), they are strongly giving their opinion on who was right and who was wrong rather than letting the reader decide.  All the reporting have become opinions - the frontpage of a newspaper has opinions just like the opinion page of a newspaper.  

Couple that with the fact that the "journalists" (in quotes because they are no longer truly journalists) are mostly liberals, the slant is always in the liberal direction. (Yes, I know that there is Fox News.).  

I won't purchase a newspaper, although I read some online while using my adblocker so I don't enrich them. Until election night, I didn't watch news on the TV including not watching the presidential debates.  I do read some sources that I consider more reliable such as the National Review.

 

Joel Shaffer's picture

dlhanson wrote:

IMHO, there are many fake news stories coming from what were once considered reputable news organizations, like the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN.  Instead of giving us the facts (who, what, when, where, and why), they are strongly giving their opinion on who was right and who was wrong rather than letting the reader decide.  All the reporting have become opinions - the frontpage of a newspaper has opinions just like the opinion page of a newspaper.  

Couple that with the fact that the "journalists" (in quotes because they are no longer truly journalists) are mostly liberals, the slant is always in the liberal direction. (Yes, I know that there is Fox News.).  

I won't purchase a newspaper, although I read some online while using my adblocker so I don't enrich them. Until election night, I didn't watch news on the TV including not watching the presidential debates.  I do read some sources that I consider more reliable such as the National Review.

 

I think there is a difference between Media bias (which you get from NY Times, CNN and WA) and outright fake click-bait news stories (not talking about satire here), which has littered the social media world.  Sadly, because many conservative Christians are so sick of the liberal media bias, they assume that all of the right-wing social media news is legit, and post it on their news feed without researching and corraborating the story.  I had several conservative Christian facebook friends spread the fake news story about an FBI agent that investigated Hillary ending up dead (that was featured in the article that Jim posted).   And when people post certain click-bait fake political news, what they really are doing is indulging into the sin of slander.    

dlhanson's picture

A friend of mine from high school posted all  sorts of right wing "news".  Certainly some percentage of it was completely fabricated.  I never asked if she knew.  However, the main stream media tended to take a statement from Mr. Trump and embellished that statement to mean something that he didn't say.  They did this just to make him look bad.  I think that their lying in this way didn't help their candidate's (HRC) cause.

But the fake news is nothing new.  Look at the cover stories in the Enquirer. 

G. N. Barkman's picture

Some Christians seem to be addicted to any news that keeps them in a settled state of perpetual indignation.  This is not a healthy spiritual condition, nor can it bear a good witness for Christ.  Where is the joy of the Lord?  Where is the optimistic faith that manifests assurance that all is well because our Father is in control, and always does what is best for His dear children?

G. N. Barkman

Larry Nelson's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:

Some Christians seem to be addicted to any news that keeps them in a settled state of perpetual indignation.  This is not a healthy spiritual condition, nor can it bear a good witness for Christ.  Where is the joy of the Lord?  Where is the optimistic faith that manifests assurance that all is well because our Father is in control, and always does what is best for His dear children?

 

^^^^^^^^^^ This ^^^^^^^^^^^^

Ed Vasicek's picture

factorficiton.com or snopoes.com is a great resource to differentiate rumors from reality.  But when people are into conspiracy theories, they think everyone is involved.  So even those sites are part of the conspiracy.

Personally, I think the conspiracy theory types are bored or depressed with life, and they find excitement (or at least interest) via their conspiracy knowledge.

As far as satire, Aaron, I disagree with you again.  Real life is so absurd that satire seems plausible.  Think of some recent happenings that sound absurd:

Evangelical Christians favor Donald Trump.

Man with no political experience in the White House.

Men can enter women's bathrooms and vice-versa; this is a protected right.

A  celebrity married couple being sued because they attend a church where the pastor beleives gay marriage is wrong.

Really, don't these things sound as absurd as Babylon Bee?

 

 

 

 

"The Midrash Detective"

TylerR's picture

Editor

I know a man who is very intelligent, and yet shares a lot of these fake news stories. He has a weak spot when it comes to ridiculous right-wing looniness - he believes all of it. He believes the UN is plotting to take over. He believes Obama plans to impose martial law. He believes Sharia law will be imposed on the entire US. He believes the Clintons kill everybody who disagrees with them.

I once asked him what he thought about Snopes.com. He said, "It's run by liberals who are trying to discredit the truth."

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

I've had very similar responses to what Tyler mentions.  One time, I pointed out that the "man crushes own son in bridge machinery" story that's popular in our circles is complete bunkum--the bridge operator always sends the signal that he's going to open it to get the flags done right first (and waits for a response), there never were any drawbridges in that area, trains don't go quickly across river bridges (they need to slow down to negotiate a curve since rivers are generally in valleys), there never was such a train, there are no contemporary newspaper reports, etc..--and the best that could be said was that Snopes was suppressing the truth, and that he'd heard it from a source he considered reputable.

It is pure genetic fallacy, and even beyond that, since most of the evidence I presented wasn't even from Snopes.  We fundagelicals are not the only people who abuse the basics of informal logic, but we certainly have a lot to gain if we start paying attention to its rules.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Rob Fall's picture

because some folks have come for many good and sufficient reasons to believe Main Stream Media is their enemy. As their enemy, MSM will lie about them and cover up the crimes of the elite.

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Fact checking in the past was not really possible, and Joe Sixpack depended on gatekeepers--journalists and publishers--to make sure the truth was brought to light. 

We aren't dependent on gatekeepers any more, and that's a good thing, because the gatekeepers no longer worry about betraying the trust of their readers/watchers. But now it's our responsibility to do our own research, and fortunately, we have the means to quickly and easily compare sources.

However, now we actually have to be responsible to do some fact-checking before we share.

I shared this story on Facebook earlier today, and I looked over the website carefully before I did- http://www.up.com/aboutup/community/inside_track/selfie-tragedy-12-7-2016.htm

Bert Perry's picture

A couple of things are worth noting here.  For starters, it was a bit more difficult, but not impossible, for people to "screen" their own news before the Internet--maybe I'm weird, but I remember doing it as a kid.  High school debate team and all that created a monster, I guess.  You didn't have Google Maps to figure things out easily, but you had the encyclopaedia (not the World Book of course) at school, and if you were lucky (thanks Grandma!), at home.

And really, that was the heart and soul of being a good newspaperman back in the day...my great uncle was one, and even managed to get himself sued a time or two when he followed the dots to something people really didn't want to be known.  Not too bad for a guy with a teacher's certificate.  Back in that day, people figured out who really knew how to write and figure out what was going on, and good reporters made their papers a fortune.  It's a very different mood from what we have today--most of the old style reporters are now working for alternate media, as far as I can tell.  Mainstream media have mostly corporatized, and unless you've got at least your bachelor's degree from a reputable institution, you generally don't get through the door.

That leaves my Uncle Kenny and a friend of his, Ernie Pyle, out in the cold, of course.  Not to mention a chap named Joseph Pulitzer.  But all in all, the fact remains that good sanity checking is something of an attitude and a skill of observation.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

I agree, Bert, that it wasn't impossible to fact-check the news "back in the day"--I did speech/debate in high school too. But today, so much of the news and the sharing of it is in real time. By the time you check the facts, a story has millions of views, likes, and shares. 

While young people face all the same kinds of problems we did growing up, it's the scale and pace of change that is the biggest difference IMO. It's why I constantly advocate for parents to spend time watching, reading, and listening with their kids, so they can guide them through how to handle this stuff.

Of course, many parents aren't equipped to help their kids or feel that they don't have time to watch/listen/read with them. Do they hope that their Christian school and Sunday School teachers will take most of the responsibility for their child's education in these matters?

Parents can educate themselves if they choose. The means to do so are so readily available.

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