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True or False

Editorial: When agendas take priority over truth, look beyond the surface to avoid the trap of fake news.

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Swaying and singing, the words of the school song ring true. “In a world where truth is always changing…” Now more than ever, there is the potential for politicians, the media and special interest groups to cloud the truth. False news, fake media and alternative facts of all shapes and sizes fill our social media and news outlets.

ABC, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, The New York Times and even Facebook have been condemned as creators and distributors of fake news. Hoax news websites deliberately publish fake news as real news in order to elicit responses from people around the nation.

For most, fake news first appeared during the Presidential election last year. Sure, we knew some media outlets leaned left or right, but never considered reputable journalists, commentators and elected officials would simply make things up. But actually, the birth of fake news occurred over a century ago.

Not long after the birth of modern journalism in the 1890s, the battle for circulation between competing papers owned by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer spawned the rise of “yellow journalism.” Their papers sensationalized news with more emphasis given to what would sell papers than what was true. In fact, these tactics led to the start of the Spanish-American War between the United States, Cuba and Spain. A century later countless journalists, politicians and media strategists work to take advantage of the public much in the same way by spreading fake news to gain financial and political power and to win the court of public opinion.

The day President Trump was sworn into office, a White House correspondent for Time magazine reported a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office. In fact, it had not been removed. When the reporter was challenged, he said he did not see the bust in the room when he was there but admitted he had not asked anyone in the White House for confirmation. The MLK bust actually was in the same location where President Obama placed it, but the reporter had just missed it. Press Secretary Sean Spicer considered the story fake news intended to make the new administration look racially insensitive.

But it reaches beyond the election. From death hoaxes to celebrity gossip, some claims are easier to diffuse than others. Miley Cyrus, Betty White and Lil Wayne have all been proclaimed dead this year, however they are all still alive and well. These kinds of stories send die-hard fans into a panic.

It has gotten to the point that no source seems safe. Every side has an opinion, every side has an agenda, and every side has pictures to back it. Each, in turn, uses negative terminology for the other in order to solidify their actions. Due to this bias, it is increasingly difficult to find neutral sources.

Technology and its advancements have changed society and the methods used to spread information between people. The public demands convenience and fast information when it comes to news. Nearly all human knowledge is available with the simple click of a button on Google. Credibility now is often built on being the fastest to get information out, regardless of its veracity.

A recent fake news tactic permeates Twitter—the Twitter bot. These software applications are programmed with algorithms that search for specific words and repost content aimed towards readers interested in political content. Not inherently bad, these accounts can however be used to mislead the reader.

They are used to create an illusion that the majority of people think one way, abusing the band wagon effect (a psychological phenomenon in which people do something primarily because other people are doing it, regardless of their own beliefs, which they may ignore or override). These bots have a variety of tasks they can complete: boosting seemingly trending topics, skewing polls and reporting blatant lies, all with the intention to mislead people. What you see on your Twitter feed does not reflect reality. Radical and hateful opinions are noticed while the “common man” opinion is disregarded.

So what is the real harm of all this? Does it really matter whether President Trump had a larger audience at his inauguration than President Obama? The danger lies in the unforeseen.

According to historian Wyatt Kingseed on historynet.com, in April of 1901, Hearst’s paper ran an editorial critical of President William McKinley that read in part, “If bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done.” Within months, a poorly educated anarchist shot and killed President McKinley. History.com reports, many blamed Hearst. The possible correlation between the editorial and the assassination shook Hearst and brought an eventual end to “yellow journalism.”

Fake news can cause chaos and drive people to do things they never would have done before. According to the New York Times, a fake news story in Washington, D.C. triggered a man to open fire in a pizzeria, but thankfully no one was injured. Edgar M. Welch read an article online which claimed this pizzeria was holding children in the basement for part of a child-abuse ring led by Hillary Clinton. These articles appeared on a variety of social media platforms, prompting Welch to drive hours to the pizzeria to investigate for himself. In reality, the pizzeria did not even have a basement, and Welch was arrested for assault and carrying a gun without a license. Fake news takes advantage of impressionable people.

We urge you to not take news at face value, but instead to filter everything through truth. We must use common sense when approaching stories. It has become necessary to cross-reference different news sites in order to arrive at the true conclusion. Our pursuit of Christ requires us to also pursue truth. James 1:19 says, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” It is our responsibility, especially when some journalists refuse, to limit the spread of this fake news by actually questioning and researching rather than tweeting and posting.

Invest time in seeking the truth. Research the topics that interest you. Compare sources and have meaningful conversations. Never allow a single source to control all of your opinions. And go to God’s word. That is the one source of knowledge you don’t have to question.

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