1. Opinion

Editorial: The dangers of fake news

Fake news is quickly becoming a scourge on informed citizenship. During the presidential campaign, social media proved the perfect vehicle for spreading made-up news stories about candidates. Many were shared thousands of times more than fact-based reporting. The public has an interest in and a responsibility to seek credible, truthful information and arrest the growth of this cancerous trend.

You may have seen some of the false claims: Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for president. Trump once told People magazine, "If I were to run, I'd run as a Republican. They're the dumbest group of voters in the country." A protester was paid $3,500 to protest at a Trump rally. The claims are all catchy, all temptingly shareable among a deeply divided populace — and 100 percent fake. The pope did not endorse any candidate for president. Trump never said those words to People. The paid protester doesn't exist. But that didn't stop the fictional stories from being passed around as real news.

PolitiFact, the fact-checking service of the Tampa Bay Times, is putting a focus on fake news. The paid protester story, for example, rated Pants on Fire. The whole thing was invented — admittedly — by a prolific fake news writer and posted on a website that looks like ABC News but is not affiliated with the network. Stories like this differ from many political claims, which often have a basis in truth but exaggerate some part of the facts or give one person too much credit or blame. Donald Trump has been criticized lately for tweeting that he persuaded Ford to cancel plans to close a production plant in Kentucky and move the work to Mexico. Actually, Ford never planned to close the plant. It was going to shift production of one car model to Mexico, and it did reverse course on that. Trump's claim was a distortion but not a fabrication.

Trump was at best a beneficiary and at worst an engine for fake news. He repeated numerous made-up claims on the stump and tweeted the day after the election about "professional protesters." Such pulled-from-thin-air stories are especially pernicious because they tap into people's existing biases, making them more likely to be believed — and shared.

The platforms such as Facebook and Google that enable bogus stories to gain traction bear some responsibility. Fake stories would not have nearly the reach they do if these companies effectively blocked sites that peddle in clickbait and hoaxes. It's encouraging that both companies have responded to the uproar over fake news by vowing to crack down. But the onus remains with news consumers to vet what they read. That may require venturing outside the information bubble many readers have created around themselves by choosing partisan stories that validate their political positions, which are then replicated in their digital news feeds. The end of the campaign and the beginning of a new presidential term is an ideal time to seek out new viewpoints and information sources.

The website Buzzfeed recently analyzed the most viral real and fake news stories from the last three months of the presidential campaign and found that the top stories on hoax and partisan sites outperformed those from valid news sources. Such proliferation of fake news is harmful to a healthy democracy. The scammers pushing these stories will never stop as long as advertising revenue keeps flowing. But Internet companies can stop enabling them, and citizens can undercut their popularity by relying on verified information from credible sources.