Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the lessons from my social studies teacher in grade school about primary sources and the questions she told us to ask ourselves when reading what we then called current affairs.
In the current era of “fake news,” I hark back to those lessons and I am also reminded that “fake news” had very real and often deadly consequences for Black people.
Unlike when I was growing up, fewer people today are getting their news from newspapers and instead rely on social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter to learn about the news of the day. An estimated 62 percent of adults consume their news on social media. As a result, newspaper circulation has witnessed steep declines.
While social media makes it easy to access and share news, it is also easier to fool most of us into believing completely made up stories. A recent survey suggests that American adults are duped by fake news stories about 75 percent of the time.
Although it’s unclear how many people of color participated in the survey, fake news is nothing new to Black folks.
Remember the Scottsboro Boys, who were falsely accused and convicted of raping two White women in 1931?
More lies and fake news led to Emmett Till‘s brutal murder in 1955. Charles Stuart claimed that his wife and unborn child were shot and killed by a Black man in 1989 in Boston. And Dylann Roof massacred nine people in June 2015 inside the historic Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina after reading about “disgusting Black-on-White murders.”
Spicer and Conway aside, fake news sites are the biggest purveyors of fake news. And the more people move away from newspapers as their anchor source of news, it’s critically important to remind ourselves what a primary source is and how to separate between fact, opinion and just straight up fake news.
Every morning, I tweet a few of the stories I read from a wide range of outlets and I ask myself these three questions that I learned in a social studies lesson back in middle school to guard myself from being duped by fake news.
Here are some questions to ask when reading online news stories:
Do I trust the outlet? In our current reality of 24-hour cable news channels, thousands of blogs, news sites and other online media, it can be hard to determine what primary sources are. Since most of us are reading the news from a screen, I take a moment to scroll to the about section of the website to read who they say they are, particularly if it’s from a site or outlet I’ve never heard of before. I’ve also used sites like Real or Satire to determine if the outlet is biased or been listed as click bait or the source of fake news stories. A lot of sites nowadays are aggregators and repost news from other outlets.
Is the author credible? Just as I may click an about section to determine the goal and primary audience of a site, I also scroll down to read more about the story’s author. Do they have a background in the issue being discussed? What have they written previously? How do they describe themselves?
Does the story contain facts or the author’s opinion? Thinking back on that social studies lesson, I remember that primary sources contain firsthand knowledge and/or direct evidence of the discussed subject with verifiable backup. There is great value in opinion pieces and news analysis. Traditional news outlets will specifically label items that are opinion, separating them from news stories with verifiable and detailed facts. But on the wild wild west of the internet, those standards aren’t used across the board.
In the past, it was easy to spot fake news because there was no internet. Now that anyone with an internet connection can create viral “news,” it is up to us to remember our social studies lessons on primary sources and not be duped by those who greatly profit from our clicks.
L. Joy Williams is a Brooklyn-based political strategist.