An Interview with the Professor Spearheading the Fight Against Fake News Sites

Politics Features Fake News!
An Interview with the Professor Spearheading the Fight Against Fake News Sites

Facebook and Google are taking steps to cut off the flow of money to websites profiting off of blatantly false content. Internally, Facebook is questioning whether or not fake news shared on its network contributed to Donald Trump’s victory. Google took heat on Monday after it was discovered that its news link for “final election results” was a fake news site.

Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communications at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, is trying to do her part to help people navigate the flood of attention grabbing headlines.

Zimdars has created a public Google Doc called “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical ‘News’ Sources.” The document is a list of 139 websites that are “fake, false, or regularly misleading websites.” (Currently being updated.) Originally created as a guide for her students, Zimdars’ list has gone viral since she made it public.

The list is not just blatantly fake sites; it also includes sites that misrepresent otherwise true facts and sites that may use misleading headlines to promote otherwise good journalism. Also featured are satire sites like The Onion and The New Yorker’s Borowitz Report, because some people just don’t understand that they’re jokes.

Zimdars spoke with Paste about her list and the importance of being media literate while browsing social media.

Why did you decide to make the list?

The impetus for this specific list, which I created the Google Doc Monday morning, was to share with my class. Part of it’s connected to years of rolling my eyes at what I’ve seen circulated by my friends on Facebook, and concern over what my students cite as sources in class and in papers. I felt like, with this election in particular, some of what they were sharing with me was problematic, and a lot of what I was seeing my friends circulate was problematic. So I was like, okay, I want to make a guide to help them.

Other people have posted similar things online, which I didn’t really know about until after I started do this, but I wanted something at the time that was just a simple resource I could talk I could through with [my students] in class.

How do websites end up on the list?

It’s a combination of sites that I’ve witnessed being hyperbolic over a long time, so a lot of them are just from my own internet travel, some of them are recommendations from other communications and media colleagues, or Facebook friends reminded me of them. Like a friend of my sent me a short list, I link to it at the very bottom of the Google Doc, from a Patheos blog. Most of them I already had on the list. A couple of them I already had on the list, but a couple I didn’t know so I double checked them and added them. So it was really a collaborative process. Then I sort of vetted ones I was unfamiliar with, or did research on them.

So it wasn’t entirely from my mind, obviously nothing in the world is, but this masterlist is generally me pulling from multiple sources, my own observations and notes.

How many sites do you have on the list right now?

I don’t know the exact number. Someone said there’s 130, 140, and I have another unpublished list of about 300.

But the problem is, there’s thousands! There are so many. People have been writing in to me saying The New York Times should be on the list, or CNN should be on the list, because CNN and [The New York Times] have been guilty of using clickbait headlines. Basically, people are asking me to categorize everything from fake news to really longstanding, traditional news sites.

A lot of those complaints about the clickbait-y headlines, you tried to address those in you categorization system. It’s basically 1 being the worst, 2 and 3 being progressively truer, and then 4 is satire.

Yeah, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that the number indicates severity. For example, I think in some ways Number 3 has the worst impact. It seems like what’s being talked about right now in publications is alt-right fake news. That is undoubtedly a problem, but what I’m in some ways more concerned with that gray area, that third category, where there is a kernel of truth or a true event but a lot of the facts surrounding it are misrepresented or facetious if not outright false. To me, those are the one’s that are most damaging because some aspects can be verified, perhaps, but they generally do a disservice to political and social discourse.

So what does being on the list say about a site?

Some of the members of the list I’ve read and look at regularly, but I do so in conjunction with other sources. So I’m not trying to create an inherent value judgement, because even some of the fake news websites, and obviously the satirical sites, I think have a lot of social and political value. And even in a weird way, the presence of these fake news sites is making us think critically about journalism as a whole and being more self-reflective about what is considered newsworthy, framing, headlines, you know what I’m saying?

You talked about some of the sites being removed temporarily, and some of that was because of threats. What would cause a site to be removed from the list?

One was basically a threat of libel, which was kind of ungrounded for many reasons, but I decided to speak with general counsel just to double check that I’m within my rights to post this. So part of it is just to make sure that I’m not personally putting myself on the line in this crusade for media literacy.

Some of the sites that I’ve temporarily removed, I got a flood of emails about like “I think this site might be a little clickbaity but it does really good investigative journalism”. Or another site that’s not on the list currently is Private Eye, which is a U.K. site. And I included it because they have some satirical content which I believe has the potential to be circulated as literal news, but they do a lot of good journalism and investigative work. So people were concerned about whether other people would understand the difference. So I removed that one just based on feedback.

I’m trying to make sure I’m creating a list that does what it needs to. And I will say that part of the problem, even with this list, is the way that people have interpreted it. There’s a lot of issues with media literacy in just interpreting the media literacy guide that I created.

So as the team around this builds and more effort and resources are put into, does this become a stand alone site? Are you creating the Politifact of questionable news sources?

[Laughs] I don’t know if I’m personally going to be creating that, but I’ve had universities and colleges reach out to me about potentially starting something like that. So while I would love to be involved with that project, I think some people might have more know-how or the ability to build the infrastructure technology that is required. So I don’t think I’ll be spearheading something, but I would like to be a part of it. And that’s kind of my goal, and I’m very thankful for the people who have been contacting me about that.

This has all been in the more general news because of the surprising election results and the idea that these articles shared on Facebook and Twitter influenced the results in some way. Facebook and Google begun to try and limit fake news. Do you think that they’re going far enough?

Yes and no. I think we need to proceed very carefully in how information is filtered to make sure that it’s being checked and that what is filtered can be edited based on different sources. I’m very worried about stifling speech and news, because I think that alternative journalism plays plays a very vital role in our democracy. Because there’s a lot of things that aren’t covered by mainstream media outlets that need to be. So I’m worried that this will shut out nonprofits or alternative voices that do produce good journalism.

That’s my primary concern, but I also think that Facebook, for example, could have a filter that is like a search for sources. Like, you could search the website directly from Facebook to see what other articles come up of the history of [the website]. Some type of feature for people to check on what they’re sharing. Of course that would be difficult because most people don’t read past the headlines, so getting them to check sources might be hard, but I think that they have a lot of options at their disposal. It’ll just be about choosing which ones to implement or create.

You mentioned people not making it past the headlines, which I think touches on larger issues in media literacy. Why do you think media literacy is important to the general public?

Because if it’s difficult for a professor of media to wade through media, I can’t imagine how it is for people who aren’t trained. I have an undergraduate degree in journalism, I have two graduate degrees in communication, and it’s still difficult. We need some type of a foundation for people to understand how to sort through this information.

There’s a lot of people out there who specifically study media literacy that could probably provide way better ideas about programs that could be implemented or what we can do. So I see myself as trying to be like, hey this is really important and we need to pay attention to the people who are studying this and advocating for this. Hopefully they can take the reins and really work on building on their own research in a real world way.

Do you think that it would be possible or beneficial for media literacy classes to be implemented in high school or middle school instead of waiting for people to go to college and seek out those classes?

Definitely. Some of my students even say that they’ve had those classes in high school, but it’s such a small percentage. So some schools are doing, and more need to, but I get that they’re up against a lot of issues with funding or trying to teach everything they already do. But I do think they should be doing a better job at reaching people at a younger age.

Michael Sol Warren is a Boston-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @MSolDub

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