The Real News About Fake News

“Much of this reporting is not necessarily an attempt at deception."

ByABC News
December 9, 2016, 1:08 PM

— -- As locals near Washington, D.C.’s Comet Ping Pong restaurant know too well, fake news headlines can have real-world implications.

Edgar Welch allegedly fired three shots at the local hotspot after driving 350 miles from North Carolina in order to investigate a fake news story that the pizzeria was home to a child slavery ring. That story was not true.

“The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent,” Welch told The New York Times after his arrest. “I just wanted to do some good and went about it the wrong way.”

But the incident has prompted questions and criticism of the “fake news” phenomenon. As journalists and social media networks grapple with how to respond, public figures from Hillary Clinton to the pope have warned of its potential repercussions.

“I want people to really understand what we’re talking about,” Pierre Thomas, ABC News’ senior justice correspondent, said today on ABC News Live. “This lie turned into a person in a restaurant with an assault rifle and a handgun. Those of us who do journalism are going to have to be as accurate and thoughtful as we can be so people trust us as a place to get the news.”

“I think communities have to teach children how to discern and how to get their information," he continued. "A democracy can’t really function properly if everyone is walking around with bad information.”

George Washington University senior fellow Kalev Leetaru recently penned a Forbes article called “Why Stopping Fake News Is So Hard.”

“What’s interesting today is with the rise of social media and citizens all in that mix it’s really easy for that news to go viral," Leetaru told ABC News today. "And for you to kind of lose track of who’s sending this story … this information just rockets out there.

“We fail as a society to teach our citizens how to be critical about information," he added. "It’s sort of the telephone game times a million.”

But "fake news" also isn't always clear cut, Leetaru notes.

“Much of this reporting is not necessarily an attempt at deception, but rather interpretation of available facts in a way that differs from the mainstream,” he wrote in Forbes, teasing out different reasons it can be so difficult to label fake news. “Perhaps the best approach might be to recognize that instead of ‘fake’ and ‘true’ news, we have a hundred shades of gray in between.”

A study from Stanford University released recently showed that more than 80 percent of middle school students couldn’t tell the difference between a news story and sponsored content on a popular website. And only one in four high school students could identify a fake Twitter account as lacking a blue checkmark, a signal to users that an account is legitimate.

“In every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation,” the researchers wrote.

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