Guest Column: How to Tell Fake News From Real

by Cynthia Lieberman  |  11.23.2016

When tabloid television came into play in the late 1980s with shows like A Current Affair and Hard Copy, I was sure it would be the demise of the high standards that were built on the foundation of legendary greats such as Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow.

Sensationalism ​quickly ​became the main course of our media diet, served up on a satellite dish and complete with saturated fat, artificial sweeteners and microwaved messages with a side of stalker soundbites and canned ham. Still not satisfied, viewers thirsted for more and began washing​ down​ their broadcast tabloid news with non-nutritious talk shows like Jerry Springer and the “who’s-your-daddy” program delivered by former Current Affair host, Maury Povich, in his ​own ​daytime talk show.

​Still, nothing prepared me for the allure of ​​fast-food news that has taken over our homes and our country thanks to the i​nternet. The artificial sweeteners of sensationalism have been consumed by artificial intelligence​,​ washed down by tiny filter bubbles that permeate our daily existence everywhere we go, wherever we go, in practically everything we do.

RELATED: Media Literacy the Virtual Watercooler

In today’s participatory culture, 62 percent of U.S. adults consume their news online via social media. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, a Stanford University study on 7,804 students from middle school through college ​has determined​ that some “82% of middle-schoolers couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled ‘sponsored content’ and a real news story on a website.”

To those kids — and to many — fake news is real and so pervasive that President Barack Obama told a German audience earlier this week that it was damaging American democracy.

“If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not — and particularly in an age of social media where so many people are getting their information in soundbites and snippets off their phones — if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems,” Obama said in a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “If everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we won’t know what to protect. We won’t know what to fight for. And we can lose so much of what we’ve gained in terms of the kind of democratic freedoms and market-based economies and prosperity that we’ve come to take for granted.”

Paul Horner, 38, told The Washington Post earlier this week that he had purposely crafted fake news stories with the intention of undermining now President-Elect Donald Trump, but in fact his efforts had the opposite effect. People believed what he wrote and shared the articles.

When asked why he thought his stories were successful, Horner said: “Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

As Obama pointed out, social media has changed ​everything we’ve ever known about this. Rather than being blinded by the truth, we ​now live in a world where the lines between fact and fiction are blurred.

True purveyors of news are getting crowded out by citizens who are taking storytelling into their own hands, often fancying themselves bona fide journalists, photo editors and competent content providers. Advertisers are becoming content publishers too, further squeezing the life—and the funding—out of fact-based journalism. This ​is forcing credible journalists to push content onto a 24/7 conveyer belt without ​any ​pause or reflection or time to build up trust with vital sources and contacts.

Last week, Facebook, Google and Twitter pledged to no longer accept advertising from so-called “fake news” sites, according to CNN Money, after coming under fire for allowing them to flourish in the first place.

That’s a start, but these sites wouldn’t have been able to thrive had not people flocked to them in droves. ​The only way to win the battle between fake and real news is to begin with you, the reader, and to make it a priority to gain media literacy education for ourselves and for our children​.

​​“I don’t think there is anything that speaks more clearly towards the need for media literacy than the epidemic of fake news,” says Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, executive director of National Association for Media Literacy Education. “We are living in a time where information is coming at us so quickly that we feel that we don’t have the time to fact check​; we are even losing the DESIRE to find out what is true before sharing. This is highly dangerous for our democracy. We have to value truth. We have to be able to distinguish between fact and opinion, news and commentary.”

It is our job, our responsibility and our right as U.S. citizens, content creators and consumers to become equipped with the proper critical thinking skills to decide for ourselves what is real in today’s hyper-sensationalized world​. No one else can do it for us. ​Our kids deserve this too. ​

As my partner and co-founder of (”No Grownup Left Behind”), Diana Graber, explained in her latest HuffPost blog, Teachable Moments for Future Voters, “Students need and deserve a relevant civics education that teaches them how citizenship and government is influenced by ‘media’ they will increasingly make and share.”

Below are just a few resources you can tap into right now that will help you win the battle of the bulge when it comes to false news reports, and to help you and your family successfully determine what’s real and what’s fake when it comes to information.


NAMLE: The National Association for Media Literacy Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving media literacy education in our country, and membership is free. Please join today and consider supporting NAMLE’s efforts to help individuals grow as responsible citizens, productive students, and dynamic teachers with an end-of-year tax-deductible donation.

Cyberwise Media Literacy Learning Hub: What’s the difference between digital literacy and media literacy? Find out in this free, resource-rich learning hub and more by (“No Grownup Left Behind”),

Cyber Civics A Digital Citizenship & Literacy Curriculum for Middle School. This turnkey in-classroom program meets an urgent demand to equip students with essential digital life skills.

10 Quick Ways to Spot and Stop Fake News Online via Toni Birdsong at McAfee

Can You Pass This Media Literacy Quiz? via @buzzfeeders

“FAKE-CHECKERS” Allows you to post the url of any article and it will quickly tell you if the article comes from a fake or biased news website.

FIB: A Chrome extension that analyzes your Facebook feed for a URL, picture, and texts (1.5 billion users).

Snopes’ Field Guide to Fake News Sites and Hoax Purveyors: List of Fake News Sites

Fake News Checking Sites:, and can fact check the latest viral claims that pop up in your newsfeeds.

The Washington Post Fact Checker’s Guide for Detecting Fake News

Cynthia Lieberman is the owner of Lieberman Communications, a content marketing and PR consultancy firm for Fortune 500 companies and co-founder, She has a graduate degree in Media Psychology and Social Change, serves on the Board of Directors for the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), and teaches Social Media Marketing at UCLA Extension. Follow her: @liebermanc @liebermanpr @BeCyberwise

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