Getting for Real about Fake News


April Fools Day is a good time to get for real about the issue of fake news.

You’ve seen it. I’ve seen it. But it’s not always easy to recognize – or even admit – it’s fake news, especially if it checks all the boxes that readers may want to believe.

Here’s one fake news that made the rounds of my Facebook feed in February with this screaming headline: “MICHELLE OBAMA DEMANDS AMERICANS PAY UP TO GIVE HER MOM A CUSHY $160K PENSION.”


Fake News about the First Family

The only person in the first family to earn a pension is the president. Not even the first lady, each of whom works for free, gets a pension – much less a first mom, such as Marian Robinson, mother of Michelle Obama.

And yet some people want to believe it because it feeds into their house of cards.

Other examples include the ping-pong pizza story, which falsely accused Clinton associates of leading a pedophilia ring from the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor. Sounds too ludicrous to be believed, and yet a gunman entered the establishment and fired his assault rifle. Luckily, no one was injured but the gunman was arrested.

So Much Fake News

A recent forum titled “Fake News vs. Real News,” co-sponsored by the First Amendment Foundation and the League of Women Voters of Orange County,  shed some light on this increasingly common but faux phenomenon.

“I got put on the fake news beat probably because there is so much of it,” said Joshua Gillin, a panelist and staff writer for PolitiFact Florida and the Tampa Bay Times

Go-to Websites

Politifact is a go-to website to find out whether a news item has merit. Others include Snopes and FactCheck.

Scary thought: Gillin noted that most fake news is not even produced in the United States, which speaks to the issue of the 2016 presidential election and whether Russia or Russian hacks colluded with the Donald Trump campaign to spread fake news about HiIlary Clinton. Three investigations – House, Senate and the FBI – are underway to get at the truth.

Richard Foglesong, Rollins College professor and forum moderator, asked an intriguing rhetorical question:

“Is the First Amendment part of the solution or part of the problem?”

The First Amendment protects free speech and, if you’re a public figure, the bar is set high in this country against suing. Clamping down on most free speech is difficult because it’s nearly impossible to ban.

Detecting Fake from Real

That’s why readers need to be more critical of what they read. To pass itself off as real news, fake news almost always has some, if not all, of these characteristics, according to Gillin.

  • A public figure or a person you know – Michelle Obama in the fake pension story. (Note the unattractive photo too.) 

  • Some kernel of knowledge – Most people would be familiar with the first family and/or understand that presidents receive a lifetime pension after leaving office. 

  • Wild baseless claim with fake supporting details – Michelle Obama “demanding” a pension for her mom. 

  • Comments – Usually in outrage. “This is all we need now, FREELOADERS,” wrote the Facebook poster. Thankfully, most commenters grasped the flakiness of it. “This is so funny!” mocked one reader.

Fake news is not new. It’s been around for millennia. However, the lightning speed at which news travels these days, especially on social media, makes it particularly troublesome.

“Fake news engenders an uninformed electorate,” Gillin said.

That’s no April Fools joke.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

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