Remember when The Onion, which calls itself “America’s finest news site,” was the premier fake news publication full of preposterous stories that aimed to be funny because they couldn’t really be real?

So when a new Stanford University study of middle school students revealed that 82 percent weren’t able to figure out the difference between sponsored content and a real news article, should that really be a shocking revelation?

The Wall Street Journal article, “Most Students Don’t Know When News Is Fake,” says “Teens absorb social media news without considering the source,” then suggests “parents can teach research skills and skepticism.

The era of fake news beyond The Onion is upon us, bigly. The Onion now has competition from the likes of Breitbart News and scads of other websites that appear to make gobs of money from pushing fake news that goes viral on Facebook or Twitter, digital platforms that give everyone an equal shot at confusing and misleading the unwashed, and apparently uncritical thinking masses. It would be wonderful if parents can teach their children the research skills and skepticism the Stanford study say they need. But those same parents seem to be lacking in that same skill set, so how can they pass it along if they don’t have it to begin with?

Sue Shellenbarger writes in her WSJ article, “Preteens and teens may appear dazzlingly fluent, flitting among social-media sites, uploading selfies and texting friends. But they’re often clueless about evaluating the accuracy and trustworthiness of what they find.” About 6,400 out 7,804 students ranging from middle-schoolers through college couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled ‘sponsored content’ and a real news story on a website. Many students judged the credibility of newsy tweets based on how much detail they contained or whether a large photo was attached, rather than on the source, Shellenbarger wrote.

“Media literacy” appears to be a new skill set, as is “deep thinking” in an age when texting, reading and watching video all at once is the modern skill set needed to flitter to and through the internet, where truth and post-truth equally coexist.

In “The Cure for Fake News Is Worse Than the Disease,” Jack Shafer at Politico says people like fake news because being fooled is always in vogue. Shafer says the audience for fake news resembles the crowds who pay money to attend magic shows. “Magic-show patrons know going in that some of what they’re going to see is genuine. But they also know that a good portion of what they’re going to see is going to look real but be phony. Like a woman sawed in half. Or an act of levitation. Being shown something fantastical that is almost true brings delight to almost everybody. People like to be fooled.”

Shafer’s recipe to avoid fakery is applying reason. “People throw their money away on get-rich schemes, play three-card monte, correspond with Nigerian scamsters and get fleeced, even though they know better,” he opines. “Deep in the brain exists a hungry lobe that loves to be deceived. We may never end fake news, but arresting the current moral panic is a simple matter of applying small doses of reason to our media diet.”

For PB’s more studious readers, Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent, warns that the rewards delivered by authoritarians to journalists doesn’t end well over time. “First the media is accused of inciting, then sympathizing, then associating — until they suddenly find themselves accused of being full-fledged terrorists and subversives. Then they end up in handcuffs, in cages, in kangaroo courts, in prison — and then who knows?” Amanpour sounded the alarm in her acceptance remarks following being awarded the Committee to Project Journalists’ Burton Benjamin Memorial Award for “extraordinary and sustained achievement in the cause of press freedom Tuesday night in New York.

Part of her cure is to “recommit to robust fact-based reporting without fear nor favor — on the issues. Don’t stand for being labeled crooked or lying or failing. Do stand up together — for divided we will all fall.” She believe in being truthful, not neutral. “I believe we must stop banalizing the truth. And we have to be prepared to fight especially hard for the truth in a world where the Oxford English Dictionary just announced its word of 2016: “post-truth. We have to accept that we’ve had our lunch handed to us by the very same social media that we’ve so slavishly been devoted to.”

She also demands that journalists “fight against normalization of the unacceptable.” She calls on media to contribute to a more functional system instead of deepening the political dysfunction. She also decries the weaponization of journalism. “We have to stop it. We all have a huge amount of work to do, investigating wrongdoing, holding power accountable, enabling decent government, defending basic rights, actually covering the world — Russia, Syria, North Korean nukes. Can’t we have differences without killing each other off? As a profession, let’s fight for what is right. Let’s fight for our values Bad things do happen when good people do nothing.”


In George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, Winston Smith’s job was to produce fake news and rewrite history so it justified the total authoritarian rule Orwell envisioned in 1948 that would be the norm in 1984. Thirty-two years later, Winston Smith could be a regular contributor to Breitbart’s news of the day.

One of Orwell’s most famous quotes about the importance fake news played in Winston Smith’s world of tomorrow was this: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” Add that one to this one, The best books… are those that tell you what you know already,” and 1984 is alive and well today.