KERRY HUBARTT COLUMN: Facebook users: Only share news you know is credible

Kerry Hubartt

A video posted on Facebook late last year showed an airplane, wobbling toward the runway in a big storm, impossibly spinning 360 degrees seconds before landing safely.

It wasn’t real. It was a computer-generated clip spliced with real news footage, but it went viral with millions of views.

Those of us who are familiar with Facebook should know by now that there are always some questionable — some downright false — posts that have about as much veracity as what you see in the headlines of the tabloids in the grocery store checkout aisles. So when you see something that seems unbelievable, or someone tells you about something they “read on Facebook,” beware. Be skeptical. Reserve your judgment until you’ve had a chance to verify the story through other sources.

A new study in Wednesday’s journal Science Advances indicates that people over age 65 and ultra conservatives shared seven times more false information from Facebook than younger adults, moderates and super liberals during the 2016 election season.

In the first major study to look at who is sharing links from debunked websites, researchers at Princeton University and NYU used three different lists of false information sites and counted how often people shared from them. Then they counted how often 897 verifiable false articles had been circulated. And all three lists showed similar trends.

Besides the fact that the average person older than 65 shared seven times more false information than those between 18 and 29, “seniors shared more than twice as many fake stories as people between 45 and 64 and more than three times that of people in the 30- to 44-year-old range,” said lead study author Andrew Guess, a politics professor at Princeton.

Before you millennials and liberals get overly smug about the study’s results, Guess says the study’s main finding is that sharing articles from such disreputable sources was rare.

Overall, the study found that on average only 8.5 percent of those studied — about 1 person out of 12 — shared fake news. The study also found that more regular Facebook users were less likely to post such stories.

Of those who do, why were seniors the leaders?

The study’s co-author Joshua Tucker of NYU says the simplest theory may be a lack of “digital literacy.” Seniors may not distinguish truth from lies on social networks as easily.

Why conservatives?

The study points out that those who are very conservative shared misinformation 6.8 times more often than those who are very liberal and 6.7 times more than moderates. The authors say the evidence is that Facebook users tend to share stories they agree with, and the fake news sites were disproportionately pro-Trump.

Seniors and conservatives everywhere need to inoculate themselves against the “fake news” epidemic that has swept the nation in the last few years. Spreading some of the tripe that is circulated as truth can destroy the platform for our positions and opinions. How can we participate in public debate of serious issues if we aren’t informed by facts?

The answer is to be your own fact-checker. Facebook offers tips in its help center to spot false news. Among them are:

* Be skeptical of headlines — if claims seem unbelievable, they probably are.

* Look closely at the link — many false news sites mimic authentic news sources by making small changes to the link.

* If no other news source is reporting the same story, it may indicate that the story is false. If the story is reported by multiple sources you trust, it’s more likely to be true.

* And finally, think critically about the stories you read, and only share news that you know to be credible.

Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.