Like most of us in the Penn community, I’ve always considered myself a relatively adept consumer of news, able to discern between real and fake stories — someone savvy enough to dig more deeply into the sources if something didn’t seem quite right.

I have been trained since middle school to identify and use only reliable sources for my research papers. So it was with a bit of amused skepticism that I read about the Italian Parliament’s project to roll out a mandatory course for students in 8,000 high schools nationwide aimed at teaching how to discern fact from fiction. Working with Facebook, Google, and others, the aim is “to train a generation of students steeped in social media how to recognize fake news and conspiracy theories online.”

Digging deeper, I discovered that Italy is instituting this despite the fact that many Italians already have a hearty distrust of authority based on the country’s history of corrupt governments and papal scandals, so Italians generally question whatever they read. Closer to home, I discovered that colleges nationwide have turned “fake news” into teachable moments, with the University of Michigan recently launching the course “Fake News, Lies, and Propaganda: How to Sort Fact from Fiction.” 

On top of this, after initially denying it would have been possible, executives at Facebook and Twitter admitted last month that entirely fake accounts litter the Internet, many of which create and spread fictional stories. Most disturbingly, a great number of these have gone viral. We now know that “Russian fingerprints are on hundreds or thousands of fake accounts that regularly posted anti-Clinton messages.” As a result, Facebook, Google, and Twitter have promised that they’d work to ban Russian advertisements and generally increase their vigilance. 

All of this has led me to realize that I am perhaps overconfident in my own ability to recognize fact from falsehood, especially when false “facts” are artfully packaged and artificially hyped. More importantly, we all — even Penn students — need to work harder to get to the truth in a world of endless online news streams, professionally designed “expert” websites, and friends who may unwittingly spread a false story. Perhaps we don’t need a Penn course to teach us how to spot fake news, but we do need to take individual responsibility in learning this valuable skill.

As a basic first step, most suggest that we pay attention to the domain and URL of every website. I was profoundly surprised to learn about how much fake news was spread by sites that cloaked their URL with a legitimate news source; for instance, "abcnews.com is a legitimate news source, but abcnews.com.co is clearly not, despite its similar appearance.”  This needs to be followed by a healthy dose of common sense. Looking into the “About Us” section of the underlying website, as well as who is quoted within and who is making comments on a particular story is also essential. 

A shrill or exaggerated tone in the original article and any commentary often provides obvious clues that what you’re reading is fabricated and intended to inflame.  This strategy is especially important when reading an “expert” site. For example, a site aimed at informing parents about vaccines may look legitimate, but the lack of background on the authors’ credentials and the sweeping statements about all vaccines, doctors, government agencies, and Big Pharma, should indicate to even to the non-medical layman that the information is false. 

We all also need to beware of our audiences when spreading a story ourselves. Not everyone may immediately understand the satire in exaggerated stories published in The Onion and Click Hole, so we should consider whether a young cousin or elderly uncle will misunderstand and possibly even spread a story written satirically as fact. If the New York Times can be fooled by the Onion, perhaps you may too. 

An invaluable resource is FactCheck.org, an award-winning non-partisan website founded by the Annenberg Public Policy Center here at Penn. Focused primarily on debunking political statements to reduce confusion and deception in United States politics, FactCheck.org should really be required reading as the 2018 midterm election cycle heats up. 

If we as a country cannot agree on a common set of facts, we will never agree on how to progress as a country.


SPENCER SWANSON is a College freshman from London, studying philosophy, politics, and economics. His email address is sswanson@sas.upenn.edu. “Spencer’s Space” usually appears every other Tuesday.

All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.