Did you hear about the Indonesian woman who arose from her grave and walked among her former townspeople after having been dead for three years? What about how Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger lost multiple fingers in a 4th of July fireworks accident?
Hopefully you know by now that both stories are false. In June, a website called W News published the article about an Indonesian woman being photographed walking around after being dead for three years, and it spread like wildfire on social media. Similarly, on July 4, a website called Lockerdome published the Ben Roethlisberger article, which was written by a “Happy Gilmore.” While the name of the author should’ve been a giveaway that the article was fake, many people overlooked it, despite the “news” not being confirmed by the Pittsburgh Steelers or the NFL.
Today, thanks to the 2016 election, the term “fake news” is most closely associated with politics. But “fake news” does not encompass only political topics. My team and I at Snopes have been debunking fake news stories for over 20 years now, fielding up to some 1,500 queries a day.
Since well before Snopes.com was founded—and even long before the advent of the Internet itself—myth, rumor, gossip, and falsehood have been a part of our daily social fabric. But technological advances that have greatly increased the speed and depth with which “fake news” can penetrate into the public consciousness are relatively new. Our possessing a better understanding of the origins of “fake news,” its impact on politics and society, and of how individuals, families, organizations, companies, and governments can protect themselves from it, is vital in the modern informational environment.
And make no mistake about it: Fake news can have serious, real-life consequences when read by those who come away believing it to be real. The “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that was widely spread online last summer exemplified this phenomenon, when several websites and online forums promulgated a false narrative that the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. was being used by prominent Democratic politicians as a front for a child sex-trafficking ring. The restaurant’s owners and staff were subject to continual harassment, and in December, a man walked into the restaurant with a semi-automatic rifle looking to “rescue” the (non-existent) trafficked children and fired at least one shot inside the building before being arrested.
But we are not defenseless when we encounter information we think could be fake. Any information that sounds too extreme (or too good) to be true probably is, and should be treated with suspicion until reliably verified.
David Mikkelson is the founder of Snopes.com.