Aaron Sharockman, Executive Director, and Katie Sanders, Managing Editor, at PolitiFact addresses the crowd on using reverse google search on images. Photo by Jamey Hitchcock
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How PolitiFact is Helping the Public Debunk Fake News

True or false: Is this story real?

“Grinchy principle bans offensive Christmas candy canes from school because ‘J’ stands for Jesus.”

The crowded room of people who came to hear PolitiFact’s executive director, Aaron Sharockman, and managing editor, Katie Sanders, almost unanimously believed the story to be false. To everyone’s shock and surprise, the story turned out to be true and is one of many that circulate around Facebook and numerous other social media outlets. 

Over 50 authors and speakers participated in the 27th Annual Times Festival of Reading on Saturday at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. One of those speakers was the Pulitzer Prize winning organization, PolitiFact. PolitiFact is made up of only 12 people, and, according to Sharockman, the largest fact-checking organization in the United States.

Sharockman told the crowd about two of the most basic, but important, strategies to help the public fact check information they see and hear each day. 

He discussed “deep fake” news stories and their consequences. “Deep fakes” are seemingly authentic computer generated images (CGI) of talking heads, a technique originally created by researchers for movies. For example, what if someone created a video of Theresa May addressing the people of England, stating ‘we are under a nuclear attack?’ Sharockman and Sanders encourage the public to be aware of these everyday manipulations. 

Have you ever heard of “cheap fakes?” 

Katie Sanders asks the crowd True of False questions on fake news. Photo by Jamey Hitchcock

Katie Sanders asks the crowd True of False questions on fake news. Photo by Jamey Hitchcock

Sanders explained how a false video of Nancy Pelosi was doctored to make it seem as if she were slurring her speech. The video went viral after President Trump and Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal attorney, shared the fake on Twitter. PolitiFact later debunked the video and labeled it as false in just a matter of hours. However, the consequences of the video were real and harmful, said Sharockman, because people are quick to believe something they see with their own eyes.

Sharockman and Sanders gave the audience a couple tips to help them debunk fake news. The first is lateral reading. The crowd watched a streaming video of author, John Green, teaching a crash course on the technique. 

The idea was created by researchers at Stanford University who have been working with PolitiFact for the last year and a half. Lateral reading simply means finding out more about the source before reading the story. Sanders said one way to do this is to look for the embedded citations, which are generally located at the bottom of the document. This makes vetting easier for users to research linked articles and their bibliography. 

The second tip is to perform a reverse google image search on any concerning images that are circulating on social media. Simply right click on the mouse and drag the image over to google image search

“We need to have a strong understanding of the world around us and google image search will take you far,” said Sanders. “If you are using your phone, just hold down the photo you are looking at and it will allow you to search for that image in google.”

Screenshot of how to report a post on Facebook as fake news. Screenshot taken by Jamey Hitchcock

Screenshot of how to report a post on Facebook as fake news. Screenshot taken by Jamey Hitchcock

And, if you want to fact-check those reposts made by your friends on social media, Sharockman said PolitiFact has recently partnered with Facebook to debunk false information. He described that when scrolling through Facebook, if PolitiFact has fact-checked an image or story, it will be grayed out and labeled as false news.

Users can still view the image, like it, and share it, but they will know there is an issue with the image’s reliability. If you want to be a part of helping debunk false news, a button is available that will allow you to send it in as “fake news.”

A guest in the crowd, Colombe O’Hara, said she wished PolitiFact spoke more on the process of debunking information and the process of dealing with it, but understood there wasn’t enough time. Penny Baker also commented. She mentioned that she already listens to PolitiFact on National Public Radio (NPR), but now will actively use their website and read laterally to debunk false news. 

“I like how they showed us how to look for ourselves,” said Baker. “To read laterally, and not knowing about it… this is the best thing I got out of today.”

If you’re interested in daily updates on what is being fact-checked, check out PolitiFact’s site, https://www.politifact.com/. Browse through their Truth-O-Meter tab that identifies many talking heads statements to be valid or false. 

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