Hoaxes, Pranks, and Scams: How Fake News and the Internet Pose a Threat to Research

The internet is the fastest, most innovative way to conduct research for virtually any academic project. With just a few simple clicks, thousands of results on your topic of choice are displayed, waiting to be digested and integrated into your work. This tool, however, should be treated with a modicum of caution. The internet’s speed, depth, and broad user base means that information is more difficult to validate for efficacy than ever before, and academics of all grade and professional levels should be diligent in verifying their sources and avoiding the trap of “fake news.”

“Fake News” is a type of journalism that consists of deliberate instances of misleading or erroneous information, usually in order to prove a point or grab media attention. Though “fake news” itself is a relatively new term, as a concept, it is nothing new. There are numerous examples of propaganda and half-truths being spread to the public throughout history. One infamous occurrence of this was the “Great Moon Hoax” of 1835. The New York Sun published several seemingly factual articles about an astronomer who had proven that fantastical forms of life existed on the moon. This “news” quickly lead to a dramatic increase in subscriptions to the publication. It was proven the following month, however, that the story was a hoax (Andrews).

With the advent of the internet and its widespread use in the 21st century, we are faced with more challenges surrounding the verifying of facts than ever before. One recent example of “fake news” in the modern era is an article written in 2013 by an author allegedly named Paul Horner. In an article in The National Report, it was claimed that the famous, secretive, and anonymous graffiti artist Banksy was arrested. The story incorrectly claimed that the BBC corroborated their claim, and used a statement from a police officer in London who turned out to not even exist. Before it was disproven, however, the story received millions of hits and led to thousands of shares across social media platforms. This is just one of many examples of the dangers of fake news, and how easily these types of stories can be spread before they are disproven (Hathaway).

Though similar in theme, the difference between the two examples above is how the audience received the false information. Unlike print newspapers or magazines, “the internet has made it possible for many voices to be heard that could not make it through the bottleneck that controlled what would be distributed before,” says Paul Resnick, professor of information at the University of Michigan (Gray). As the internet is at its core an open forum for the publication of ideas, personal biases, erroneous statements, and misleading stories are published every day from all over the world. Essentially, the positive impact of the Internet (its open sourced nature) is also causing a negative result.

Researchers in the technology industry often warn of the dire consequences of such instances, and say the threat posed by the spread of misinformation should not be underestimated. So, how can we protect ourselves from both being fooled by fake news stories and from spreading them to others? Remember, always check the source of the information for legitimacy before sharing.

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Works Cited

Andrews, Evan. “The Great Moon Hoax.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 25 Aug. 2015, www.history.com/news/the-great-moon-hoax-180-years-ago.

Gray, Richard. “Lies, Propaganda and Fake News: A Challenge for Our Age.” BBC.com, BBC, 1 Mar. 2017, www.bbc.com/future/story/20170301-lies-propaganda-and-fake-news-a-grand-challenge-of-our-age.

Hathaway, Jay. “Banksy Has Not Been Arrested, And His Name Isn’t Paul Horner.” Gawker.com, Gizmodo Media, 20 Oct. 2014, gawker.com/banksy-has-not-been-arrested-and-his-name-isnt-paul-ho-1648367427.