“A lie can travel around the world before the truth can get its boots on.”

No one knows who first penned that quote, which is often mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain, but variations of it have been around long before fake news began to play such a disruptive role in modern U.S. society.

Event chair Ann Lockhart introduces Genine Plunkett and Ross Mays.   Photo by Donna Bryson

To help fight the spread and negative impact of bogus news, Denver Public Library hosted a hands-on workshop for Colorado Press Women members on Saturday, Jan. 27 at its Michael Graves-designed Central Library building in downtown Denver. The hands-on class is one in a series that the library’s reference services will hold around the metro area this year.

“Our learning objective is to distinguish between emotional responses to information and logical analysis of information,” Genine Plunkett, manager of reference services, told the two-dozen CPW members and guests gathered in the library’s computer training room.

That’s a worthy goal for professional communicators, but just how to do it has become harder as the Internet and social media have complicated the dissemination of factual and objective information. Making matters worse, Plunkett said, is the widespread use of bots — software applications that do automated tasks on the web including spreading fake news created by humans — and trolls and troll farms, which are humans spreading fake news online, often on a mass scale.

When it looked like ABC News was reporting that actor Bill Murray had foiled a bank robbery in Tokyo, for example, the story was shared and repeated far and wide. A closer look showed it was fake news and sites including “abcnews.com.co,” which looked close enough to the real news website to fool lots of people, were helping it to spread. Thousands of these fake news stories circulate on the web daily, undermining people’s trust in legitimate news sites and fraying the very fabric of democratic society, which is based on citizens’ access to vital facts about their government and its institutions.

Studies have shown how unreliable our own brains can be as we process information quickly, Plunkett noted, such as during a typical Internet reading session.

“Our brains are busy information gathering in the moment and tend to be error prone,” she said. “And we are drawn to details that confirm our own beliefs.”

5 types of fake or misleading news

Plunkett detailed the main types of faux news, including:

• False news stories

• Satire and parody

• Viral emails and memes

• Clickbait and so-called native advertising

•  Highly partisan or biased news

Mary Parmelee researches a site to rate its legitimacy.                              Photo by Ann Lockhart

Then she and reference librarian, Ross Mays, talked about how to judge the objectivity of news websites:

7 Tips on how to Spot Fake News

•  Source: Consider the source. Is it legitimate?

Are there supporting sources? Does the research cited even exist? For example, in 2015 Donald Trump tweeted an infographic of racially inflammatory data based on the so-called Crime Statistics Bureau of San Francisco. Sounds official?

“That doesn’t exist,” said Plunkett “It originated with a White supremacist.”

•  Headline: Read beyond the headline. Too often we share info before we’ve even read the article.

•  Author: Check the author. Do they have a legitimate bio?

•  Date: What is the article date? Often old or already discredited news is spun as new.

•  Joke?: Is it a joke? Check the “About” page of the website. The entire site could be satire.

•  Biases: Check yours!

•  Experts: Ask the experts. Congressional Quarterly’s CQ Researcher, for example, gives in-depth analysis of news topics and covers many sides of an issue. That information can help you decide if what you are reading is way out of line with reality.

Fact-checking resources

Here are a handful of resources the librarians recommended:

•    politifact.com,  part of the Tampa Bay Tribune and a project of the Annenberg Foundation.

•    FactCheck.org

•    Snopes.com, started by a couple to debunk urban myths and legends but has now expanded its coverage to include rumors and broader misinformation.

•    Fact Checker, a Washington Post project.

•    International Fact-Checking Network Code of Principles, based at the Poynter Institute.

CPW members participated in an exercise to judge a variety of information sources. Each person was given a slip of paper with the name of a website, ranging from the Economist to entertainment information sites. After fact-checking online using tips and resources learned in the workshop, participants taped each website name to a large graph set up at the front of the room, based on where it fell between hard news and false information.

Don’t share fake news

As the spreading of false news becomes more sophisticated, people need to do more critical thinking about what they are reading. Don’t share a story without fact-checking it, said Plunkett said.  And if other people are sharing faux news, tell them.

“Society needs a herd immunity to fake news and people need to stop sharing it,” she said. “You can’t stop it, but it can be contained.”

Behind-the-scenes tour

CPW members and guests were also given a private tour of the library’s Western History and Genealogy collection area and the Digitization Lab where volunteers are microfilming the pre-1924 Denver Star newspapers, among other publications and maps. More than 90 percent of the library’s old photos are digitized and can be viewed online at digital.denverlibrary.org.

The library staff had on display the first issue of the Rocky Mountain News from when it started publication April 23, 1859 and the last copy printed of the final issue Feb. 27, 2009.

Also displayed for CPW members were publications by early Denver women journalists:  Polly Pry’s “A Journal of Comment and Criticism” and The Colorado Antelope. The Queen Bee, a suffragette paper published in Denver from 1892 to 1902, is also part of the library’s many treasures and was reviewed by appreciative CPW members.

By Cyndia Zwahlen and Ann Lockhart