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Revisiting dangers of spread of ‘fake news’

“Fake news” remains the battle cry against mainstream media, particularly, I suspect, by those who either aren’t daily consumers of news or by readers or sources who don’t particularly like unflattering news reports.

Such reactions aren’t new. I remember them occurring decades ago when I was still a cub reporter. But the term “fake news” is relatively new, coined and made popular by former President Donald Trump.

Also new, relatively speaking, is the way in which actual fake news stories — the kind that aren’t reported by reputable news sources, that is — spread with incredible speed across social media platforms.

I was on a flight during a recent trip, seated beside a young man, probably in his early 20s. He spent much of the flight studying his cellphone, flipping around various social media apps.

Though I tried not to spy, I couldn’t help but glance over every now and then out of curiosity. (I’ll chalk that up to the journalist in me.) I caught a glimpse of something he was reading that appeared to be clickbait. Clickbait is enticing, typically deceptive or sensationalized text designed to lure readers to click on the linked content.

I didn’t want to make it obvious that I was, well, snooping, so I was able to catch only a sentence or two. Here’s what I saw … “Click HERE to get the REAL STORY!”

To me, that’s a pretty good indication that whatever he was looking at truly was not the “real story.”

Yet, in today’s society, that is exactly how many young people get their news — or what they think is real news.

The Associated Press wire moves a weekly column called “Not Real News.” In it, journalists work to use facts to debunk false claims spreading at nearly “warp speed” around social media.

In the column the AP recently examined allegations about CNN host Anderson Cooper accepting some $12 million from drug giant Pfizer to promote COVID-19 vaccines.

Might it be true? I suppose, but as I learned long ago, don’t trust everything you read, especially if it doesn’t include hard, verifiable proof, rather than just hunches, rumors and social media posts without attribution.

According to the AP story, the unverified rumor that Pfizer was caught “funneling” $12 million to Cooper originated after the presidential candidate and anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. commented on it.

Kennedy said during an October 2022 video interview with podcaster Brian Rose that “75 percent of advertising revenues now in the mainstream media are now coming from pharma and that ratio is even higher for the evening news. … Anderson Cooper has a $12 million a year annual salary,” he continued. “Well $10 million of that is coming from Pfizer. His boss is not CNN. His boss is Pfizer.” Kennedy made similar comments in another interview last year, that one with Dr. Drew Pinsky.

In its subsequent analysis of the story, the AP said it found no evidence to support the claim, and the AP reports the Kennedy camp later said the remarks were intended as “rhetorical” about the pharmaceutical industry’s influence through advertising. A CNN spokesperson called it “completely false and fabricated.”

Rhetorical or not, these days, social media users have no filter and fake news can spread vastly and quickly.

“BREAKING: Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. claims Pfizer funneled $12 million dollars to CNN anchor Anderson Cooper as part of a deal to promote mRNA COVID jabs to the American public,” one widely shared tweet read, according to the AP.

“This was a rhetorical comment, based on the huge proportion of television advertising revenue that comes from pharmaceutical companies,” the Kennedy campaign said later. “Since they contribute as much as 80 percent of TV ad revenue, close to $10 million of Mr. Anderson’s salary originates in Big Pharma. To use ‘Pfizer’ as a stand-in for ‘Big Pharma’ was a rhetorical flourish and not technically accurate.”

The campaign maintains millions spent by big pharma on advertising does help pay Cooper’s salary.

So, my point is this: obtaining news from unverified sources in so-called “news stories” circulating on social media is dangerous. Unless it’s well sourced and balanced, as news is that’s reported in reputable media like this newspaper, don’t believe everything you read.

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