Fake News Adecco Morning Future
Guiding Best Practice 18 November Nov 2019 0724 18 November 2019

Fake news classes: Universities and journalists unite against online hoaxes

The University of Padua, in North Eastern Italy, and the journalists’ union are launching a course to explain and teach how to recognize fake news. Aimed at information workers, students and citizens

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A new alliance between universities and the world of journalism to counter fake news. The University of Padua and the Fnsi, the only union of journalists in Italy, have signed a protocol to integrate a training course to recognize and counter fake news, the so-called hoaxes that often clog up the political and social debate, especially on social networks.

The agreement was signed on October 3rd and provides for the University of Padua to organize, with the help of journalists, courses, seminars and workshops regarding this phenomenon, teaching both insiders and students how to recognize and counter fake news online. The agreement will result in a high-level training course with multidiscipline workshops, conferences and seminars.

Rosario Rizzuto, the rector of the university, underlined the opportunities for such an agreement: “The University wants to be more and more the engine of society, not only through the training of young people and scientific research, but also with daily social action. The aim is to build a society that guarantees opportunities and rights for all citizens.”

Words in keeping with those of Raffaele Lorusso, the Fnsi General Secretary: "Hyperconnectivity has reinforced the idea that information is not hard to find and that online resources are exhaustive. People think that, thanks to the internet, we can do without so many skills. We are here with one of the oldest Italian universities to reiterate that this is a false assumption, which should not be fed”.

The agreement between the University and Fnsi provides for the launch of courses, workshops and seminars

Meanwhile, the Italian Chamber of Deputies is also debating the new liberal party Italia Viva’s proposal to set up a Commission of Inquiry against fake news to understand how disinformation may have influenced, even with foreign interference, the elections of the last five years.

Online hoaxes are an increasingly felt problem, from information to politics. But what are fake news? These are essentially articles written with invented, misleading or distorted information, published with the intention of discrediting someone or otherwise provoking a reaction in public opinion around a particular subject. That is when there can be political fake news (inventing a leader who has pocketed bribes or who wants to raise taxes, for example), of events (scams and murders usually attributed to migrants, in order to increase the perception of insecurity) or even, widespread, about VIPs whose death is announced without it being true, or pseudoscientific information passed off as uncomfortable hidden truths.

It is not easy, in the huge depth of the internet, to understand the scale of the phenomenon. Some studies, however, can help us. Agcom, the Italian Telecommunications Authority, has been periodically publishing its fake news reports online for more than a year. In a study released last March, it found that about 8% of online information content was fake. Not a small number, if you take into account the hundreds of articles published every day by authoritative newspapers, which are balanced out by dozens of fake news poured into the public debate. According to the same report, in 34% of cases fake news is about news, 19% is about politics and 18% about science.

Agcom, in a report published in July, also looked at what happened in the last election campaign for the European elections on 26 May. The most significant point is to see how fake news adapts, in terms of content, to what dominates public debate, with the aim of changing its orientation.

In this sense, about a third of the 30 most frequent terms in fake news were related to the issue of immigration: “immigrants”, “clandestine”, “ports”, “sea watch”, “NGO”, “refugees” and so on. A worrying consideration if we also add that, according to the Infosphere report of the Università Sant’Orsola Benincasa of Naples, Italy, as many as 82% of Italians are not able to recognize a hoax online. “It is undeniable that these are disturbing data - Eugenio Iorio, professor of social media marketing at the University Sister Orsola Benincasa and scientific coordinator of the research explained - because in such an infosphere, citizens/users, lacking the most elementary tools of analysis and criticism of reality and lacking any defense tools, tend to have a distorted view of reality”.

Research by Agcom has revealed that 8% of online information content is fake

That is why it is important to know how to recognize fake news when you are faced with a suspicious headline or article. To help online users, the European Union has published a guide entitled “How to tell if a news story is fake”. This is an eight-point guide (available on the Parliament’s website in English):

1- Check the content. Are the facts and figures accurate? Is the article biased? A credible media outlet keeps one-sided opinions where they belong – in op-eds, not in news articles.

2- Check the outlet. Do you know it? Does the URL look strange? Check the “about” section. Who is behind it? Who is funding it? Double check what other (trustworthy) sources say. Often there are hoax sites that ape the name of an authoritative newspaper, perhaps changing a single letter and thus deceiving distracted readers.

3- Check the author of the article. Does this person even exist? A well-respected author always has a track record. Of the author has made up his or her name (or does not mention it), the rest is also likely to be fake. Usually there must be and should refer to a page with all the other articles of the journalist.

4- Check sources. Does the author use reliable sources? (for example, well-established and respected media outlets?) Are the quoted experts real specialists? If the story uses anonymous (or no) sources, it could be fake.

5- Check the pictures. Images are powerful and it is easy to manipulate them. An image search can show if it has been used before in different contexts, to avoid, for example, a natural disaster in the Philippines being mistaken for a war scenario in Hong Kong.

6- Think before you share. The story could be a distortion of real or old events – or it could be satire. The headline could be designed to spark strong emotions. If an event is real, reliable media will cover it. Think carefully about the power of sharing on social media.

7 – Question your own biases. Sometime a story is just too good or too entertaining to be true. Take a deep breath, compare with reliable sources and keep a cool head.

8 – Join the myth-busters. Keep on top of the latest tricks and narratives used by those spreading disinformation. Report fake stories, tell your friends.

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