From loose tigers to voter fraud, news outlets and social media have contributed to the explosive growth of fake news stories and false information in recent years.

But if one thing has become increasingly clear, it’s that fake news can have very real, very dangerous consequences.

We spoke to Jeff Hemsley, Josh Introne, Bei Yu, and Lu Xiao — each of them a professor here at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies — to dig into the nature of fake news and what we can all do to mitigate its impact.

Looking for a program that lets you study information’s effect on society? Check out our undergraduate and graduate programs at the iSchool.

Why Do People Believe Fake News Stories?

It’s one thing to hear something that isn’t true. It’s another to believe it. It’s these beliefs that lead to action, which can have both positive and negative repercussions.

Josh Introne, Assistant Professor of Information Studies at the iSchool, studies how our belief systems impact the stories and information we choose to accept as true.

His research examines belief systems — pools of interconnected beliefs that are likely to occur together — within certain populations.

He says, for example, that a person who believes that the Affordable Care Act was an important step in improving healthcare is also likely to support gun control as a means of addressing gun violence.

Introne attributes people’s individual susceptibility to false information to their belief systems and tribalism — a state where the identity of the group becomes more important than the identity of the individual.

Read the full story: “How our Belief Systems Make us More Susceptible to Misinformation

How Does Fake News Spread?

Fake news isn’t just some online phenomenon. As events like “Pizzagate” and the 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol make clear, a popular fake news story can result in violent action and fatal consequences.

Jeff Hemsley, Associate Professor of Information Studies at the iSchool, argues that many instances of fake news, such as those peddled by President Trump, are really just propaganda — distorted information that’s published for someone’s political gain. 

And whether it’s a wartime newspaper ad or a seemingly innocent social media post, propaganda is only successful to the extent that it spreads.

“The things that tend to spread are things that are remarkable,” he said, “Remarkable just means people are talking about it. And that’s virality.”

Fake news gets shared because it’s often inflammatory in some way. That makes it exciting and worth talking about it.

“The world can change as the result of viral events,” Hemsley said.

“If it turns out that the lie is sexier than the truth, then we’re in danger of undermining our very democracy.”

Read the full story: “When Fake News Turns Into Conspiracy Theories: The viral factor in today’s media landscape, and what we can do to stop it

How Can You Spot Fake News Online?

Some false information is the result of an honest mistake. Most fake news stories, on the other hand, are produced with the intent to deceive.

This is the difference between mis-information (honest) and dis-information (deceptive).

Bei Yu and Lu Xiao, both Associate Professors of Information Studies at the iSchool, study techniques of persuasion and how they are used to proliferate instances of disinformation.

Here’s a few things they say you can do to spot fake news online…  

Here, they share five techniques they recommend for easily identifying when a piece of information is false or has been produced to deceive, and how to make sure your own bias doesn’t get in the way of knowing when information is not true. 

Read the full story: “5 Ways to Spot Misinformation and Disinformation Online” 

What Can You Do About It?

The prevalence of fake news, along with the sheer volume of information we interact with every day, can make it difficult to figure out what’s true and what’s not. When it comes to false information and especially disinformation, the consequences can be fatal.

Here are a few simple actions we can all do to take control of information in our own lives and reduce the impact that fake news can have in the real world:

When we make the effort to seek out truth, we commit to advancing a world built on honesty, transparency, and perhaps most importantly of all, trust among each other.

Looking for a program that lets you study information’s effect on society? Check out our undergraduate and graduate programs at the iSchool.