By MICHELE MURPHY

Press Columnist

It appears real. Sources mimic actual media outlets, even copying their corporate logos. But fake news, even when it is meant to be just a prank, is still fake and can have consequences.

In the past month, I have had at least four fake or prank news stories hit my Facebook feed.

One said actor Morgan Freeman died. The so-called source of the story was Actionnews3.com. After a quick check of a respectable new source, I learned Freeman is very much alive.

Another – channel24news.com – blared that former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had been signed to play for Green Bay Packers. Also false, but given the injury sustained that day by their quarterback, the story may have seemed plausible to some. When one clicks for details, the top of the page lets you know you were pranked.

Then there was a story about a discovery made by Bill Gates. When you click on that one, you are directed to some off-the wall survey about the brain.

However, the one that has me really annoyed concerns a local school district and the fake, false, baloney story that their high school was closing due to funding woes. A closer look, and a reader just might figure out it is fake based on the grammatical errors and misspellings. There were other clues the story was fake like suggesting a mayor made the announcement. Mayors make no such announcements about schools. Superintendents or School Board Presidents do.

Nonetheless, this fake story got a little bit of “oh, no” and “this can’t be true, is it?” responses from some who viewed it. It was quickly addressed by the district. Someone contacted the site and the story was deleted.

Even if you are not one of the reported 50% of Americans who get at least part, if not all, of your news from social media, chances are your kids or grandkids are. We must fix this problem of fake news.

Congress has scheduled hearings as they look into how Russian hackers were able to spread misinformation and establish fake accounts in order to buy political advertising in 2016, even though it is strictly forbidden by law.

In Italy, the government and social media organizations like Facebook have teamed to teach high school students what they call a new sort of ten commandments for recognizing fake news and conspiracy theories online. Laura Baldrini, a member of Parliament, was blunt about the need, “Fake news drips drops of poison into our daily web diet and we end up infected without even realizing it.”

When I co-taught a strategic planning class for grad students at Case Western Reserve University, I did a unit on identifying appropriate websites for their research papers. As fake news sites have proliferated, however, I know that unit would have required a rewrite. Then, I felt comfortable saying that verified news reporting, that is multiple sourced from more than one reputable, recognizable publication or broadcast network, was acceptable. Today, it requires more investigation to determine whether a source is real or fake.

The fake news story about Bill Gates’ discovery was sourced by fox5news with a logo that virtually replicated Fox News’ real corporate logo. When I clicked on that site, I saw a photo of their fake anchor team on top. But, the site did not carry one story. It did not have followers.

The fake story about Colin Kaepernick was sourced by channel24news.com, another fake site. When I clicked on this site, however, it said right at the page top that it was a prank. The prank site that carried the story about the school closing buried it in tiny type at the bottom of a page.

Why worry, you say? People will figure it out. Well, I hope so, but the Kaepernick fake story reportedly had been shared 30,000 times. I say reportedly because that number often is also fake. I saw this story on a friend’s feed sent by someone he knows. So, to be helpful, I posted on my friend’s friend’s page that it was fake news. His response was that he knew it. My concern is for all the people who posted comments who did not recognize the story was fake, given the array of feelings they expressed about the story.

There are many important matters facing America and the world. Resolving them will require that we, as voters, and leaders, as decision makers, have good information on which to base opinions and decisions. While I believe Congress will eventually do something to tighten up the rules that will prevent anonymous bots from taking out political ads on social media sites, we need to press them and the likes of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to work harder to eliminate these threats. One of the best ways to do that, if they do not make a good faith effort to shut down these twisted fake news purveyors, is to be a smart consumer and limit what you and your family view on social media.

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