Illustration by Sean McCabe; iStock/Getty Images (teens, journalists)

Fake News, Fake Data

How bad data and misleading graphs are fueling fake news

Some people have called 2016 the year of fake news. False articles with gripping headlines about everything from the demise of Taco Bell to Hillary Clinton’s selling weapons to ISIS took social media by storm. Millions of people clicked, read, and shared these stories that had no basis in fact.

But it’s not just the articles that can be false. Many fake news sites use bad data or misleading graphs. Even mainstream media outlets are guilty of creating graphs that exaggerate or understate results. Bad graphs and inaccurate data can cause readers to draw the wrong conclusions.

These invented stories supported by bad data are part of a new trend. Fake news websites—many with official-sounding names and professional-looking designs—are multiplying. Experts warn that fake news sites are weakening the public’s ability to distinguish between fact and fiction. 

Some people have called 2016 the year of fake news. False articles with catchy headlines were everywhere. Some said Taco Bell was closing. Others claimed Hillary Clinton was selling weapons to ISIS. Millions of people clicked, read, and shared these stories. But these articles were all made-up.

It’s not just the articles that can be false. Many fake news articles use bad data or graphs. Even major newspapers and TV channels have created graphs that misrepresent the data. Bad graphs and data can cause readers to draw the wrong conclusions.

These invented stories supported by bad data are part of a new trend. Fake news websites are multiplying. Many have names that sound official and designs that look professional. Experts warn that fake news sites are making it harder for people to tell the difference between fact and fiction.

HARD TO SPOT

Part of the problem is that fake news can be difficult to identify. A study from Stanford University in California found that more than 80 percent of middle school students couldn’t distinguish between real news stories and “sponsored content” ads that look like news.

Many phony stories are obviously untrue, but some contain partial truths or distortions of fact that make the falsehoods harder to spot. Because the internet provides anonymity, anyone with a computer can launch a news site and pass it off as legitimate. That includes a person trying to help or harm a political candidate, an amateur blogger, or someone trying to make money from paid ads on his or her fake news site. 

Part of the problem is that fake news can be hard to identify. Researchers at Stanford University in California showed real news and long ads that look like news to middle school students. More than 80 percent of the students couldn’t tell the difference.

Some phony stories are obviously untrue. But many are based on truth, which makes the lies harder to spot. Because the internet lets you hide who you are, anyone with a computer can launch a news site and make it seem real. A person might make a fake news site to help or harm a politician. Others might want to make money from paid ads on their site.

MISLEADING MATH

More than 90 percent of fake news articles contain a graph or some kind of mathematical data. That statistic sounds alarming, but the more alarming thing is that Charles Seife, a professor of journalism at New York University, made it up. “We think of numbers as something other than human,” he says. “But numbers that we use in the everyday world are very much human and they’re created, manipulated, and presented by humans.”

According to Seife, there are several common ways that people use numbers and graphs to mislead. You have already seen an example of the easiest and most frequently used one: simply making up numbers. Even when percentages are supported by polls, it’s important to determine what they represent. Ask who was polled and what specific questions were asked. You want to make sure you fully understand what’s being evaluated or measured.

Graphs can also easily be used to mislead. By changing the scale on a graph, “we can make big effects look small and small effects look big,” says Seife. Graphs might also start at a point other than 0, which is where most graphs start, to make a change seem more significant than it is. Alternatively, graphs that show data where small changes have a big impact might purposefully start at 0 to make significant changes look small. Statistics and graphs are powerful tools that can quickly communicate information, but they’re only as good as the people who create them. 

More than 90 percent of fake news articles contain a graph or some kind of mathematical data. That statistic sounds alarming. But the more alarming thing is that Charles Seife made it up. He's a professor of journalism at New York University. “We think of numbers as something other than human,” says Seife. “But numbers that we use in the everyday world are very much human. They’re created, manipulated, and presented by humans.”

According to Seife, there are several common ways that people use numbers and graphs to fool readers. Simply making up numbers is an example of one of the easiest and most common ways. Sometimes the data from polls can be misleading. It's important to know what the numbers represent. Ask who was polled and what questions were asked. You want to make sure you fully understand what’s being measured.

Graphs can also mislead. By changing the scale on a graph, “we can make big effects look small and small effects look big,” says Seife. A graph might start at a point other than 0, which is where most graphs start. This makes a change seem more significant than it is. Alternatively, a graph that shows data where small changes have a big impact might purposefully start at 0. This will make it look like there was no change at all. Statistics and graphs are powerful tools that can quickly communicate information. But they’re only as good as the people who create them.

CRUMBLING STANDARDS

Fake or highly distorted news is nothing new. The earliest American newspapers were often used by political parties to spread lies about opposing candidates.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that objectivity and accuracy became the standard for professional news outlets. But those standards have weakened in recent years with the huge growth of the internet, social media, and cable news. All three make it easier to share made up stories or target audiences with news that’s skewed toward one political viewpoint. With shorter news cycles, the fact-checking process used by many news outlets might be skimped on or skipped altogether in the rush to deliver news before competitors.

Most people can agree on this: It will take a concerted effort by the public and the media to fix the problem of misinformation and slow the spread of fake news. And it appears that the effort is already working. Many sites with viral stories that have been proved false by fact-checkers have already shut down, like the Boston Tribune and Denver Guardian. But many more have popped up in their place. 

“Users on social media need to call out people who are sharing this stuff, and journalists need to continue to adhere to professional standards,” says Anthony Adornato, a media professor at Ithaca College in New York. “It’s a team effort.”

Fake news is nothing new. The earliest American newspapers were often tools used by political parties. They would print articles that spread lies about opposing candidates.

By the 1900s, fact and accuracy became the standard for professional news outlets. But those standards have weakened in recent years. The internet, social media, and cable news have all made it easier to share made-up stories. They also make it easier to target audiences with news that favors one political viewpoint. News cycles are also shorter. Many news outlets might skip or skimp on fact-checking in the rush to deliver news before competitors.

Most people agree that both the public and the media need to work together to slow the spread of fake news. It appears that the effort is already working. Many websites with stories that have been proved false have already shut down. But many more have popped up in their place.

“Users on social media need to call out people who are sharing this stuff, and journalists need to continue to adhere to professional standards,” says Anthony Adornato, a media professor at Ithaca College in New York. “It’s a team effort.”

Use this information to find the inaccuracies in the graphs that follow. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

Use this information to find the inaccuracies in the graphs that follow. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

A. What is wrong with the bar graph above?

A. What is wrong with the bar graph above?

B. How does the error affect the appearance of the graph’s data? What argument could the graph’s creator be tryingto make?

B. How does the error affect the appearance of the graph’s data? What argument could the graph’s creator be tryingto make?

C. How would you fix or change the graph to make it accurate?

C. How would you fix or change the graph to make it accurate?

A. What is wrong with the circle graph above?

A. What is wrong with the circle graph above?

B. How do the problems affect the appearance of the graph’s data? What argument might the graph’s creator be trying to make?

B. How do the problems affect the appearance of the graph’s data? What argument might the graph’s creator be trying to make?

C. How would you fix or change the graph to make it accurate?

C. How would you fix or change the graph to make it accurate?

A. What is wrong with the double-line graph above?

A. What is wrong with the double-line graph above?

B. How do the problems affect the appearance of the graph’s data? What argument could the graph’s creator be trying to make?

B. How do the problems affect the appearance of the graph’s data? What argument could the graph’s creator be trying to make?

C. How would you fix or change the graph to make it accurate?

C. How would you fix or change the graph to make it accurate?

Why might fake news stories intentionally use misleading graphs?

Why might fake news stories intentionally use misleading graphs?

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