In other regions of the world, interpreting “fake news” has long been a part of the landscape, said Deborah Amos, a Middle East correspondent for National Public Radio, during a Feb. 21 panel discussion about fake news in a “post-fact era.” To find the truth in a region such as the Middle East, where “alternative facts” are a normal part of life, many Iraqis know that they must get their news from several different sources, she said.

“People in the Middle East are more savvy news consumers than Americans because they expect that state media is propaganda,” Amos said. “They already know that they have to be more clever than the people who are producing the news, and they are. I don’t know a Middle Easterner who doesn’t know how to read between the lines.”

Americans are capable of figuring out how to do this too, said Washington Post reporter and Ferris professor in residence Joe Stephens, and they are learning that they need to be more skeptical and pay more attention to which news organizations they should trust. For example, readership at The New York Times is at an all-time high: Since the election, the Times has gained more than 270,000 new subscribers, he said.

“We need to know the difference between journalism and just ‘stuff that’s out there,’ ” Stephens said. “As consumers, we need to engage our brains and think ‘what am I reading and where did it come from?’ … If we as journalists, scholars, and news consumers don’t get this right, democracy cannot work.”

People have been manipulating facts to tell stories for decades, but the accessibility of social media has caused these untruths to become more widespread and has made it more difficult for the public to decipher the difference between what is true and what is propaganda, the panelists said. 

Following only like-minded individuals on Facebook or Twitter makes this process harder, said professor of politics and human values Stephen Macedo. Even television news programs spent less time covering hard news, such as candidates’ views on policy during the 2016 presidential campaign, instead dedicating much of their time to analyzing which candidate was ahead in the polls, he said.

“Americans live in alternative realities increasingly defined by partisanship,” Macedo said. “And these are dividing us and encouraging us toward political extremism. ”