Before the internet, it was pretty easy to know what news was real and what might be fake, exaggerated or inaccurate.
For real and accurate news, we could rely on major newspapers, radio and TV. We knew -- or most of us did -- that certain newspapers like The National Inquirer and News of the World, often found at supermarket checkouts, were sensationalist at best and totally fictional at worst. They featured stories about 2-headed cats, 1,000-pound women and celebrity exposes. Most of us knew not to believe them, even if they did make for entertaining reading.
The internet and social media have made fake news a major problem on many fronts.
During this past election, fake news often played a major role in driving the national discussion. At least one candidate, now our president-to-be, often cited wrong information gleaned, whether knowingly or not, from fake news stories online.
And throughout the election furor, many of us saw fake news stories online and believed them, often sharing them with others on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. We're learning now that some of this fake news had been spread by sources connected with Russia,possibly in an effort to impact the election. Many other bogus news stories, spread via "shares" on Facebook, came from independent entrepreneurial hackers in eastern Europe, with no political agenda but instead the desire to make thousands of dollars when advertisers paid per click for viewers to their sites. They quickly learned, through trial and error, that stories about Trump drew the most views.
Although I know some might disagree, stories taken from news outlets like the major daily papers, networks and cable channels, as well as online sites like Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and ProPublica can generally be trusted as legitimate and accurate.
But with so much news online, how can we trust that it's real?
That looks like it will be a major question for some time to come. Sites like Facebook are trying to monitor fake news sites and take them down, but they seem to pop up as quickly as FB can knock them off.
I think the answer, for now, is to rely only on what we know are reliable sources. Conservatives will say the major dailies, especially The N.Y. Times and The Washington Post are not reliable, but I strongly disagree. When they publish something that exposes something questionable about a candidate or about the president whether it's Obama or the incoming guy, they are fulfilling their role in our democracy -- a free press that can publish fact, whether or not flattering to the people in power. That's how the Founding Fathers planned it, and any attempt to minimize or hinder that role, whether by political parties or by the president himself, must be fought at every turn.
The free press may have a tough road ahead, with an incoming president who has expressed outright disdain for them even as he has used them to his advantage. We will have to rely on the courts to back the media as they try to keep our government and our leaders transparent. And each of us can help by subscribing to newspapers and supporting non-profit journalism like ProPublica and NPR.