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Herman the Merman and other fake news

“I felt that it was very important to know more about, not only how to spot fake news, but also the motivations behind why different individuals or corporations might want false information to spread."
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BANFF – From the chilly waters of Lake Minnewanka comes the tale of a strange creature once thought to live in its depths.

Half-man and half-fish, the unusual beast is said to have pushed the water up the shore toward a Stoney Nakoda campsite, before disappearing once again below the surface. Drumming and voices were also reported as coming from the lake that day.

Mummified remains have been on display at the Banff Indian Trading Post for decades. Herman the Merman, identified in another source as Mr. Banff, is he an amusing curiosity? A First Nations legend based on a real creature? Or, the original Banff hoax? You be the judge.

Information floods our lives at a pace that’s impossible to keep up with. Serious news shares the airways and the Internet with all manner of entertainment and opinion.

Some of it is offered up as harmless stories of wistful intrigue, like the possibility of a fish-person haunting a local lake. But some is intentionally designed to deceive about more serious issues in an effort to muddy the waters between fiction and fact.

To help cut through the noise, the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity’s Feed Your Brain series presented Identifying Fake News on Sept. 16. Nina Patterson, a practicum archivist at the Paul D. Fleck Library and Archives, was drawn to the idea of talking about fake news.

“I felt that it was very important to know more about, not only how to spot fake news, but also the motivations behind why different individuals or corporations might want false information to spread,” Patterson said.

“My personal interest in the subject stemmed from learning about information literacy in my master’s degree, as well as a personal interest in Internet culture. I guess I wanted to see how I could bring these knowledge bases together in an informative presentation.”

The presentation touched on some of the defining characteristics of “fake news,” including the use of misleading or inaccurate headlines, and “news” stories that rely on outrage. In an age where 48 per cent of the world’s population is now online, the spread of Internet hoaxes, cloaked sites and clickbait was also explored.

Identifying “fake news” sources by recognizing bias and understanding timelines takes practice, and some helpful tools include what is called the CRAAP Test:

Currency: the timeliness of the information. Relevance: the importance of the information for your needs. Authority: the source of the information. Accuracy: the reliability, truthfulness and correctness of the content. Purpose: the reason the information exists.

In a highly charged political climate, both north and south of the border, these tools are essential to understanding and processing the information being presented.

“I think it’s very important for people to educate themselves about fake news in light of both upcoming elections,” Patterson said. “We now know how much the U.S. election in 2016 was manipulated by fake news being spread on social media.”

“In Canada,” Patterson continued, “we have our election in a few short weeks and for instance the People’s Party of Canada has a platform that denies that climate change is caused by people and that it is an emergency.

“When I see groups make statements like that, the urgency for individuals to seek out the facts for themselves seems all the more pertinent.”

So, while everybody loves a good merman story, now more than ever it is important not to confuse tall tales with the truth.

The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity’s Feed Your Brain series runs on the third Monday of every month. Future topics for discussion can be found at www.banffcentre.ca/library-and-archives as they become available.

Online resources available to help identify “fake news” include Snopes.com, Politifact.com and FactsCan.ca. Wikipedia.com is also a source for general information, but Patterson recommends checking the sources used on any given page from that site first. 



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