Truth or Troll: Spotting & Fighting Bad Faith Media

Real talk on fake news with Roxboro House Roundtable

Does anyone else feel like they’re drowning in a sea of fake news? Wave after wave of misleading headlines, twisted facts, and outright lies crashing down on us. It’s exhausting! The sheer audacity of some of these fabrications would be impressive if it weren’t so dangerous. None of us is immune and, in fact, we are sitting ducks.

We know now that fake news is 70% more likely to spread than true stories. Fake news tends to be much more novel, and therefore irresistible for most people to share. Fake news is also emotional. It inspires fear, anger, disgust, sadness, surprise, joy, and strong sensations of belonging. We tend to actively seek it out, for the social buzz it gives us.

Fun Fact: bots are not nearly as effective at spreading fake news as humans are. It’s in our DNA, evidently. And this tendency leaves us vulnerable to bad faith actors seeking to exploit us for their gain. In media, in government — facts have taken a backseat to whatever false narrative works at the time, no matter how absurd or hypocritical.

Disinformation gets slicker all the time. And more invasive. It’s not just in political corners but on wellness blogs, hobby forums, social justice pages, fan sites, momstagrams, community Facebook groups, etc. Wherever we go on social media, malicious users seek to confuse and manipulate us.

The good news is, we’re far from helpless. Media literacy is a many-pronged tool we can all use to fight back on the onslaught of fake news, and nourish robust, reliable information channels for ourselves and our communities.

In that spirit, we were excited to come out to Jefferson University’s Arlen Specter Center this February for a Roxboro House Roundtable on Disinformation and Local News. As editors of The Local paper, we have so much to share, and so many questions! Law and Society professor Evan Laine and producer Savannah Brannan brought together an engaged group of students, faculty, and staff with all their best ideas on truth and trust in media.

Our summary here includes our favorite nuggets along with cheat sheets to keep you and your family safe from media mind games! Quotes have been edited for brevity and clarity.

PRO TIP: Roxboro House Roundtables are broadcast on the 1st and 3rd Sundays of each month from 8am to 9am on Gtown Radio 92.5FM. @RoxboroHouseRoundtables


SAVANNAH BRANNAN (Producer): Let’s talk about grassroots journalism. How did you get started?

STEVE FILLMORE: (Co-Editor of The Local paper): The Local paper started as a history blog. We were following the restoration of an old brewer’s mansion in East Falls, and sharing stories from the 1800’s and early 1900’s when the brewery anchored the neighborhood.

Around that time, the neighborhood newspaper here closed and we thought it’d be a great to fill that void by building on our cache of neighborhood stories from the blog.

And it really sparked a lot of engagement, got a lot of people talking about their memories of the neighborhood and the changes they’ve seen. And so naturally we branched out into covering businesses, politics, development.

CAROLYN SULLIVAN (Co-Editor of The Local paper): We thought we were starting a fun little neighborhood rag. But then the Community Council here started their own paper, and it seemed silly for such a tiny area to have two papers, especially when right next door Germantown was a news and information desert. And that’s when we really realized that local news is actually a resource.

Credible, relevant news is something that people really need – there’s a lot of bad information out there and a huge digital divide. We realized that printing on paper is an effective way to give people good, clean, nutritious information. And because we’re competing with social media, we’ve always had a colorful layout with lots of pictures and graphics.

EVAN LAINE (director of Jefferson’s Law & Society Program and associate history professor): There used to be many local newspapers but now that’s essentially gone. Most of the media is controlled by a very small handful of corporations. So why is important to have local news as opposed to the corporate news that we receive?

CAROLYN: You need both, right? It’s good to have standardized sources but independent local news is really important, too. Leadership needs to be held accountable at every level.

It’s important too because, as local newspapers have died (and East Falls is a great example of this), community organizations, councils, and CDC’s have been producing their own newsletters and news. Which is fine, but these organizations have a strong bias for business and property owners.

Neighborhoods that can afford their own news outlets generally don’t want to see reporting about gun violence, crime, or racial injustice in their communities. It’s not good for business or property values.

On the other hand, under-resourced neighborhoods, where there are life-or-death issues to discuss, generally are begging for more context and representation in local press, but there’s no money for that.

The traditional news model, which relies on ads from local businesses, is hard to do in areas where those businesses are struggling. So the richest communities get to have papers that tell them what they want to hear, and the communities that can’t afford papers get silenced. They get left out of the conversation. Or if they’re in the conversation, they’re not necessarily being heard respectfully, truthfully, with context and with history. (Like when news outlets “parachute in” reporters to cover gun violence stories in neighborhoods like Germantown.)

Gentrification keeps plowing through neighborhoods and changing them, a lot of people are getting left behind. A lot of things that we could be doing, we’re not doing, because we don’t understand the importance of it, because these voices aren’t being heard.

That’s how I see the niche we’re trying to fill.

BRYCE RENNINGER (Faculty in Communications, Media Law & Policy): So this is like the businesses in the community get together and say “We want people to be able to come to Germantown” or wherever, So were gonna have a newspaper that is like, “Here’s the new tchotchke!”

CAROLYN: Right, it’s like neighborhood branding.

STEVE: Just want to add too about the digital divide – in newspaper, there are no algorithms. We print what our community contributors provide us, which is very random. So you’re getting perspectives that you might not find otherwise.

EVAN:  Where’s the balance between making money — which you need — and reporting? Because you have to get people’s attention. And nice stories about butterflies and people doing good things, can’t compete with provocative headlines and spin? How does that work as a small local newspaper?

CAROLYN:  Well, we’re growing. So we’re hopeful. And for now, it’s a labor of love. Of course Jefferson’s ad has been a lifeline, between them and our other wonderful advertisers we can cover printing and distribution costs. And then we’ve had some grants to pay contributors. And then as far as me and STEVE… ummmm. Yeah. We’re not sustainable yet. We’re hoping that somebody somewhere – the government, ideally – will wake up to the fact that information is a resource, like food and shelter.

We’ll subsidize fossil fuels out the wazoo. Agriculture, transportation. Think of how many millions and millions of dollars go into political ads! What would a tiny slice of that mean for a small operation like us? Or any other struggling newspaper? And the engagement and civic action that could support, the people you could reach and serve.

So yeah, it’s frustrating. We haven’t figured out the money part yet.

EVAN: How do you avoid the temptation to put out things that will get you attention, that will get you bigger circulation, that will bring in more money, but aren’t exactly… Not that they’re lies, but maybe not as thoroughly investigated as it should be?

CAROLYN: Yeah, like why aren’t we hanging out with the developers? Talking up their great new buildings and genius business plans? But the only reason we’re doing this is because there’s a reason to do this, you know? A real need. This paper is an experiment, it’s our best shot to solve what we see are problems in local media coverage today. Whether it succeeds or fails, we’ll have a truthful record and that’s why we’re here. Hopefully by sharing our story along the way, maybe we can inspire someone else. Maybe they’ll figure this out.

STEVE: And one nice thing about newspapers is that we’re not really chasing engagement.

EVAN: So as local media, what have you encountered in terms of misinformation that’s been significant?

STEVE: During the height of the COVID crisis, a reader contacted us about anti-vaxxer flyers he saw at Franklin’s bar here in East Falls. At first it seemed like a local Philly group had printed them, but when we did some digging, it turned out to be a national group called the MISES Caucus, a radical, right-wing Libertarian group.

And it was pretty slick, this national astroturf organization distributing flyers in a tiny place like East Falls (and, we later found out, other bars in Philly). We wrote an article correcting the disinformation and included a chart with the photos of the top dozen anti-vax propagandists (who at the time accounted for more than 60% of the disinformation online.)

CAROLYN: And we fought with trolls on local social media, which is part of our job sometimes. People will leave the most uninformed comments on our posts. And rather than delete them, we’ll engage – not to change their minds, but because we know our followers are watching. And we’re trying to show them that it’s OK to speak up for the truth, while modeling how to do it. Also trolls can be very funny, or even educational, when you engage them in the right way.

EVAN: Why don’t I see that kind of local anti-vaxxer story in the Inquirer? I imagine they have more resources than you. Why are we not getting that information?

CAROLYN: You’d think that with shrinking newsrooms big media would lean on grassroots news, but that hasn’t been our experience. We’re not what they want at all.

EVAN: Let’s ask the room. Do you feel you’re getting any information that you want on important topics right now?

ERIC (second year Law and Society major): Honestly, I don’t really think so. Everything is just so polarized right now, there’s more or less just two opinions on any certain topic. I don’t have a specific issue in mind.

But I don’t really get to see how it ties into me locally. Feels like there are so many national issues in the news all the time, but I know there’s stuff on the local level that probably impacts me more. But I’m not seeing it.

SHELDON (second year Law and Society major): Yeah, but not through mainstream sources. I find a lot of my news on social media through sources that I’ve vetted personally, but not through MSNBC, CBS or god forbid FOX. I agree that either side is too politicized. I follow a lot of independent journalists and get a lot of informed individual opinions.

ALEX (second year psychology major):  I feel like local news forgets that they can report their opinions about things, and provide a community perspective. Instead we get a lot of asinine coverage that really doesn’t affect us.

EVAN:  There was a recent poll done by historians, ranking presidents. Trump came in dead last. And the way they reported it on FOX was that Trump didn’t finish first. And yeah, that’s true. But it’s still misinformation.

More seriously, the GOP has been very strong in trying to impeach Joe Biden. Their main piece of evidence came from a guy named Smirnoff or should have tipped them off — it turns out, it came from a Russian source.

The Russians are constantly planting disinformation in our media, we keep on grabbing onto it like idiots. Grabbing onto the hook, keep grabbing for that worm, even though we know who’s throwing it out there. We keep on taking it. How do you see yourselves in this, to provide information to attack the these blind spots that aren’t being explored?

STEVE: We try to speak to issues on a personal level. It doesn’t even work to try to broach complicated subjects like Israel and Palestine, but we can highlight the stories of our Jewish and Arabic partners and contributors.

CAROLYN:  We’re fact-checkers. And we really try to model information literacy. Our articles are all linked up with sources, we show the work. When we find fake news, we love to make fun of it. By the way USA Today has a daily “Fake News” e-newsletter that is so fun. They share the latest social media hoaxes, and each one is a little lesson in tracing a rumor back to the kernel of truth or doctored video or whatever it started from.

One of my favorites recently claimed to show leaked NASA photos of Heaven as an actual place in the sky. Outer space, actually.

Someone had superimposed an imperial starship from Star Wars on an image from the Hubble telescope. In 2009. But it’s been shared like 17,000 times. Another one used AI to age a photo of Princess Diana from the 90’s, and now it’s been trending across all the platforms, people in the comments flipping out, thinking she’s really back, like some great mystery has been solved.

And it’s like, What’s the point of this? What does a Russian troll farm get out of making me think Princess Di is back? And I really think it’s just to undermine truth.

EVAN:  That’s a great point, though. As stupid as some of these things may seem, it does undermine truth. And once you start down that path, it’s almost an infection. Once you accept one ridiculous premise, you’re ripe for the next. And the next. Until you get to Qanon. You can actually trace the progression, we know this is how it works. So why would Russia do it? They can’t out-weapon us. They can’t out-fight us. But they can out-information us. And we, for whatever reason, keep taking the bait.

GEMMA (first year Law and Society major):  We also have to acknowledge that information itself is privilege.  And when people are spreading misinformation, they’re also taking away a certain type of privilege. And they’re making other people feel like they have this illusion of privilege. “Oh I know this, but you don’t know this.”

It gives them of ego and confidence. And then when they’re proven to be wrong, they’ll put up all these defenses. “No, this is what I believe is true, and I refuse to agree with you.” That’s stressful to everyone. When you spread misinformation and allow it to go on around you, you’re disenfranchising us all, and that’s an advantage for people who do not like us, who don’t want us to have the same assets and opportunities.

MEGAN DONNELLY (Outreach and Engagement librarian, Paul J. Gutman Library):  I love that you mentioned information privilege, because I was going to talk about that. My name is Megan Donnelly, I’m the Outreach and Engagement librarian here at the Guttman library. I’m a teaching librarian, promoting Information Literacy as an essential skill for everyone today.

Anytime you encounter information — whether you’re googling good hotels, you’re doing a research paper or you’re deciding who to vote for —  it’s crucial to be able to evaluate facts and sources. Yet information literacy is not consistently taught in our schools or even higher education. There are so many important skills to learn: accessing, vetting, and analyzing info with various technologies. And also broader civic and community opportunities.

But yet people expect information literacy to be a one-off workshop. If we get a 70-minute session, we’ll try to meet three learning objectives. Rarely are we asked to offer feedback on what else we can be doing to promote curricular standards. It’s really a pet peeve.

Another stat: there are seven certified librarians in the School District of Philadelphia, for 125,000 students. That’s the lowest ratio in the country. And many people don’t have access to resources you need to be information literate, like laptops, wi-fi, and other obstacles due to digital redlining in the city. In certain places, there’s no wi-fi signal or cell reception. You may not be able to use your hotspot.

In 2017 Stanford had a really interesting study — their sample was huge, a whole bunch of fifth graders from across the United States from every demographic you could think of. They showed them videos of ballot stuffing, and asked them if they thought it was true. And they all said yes. So they didn’t do lateral reading, they didn’t evaluate the information at all. So literally every kid who participated in this huge study scored zero in information literacy.

EVAN: And for me, poor information literacy is fertile ground for implanting lies and conspiracies. We’re not taught the skills we need. And that provides the perfect opportunity for people to take advantage of us.

We’ve been talking about misinformation, and how it leads to poor education. But it also leads to violence. You have synagogues that have been attacked, Asian people were attacked after a certain someone started calling COVID the “Chinese flu.” You have Muslims, of course, have been attacked.  The antisemitism, racism, Islamophobia, misogyny, anti-LBGTQ —  all this is getting so accelerated by bad faith media.

This is not just an academic question we’re having, but it could be January 6th, based upon our survival as a nation. What should we be doing? Because this is some serious stuff. So in the last couple of minute: how do we fight this?

MEGAN: I urge you if you’re an educator to invite librarians in to provide curricular consultation on involving information literacy at every step of the curriculum. We can help build memorable, evidence-based learning experiences for students, as well as assignments and assessments. I recommend advocating for libraries and librarians as a means to stop the misinformation. And definitely within the School District of Philadelphia, they need more librarians. We need more librarians here too.

STEVE: We second everything Megan said, and in addition recommend the site, it’s basically a disinformation hub with lots of great tools and info. And if anyone would like to contribute to the paper, if anyone has ideas on how they might encourage practicing information literacy skills, we’re always looking for new voices. Especially from young people who tend to be under-represented in the news.


Your local library offers much more than books, it’s a public hub of connectivity and information. You’ll find free access to digital databases, online archives, electronic journals, and basically the whole internet. Libraries also host seminars, workshops, art exhibits, kids activities, and other special events curated for their particular neighborhood.

💪⚡ The real superpower of libraries, though, is librarians! While best known for their shushing, they are actually skilled public information advocates, highly-trained in all the technologies available for finding, vetting, analyzing, and engaging with information across all open platforms, from academia to social media.

They’re basically the embodiment of Google and ChatGPT, with a social conscience. They are here to help us! Find out more about your Philadelphia Library at where you can browse branches and services near you. 1-833-TALK-FLP for assistance.

Fight the Fake! 🔎📰🚫

Fake news and misinformation can easily go viral online. To spot it, you need to be critical and use some strategies. One of them is to check the facts with reliable websites like or (a project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center).

Here are some other tips for telling facts from fiction:

  • Consider the Source. Click away from the story. Investigate the site, its mission, and its contact information.
  • Read Beyond. Headlines can be outrageous in an effort to get clicks. What’s the whole story?
  • Check the Author. Do a quick search on the author. Are they credible? Are they real?
  • Supporting Sources? Click on those links. Determine if the information given actually supports the story.
  • Check your Biases. Consider if your own beliefs could affect your judgment.

Do try this at home!  

Test your news for a week, or even just a day – you might be surprised how many trolls are in your feed. The gold standard for verifying information is to find it in two credible sources. How can you tell? Track record! There’s a whole fact-checking industry that’s constantly cataloguing information, and rating it for truth and transparency. is a free database of 7500+ media sources, journalists, and politicians independently assessed and rated for bias + credibility. They also report on each outlet’s history, ownership, funding, and more.

“The Chart” is another free resource that rates bias + credibility, this one uses an interactive grid where sources have been mapped out to provide a visual representation of where they all fall on each spectrum. The horizontal axis rates bias in a range from most extreme left to middle to most extreme right. Reliability is demonstrated vertically, with factual reporting at the top, opinion/analysis the middle, and disinformation at the bottom.

Thoughts? Questions? Please leave them in the comments below! 

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.