Penn State Professor Talks Danger of Fake News

Story posted January 26, 2021 in CommRadio, News by Emily Grill

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Fake news has significantly taken over the media in past years and has only gotten worse with the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. S. Shaym Sundar, founder of the Media Effects Research laboratory and professor at Penn State, led a seminar on Tuesday afternoon discussing the long-lasting effects of fake news in the media.

Sundar began the presentation by posing the question, “Why do we fall for fake news, and what can we do about it?”

He gave some background, saying that the fake news phenomena is not new and has been around for a few decades. However, it really took off with the 2016 presidential election.

Sundar offered two main points as to how fake news is different now than it was years ago: the source of fake news and the modality of fake news.

Social media plays a huge role in the world of fake news, as anyone can post anything on nearly any platform. Once someone posts something, it is very easy to believe that it is true.

This was proven in an experiment Sundar constructed where he showed people various news stories from different platforms but did not tell them what platform he was showing them. Results of this experiment showed that people were more interested in the story told by alternative individuals rather than an official news source itself. This was surprising to Sundar, as all the stories he showed were the same.

Sundar’s experiment also proved that social media is the biggest factor in fake news.

When former President Trump was officially elected in 2016, fake news stories took the country by storm. People did not think much of these stories until they exceeded regular news stories. Today, and predominantly within the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a whole new source of fake news took over with false stories about causes, possible cures and effects of the vaccine.

With the virus putting a halt to just about everything, people are interested in making it go away, but this is very difficult, as much of the information put out is not credible.

Sundar showed a video example of fake news in his presentation of what was essentially a street fight between teenagers in Pakistan. News sources in India took that video and posted it, making it seem like it took place in India.

Using this example, Sundar explained the deadly consequences of video.

He used the term, “realism heuristic,” which is essentially the idea that if something seems real, it is credible.

In other words, if a viewer watches a video and reads a text, they are more likely to believe what the video is showing them because they can physically see what is going on, rather than just reading about it.

This is a huge problem in today’s media, as people tend to always believe what they see, even if it might not be true.

Sundar ended his seminar with a visual on how to spot fake news, which included advice on how to tell if a piece of information is credible or not.

The seminar ended with a Q&A session.


Emily Grill is a freshman majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact her, email

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Emily Grill

Sophomore / Broadcast Journalism

Emily Grill is a second-year from Scotch Plains, New Jersey majoring in broadcast journalism at Penn State. She is an anchor and writer for the CommRadio news department. In addition, she is a founder and correspondent for Centre News Digest. This past summer, she interned with TAPinto Scotch Plains/Fanwood, her town’s local newspaper, where she reported and published stories daily. If you’d like to contact her, email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).