TODAY | September 30, 2013
>>> tell what is true and what's not. it's not always wise to believe what you see, or hear on television. so how do we know?
>> reporter: it's the information overload age.
>> anybody can put anything online.
>> on screens big and small, from countless sites and sources. tweets, updates and alerts reach millions of people in split seconds.
>> the internet is the greatest form of communication ever invented. it's also a place of chaos and confusion and trying to sort through what's real and what's not.
>> reporter: on the web and beyond, when news breaks there's pressure to report quickly and mistakes do happen.
>> particularly in breaking news situations social media can fuel the rise of incorrect reporting and false facts making their way into the mainstream.
>> reporter: but not all misinformation is accidental. history is ripe with cases of deception and when it comes to grand scale hoaxes, orson wells war of the worlds was one of them. the radio broadcast created widespread panic and introduced the nation to the highs and lows of getting duped collectively. almost anybody can be an online orson wells .
>> people can wear a mask online making it that much harder to detect deception.
>> reporter: in the world of viral videos we're asking is it real or is it a prank.
>> when marketers come up with fake viral videos that's deceitful in an effort to make money.
>> remember lonely girl 15 ? she turned out to be a hired actress for a youtube web series . or the drowning goat rescued by a pig? staged and the worst twerk fail ever that became an instant sensation, just a stunt woman in a jimmy kimmel concoction.
>> one consequence is that when real stuff comes out it takes us longer to believe it and to trust it.
>> how do we know what to believe? jeff cowen is an associate professor of journalism. good morning.
>> great to be with you.
>> we are inendated with information. how do we filter it?
>> people are skeptical. they know they're being sold something, we should be skeptical about news and viral e-mail hoaxes and messages. we're bombarded and we have to raise our level of skepticism.
>> there's time when people are trying to fool you. let's set those aside for a second. let's take a look at the situation of break news. information coming at us, members of the media, fast and furious , we're trying to get the information out. what's your best advice for the consumer?
>> sometimes turn it off. if you see the people on tv are speculating and they don't know what's going on. look, the navy yard , we thought at some point there might have been an extra shooter. very scary, wasn't sure. in boston we thought there might have been extra explosive devices, wasn't true. we got that from the media. journalists can't be thinking i have to beat the other network by ten seconds.
>> as a consumer you to say let me consider my source. you to trust the source but even trusted sources make mistakes.
>> right because they're often -- in breaking situations, they're not getting the right information. the worst hoax was the 1996 olympic bombing. and the guy that was a hero, actually, the security guard that found the pipe bomb and helped save lives, others reported he was a suspect and they got from that's from the fbi and it wasn't true.
>> remember when president obama took the oath of office the first time that he swore on the koran, obviously not true.
>> yeah, that was a viral e-mail. that went everywhere that he was a radical muslim that won't pray on the bible or take the oath. there were no links. no sources. no dates, no photographs. there were triple exclamation points in that hoax. all capital letters in a lot of the words. the same thing with the famous clothing designers allegedly a racist. same thing. there were no links. there were no sources. and all the exclamation points , i think people are learning to be internet literal. if they see these things that are anonymous and have strong accusations with no links or sources, don't trust them.
>> that's what we'll be talking about this week. thank you very much.
>> thank you.
>> all week long we'll give you more information as we dive deeper into this special series called fact or fiction. each day, we'll bring you two stories. one will be totally true and the other complete fiction and we'll all try to figure out which is which. that's all this week on "today".