Fake news has been around a long time, but with the rise of social media, the problem has grown worse, particularly because so many have adopted a silo approach to exposure to news: Those who watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh spurn MSNBC; those who watch CNN or MSNBC can’t bring themselves to watch Fox News. And I’m sure that the stream of articles and memes that appear on my Facebook page is very different from those that are posted to the pages of some of my conservative friends.
I try to sort through the barrage of stories that flood social media and discard those that are fake, misleading, or deceptive, or that are so one-sided as to have little or no substantive value. Still, like everyone else, I have found myself being fooled by fake news and false reports. Spotting, calling out, and stopping--or at least slowing down--the spread of fake news has become increasingly important, and it is everyone's responsibility to do their part.
Here I offer the following as a checklist of what I believe are useful strategies for distinguishing between legitimate journalism and fake news:
Be skeptical. This is more a description of a fundamental worldview than a specific technique. Skepticism does not mean that one should believe nothing. Rather, it means that one should try to base one’s beliefs on objective evidence and rational analysis rather than simply on someone’s or some source’s say so. In the context of social media, it means approaching each article and meme with the questions, What is the evidence for the statements being made? Do those statements follow rationally from the evidence presented.
Be mindful of personal biases. It’s so much more enjoyable to read and accept as true what is consistent with our existing beliefs than what is inconsistent with or contrary to them. When reading an article, keep asking, Am I accepting this or disputing this because of my existing point of view?
Is the tone of the headline measured or sensationalistic? Think of all the tabloid headlines you’ve read while waiting in line at the supermarket. Just because a story has a sensational headline does not mean it is fake, but it should be a red flag. I find myself being especially suspicious of stories with headlines that begin, for example, with “Scientists Baffled . . .“ or that include both the terms “Clinton” and “pedophile sex ring.”
Consider the source. It may be unfair to put more confidence in a story put out by the Guardian, the New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal over those published by NewCenturyTimes, the Institute for Creation Research, or Right Brain News. But the odds of fair journalism are simply going to be much higher in the former than in the latter.
Read the article. This is especially important where the headline is consistent with your existing point of view. It is much easier to assume that the contents of an article will reflect and confirm a headline that you are predisposed to accept than a headline that is contrary to your existing mindset. And above all else, don’t repost an article simply on the basis of its headline.
Consult other sources. In the age of Google, it is easy to check whether other media, particularly mainstream media, are reporting the same information. If an article is reporting a story that appears nowhere else in the media, perhaps there’s a reason. I would rather err on the side of caution than to rely on (or worse, repost) a story that has not been reported anywhere else. This is a key reason why fake news has legs.
Check out vetting sites. Again, with Google it is so easy to find out if one of the organizations devoted to fact-checking, such as Politifact or Snopes, has already reviewed the article or claim in question. If nothing else, just cut and paste the title of the article into Google. It might save you some embarrassment.
When reading an article:
- Beware of extreme, sensational, or inflammatory language.
- Look for actual video clips. All too frequently an article will claim a figure made a statement that they didn’t actually make.
- Watch for editorial sloppiness. The fake news sites are often poorly staffed and cannot afford or do not take the time for thorough editing. As a result their stories are often peppered with grammatical, typographical, and spelling errors.
- Watch for photoshopping of images. In the world of digital photography, it is simply too easy to modify or fabricate images. I’m not referring here to pictures that feature Trump’s head pasted onto a baby’s body. That’s simply satire. I’m talking about fake photos that are passed off as genuine, running from false colors to astronomical impossibilities to nonexistent juxtapositions of public figures. Think supermarket tabloids.
- Distinguish between assertions of fact and statements of opinion. There is nothing wrong with editorial statements that are presented as such. Everyone is entitled to express his or her opinion. And, in fact, the considered opinions of thoughtful journalists are, in my view, critical to a reflective understanding of political realities. The problem occurs when opinion is presented as fact.
I recognize that this list is incomplete and is certainly not foolproof. And I would welcome suggestions for additional strategies that others have found helpful in this process.
© 2017 John M. Phillips