With all of its advantages, The Digital Age has brought to the surface a troubling deficiency in our collective ability to think critically. “Fake news” became a household term during the 2016 election, and researchers from various fields of study have been evaluating this phenomenon, with nearly all of them finding troubling patterns in our abilities to evaluate news sources for accuracy and credibility. The problem doesn’t lie with any one particular age group, either. A 2016 study by the Stanford History Education Group shows that students found difficulty distinguishing advertisements from news and analyzing source credibility, while a study published in Science Advances earlier this year shows that people over the age of 65 are much more likely to share fake news on Facebook.
Whether you have a non-tech-savvy aunt who inadvertently shares misinformation on social media, or a kid who is just learning how to navigate the vast expanse of knowledge available online, we’ve put together a short guide to help them along to becoming more responsible and knowledgeable consumers of online media.
The “About Us” section of a news site can be revealing. Many fake news sites readily admit to being satire if you know where to look. In many cases, however, the truth isn’t so simple. Does the site provide any information about the publisher or staff? If not, this source may be suspect. Does the outlet have a robust corrections policy? Every outlet makes mistakes, and a willingness to correct is a direct indicator of journalistic integrity. Many outlets state their point of view, sometimes in the form of a mission statement. This can give you some insight into any biases the outlet may have. You can read our mission statement here. The domain name may also be telling, as some sites masquerade as well-known outlets. If you are visiting abcnews.com.co rather than abcnews.com, smash that back button with haste.
The second you read a headline, evaluate your mental reaction. Does the headline elicit an emotional response? Fake news preys on our tendency to allow our emotions to override our sense of logic, and it’s the headline that draws us in. The use of emotionally charged, or “loaded” language is a surefire way for a fake news publisher to get clicks, and a variety of words can achieve this. Words like “disease,” “exploit,” “historic,” “shocking,” or “shameful” all tend to elicit some kind of emotional response, and that response varies from person to person. In the online news rodeo, many legitimate publishers have come to rely on emotionally charged language in the battle for clicks as well, but this sort of sensationalism should still be suspect.
READ PAST THE HEADLINE! Every time! Your job as a debunker of misinformation may become embarrassingly simple, as some fake news stories are rife with spelling and grammatical errors. If the story passes a proofread, start challenging the most pertinent pieces of information within the story. Are these points in other articles about the subject? Are sources cited, preferably from a .edu or .gov source? Good propagandists are tricky; they’ll interweave false information with verifiable facts, muddying the waters just enough to obscure the truth. Sometimes sources are hyperlinked into the body of the article, so be sure to click around and take heed of what you see. If no sources are cited, mentioned, or hyperlinked whatsoever, you might as well be staring at a blank page.
Snopes, FactCheck.org, Poynter’s International Fact Checking Network, and Politifact are your friends; many widely shared stories will be double-checked by these organizations. Those who argue that these outlets are somehow compromised are either the intentional purveyors of misinformation or those desperate to believe partisan falsehoods. These organizations are widely trusted by academia and journalists alike, and no serious evidence has been presented that would suggest these fact checkers intend to mislead the public.
This practice of presenting misinformation while challenging the authority of those tasked with confirming said information creates what the intelligence community refers to as a “wilderness of mirrors.” Once in the wilderness, the traveler experiences a condition called cognitive dissonance, where their previously held notions are challenged, and they may deny their previously held worldview to be molded anew by the propagandist. This is a primary recruiting mechanism of the alt-right, which they call “redpilling.” This can be a slow process, with the propagandist exposing the traveler to small amounts of misinformation over time, but it can end with the traveler accepting toxic and dangerous notions like racism and holocaust denialism.
After the term “fake news” became part of the national lexicon, the Trump administration (quite brilliantly) flipped the definition to apply to any news piece or outlet that was critical of the President. To think that the New York Times or the Washington Post are assembling every morning to dream up ways to libel President Trump is, of course, outlandish on its face, but this isn’t to say that these organizations are not free of some biases.
No single journalist or organization is free of bias, and none likely will ever be. Outlets like the Times and Post may be friendlier toward political figures that operate within the status quo, but this does not mean that they are intentionally trying to mislead the reader. People don’t usually get into this business to lie, and they don’t gain employment from these institutions by being bad at their job.
When consuming information, the importance of knowing who to trust and who to question is paramount. Once our trust in the fourth estate is shattered, we are in the darkness, the wilderness of mirrors, not knowing which way is up. Take these tools of media literacy and share them with whomever you think needs them, they might thank you later.
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By Jay Sharpe