The past year in American politics has offered a veritable cornucopia of rotten political fruit, few of which are more putrid than “fake news.” During the election cycle a number of websites plagiarized the look of mainstream media outlets in order spread patently false stories. Readers were more likely to believe the stories because they seemed to have come from a trusted news outlet.
This revelation caused a firestorm of controversies, including allegations that Russia waged a misinformation campaign in order to sway the US presidential election, Italian referendum, and most recently the French presidential election (Facebook suspended 30,000 fake “internet robot” accounts in the lead up to this week’s French elections.) Facebook faced allegations that it was complicit by providing a prominent platform for such fake news, forcing CEO Mark Zuckerberg to defend his company in a memorable statement last year.
Fake news is not new, having emerged as a phenomenon in the Western newspaper industry during the middle of the nineteenth century. What is new, however, is the way the internet provides a platform for fake news articles. Websites and social media enable fake news to be instantaneously accessible and potentially viral. Media outlets compete for ad dollars by demonstrating how many “clicks” their articles receive, thereby creating a system that rewards sensational articles rather than truthful ones.
In light of the pervasive presence of fake news and other forms of misinformation, how should we respond? Here are five ways:
Ask yourself some basic questions.
The first way to fight fake news is to ask some basic questions that could quickly reveal an article as untrustworthy. In an article entitled, “How to Spot Fake News,” Eugene Kiely and Lori Robertson suggest questions such as:
- What is the source (URL) of the article? You might find that the website is posing as a mainstream outlet when it is not, as in the case of abcnews.com.co (which is not ABC News) whose fake news articles fooled many readers because of its similarity to the mainstream outlet. Or, you might find that the website even admits to being fake, as in the instance of the viral article that falsely claimed that the Obamas were buying a vacation home in Dubai.
- Who is the author? A quick Google search will usually either confirm an author’s credibility or deny it.
- What evidence supports the claim? Kiely and Robertson note how the “Boston Tribune” wrongly claimed that former President Obama’s mother-in-law had been guaranteed a lifetime government pension for babysitting the Obama daughters in the White House. The article cited “the Civil Service Retirement Act” and provided a link. But, as Kiely and Robertson note, the link to the government benefits website gives no support whatsoever for the claim.
- Is the site openly satirical? Kiely and Robertson give the example of “the admittedly satirical site Nevada County Scooper, which wrote that Vice President-elect Mike Pence, in a ‘surprise announcement,’ credited gay conversion therapy for saving his marriage. Clearly such a ‘surprise announcement’ would garner media coverage beyond a website you’ve never heard of. In fact, if you Google this, the first link that comes up is a Snopes.com article revealing that this is fake news.”
Beware of confirmation bias.
The second way to fight fake news is to beware of the way “confirmation bias” makes us susceptible to fake news and misinformation, as this article at Psychology Today points out. Our confirmation bias is our tendency is to agree with something if it confirms things we already believe about the world. So fake news taps into our confirmation bias by wrapping its falsehoods into a framework of beliefs that we already accept.
So, for example, if a reader believes that George W. Bush or Barack Obama is a bad person, a fake news writer can establish a backdrop of credibility with the reader by wrapping an outlandishly false claim about Bush or Obama in a blanket of real negative facts and real established opinions.
Beware of political agendas.
The third way to fight fake news is really a variation of the second way: we must realize that the purveyors of fake news, lies, exaggeration, and misinformation usually are motivated by a social, cultural, or political agenda. They leverage our “confirmation bias” to further their own agenda. The upsurge in fake news comes at a time when citizens of the United States are so deeply divided on political ideology and policy issues that we are tempted to think the worst of people on “the other side of the aisle” and are easily fooled into believing things we would not otherwise believe.
The real rub here is to beware of our own social, cultural, and political agendas as keenly as we are aware of other people’s agendas. The purveyors of fake news identify our own agendas, and then rely upon confirmation bias to get us to accept lies, exaggerations, and misinformation.
Get your news from several media outlets.
The fourth way to fight fake news is to resist the temptation to trust only one outlet or type of outlet. This temptation arises from twin realities.
On the one hand, Americans distrust the media in general. Consider this Gallup poll revealing that, “Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’ has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32% saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is down eight percentage points from last year.”
On the other hand, many people name one specific source (e.g. CNN, Fox, Breitbart, Buzzfeed, Facebook) as their primary or exclusive source of news. Consider this Gallup poll, revealing that “Americans are becoming less likely to view their news sources in terms of how they get news — radio, television, print or internet — and more in terms of who specifically provides it.”
Instead of combining a pervasive distrust of media in general with a loyal allegiance to one outlet in particular, we should expose ourselves to a variety of media outlets, using our critical faculties to find the truth amidst the competing voices. (In this article, I list my “6 Go-To Sources for Political News and Opinion.”)
Find ways to support honest journalists and outlets.
Finally, find ways to support honest journalists and outlets. More than any other institution, the press is tasked with guarding truth in the public square. As Peter Stockland put it recently, “Journalists are no more (and, admittedly, no less) than citizens who have taken it upon themselves to pass [trustworthy] information on to their fellow citizens and therefore obliged to respect the common good, the common order, and, above all, the common law.”
Therefore, when a news outlet, reporter, or opinion writer guards that task well, reward them. Send an email thanking them. Leave a comment on their web article. Commit to read their articles or watch their show regularly.
The past year in American politics has borne a lot of rotten fruit, including a surge in fake news and intentional misinformation. The purveyors of falsehood have been malicious, and We the People have been gullible. As citizens, we need to find our way through the morass of lies, exaggerations, and half-truths. It’s up to us to demand honesty and integrity from journalists, writers, and pundits just as we demand wisdom and discernment from ourselves and fellow citizens as we imbibe news and opinion.