Fake news is a problem. It pervades our consumption of media, and we live in a society that actively facilities its spread. Ultimately, sensationalism sells, which means it’s easy and attractive to share content, without considering its origin, its truth, or its relevance. Even worse, countless studies highlight the impact of fake news, which leans into our natural disposition for truth bias (Truth Default Theory) and which can have disastrous consequences.
In 2016, the #PizzaGate shooting incident in Washington D.C. was triggered by a disinformation smear campaign aimed at Hilary Clinton during the Presidential Race. It was claimed that the Comet Ping Pong pizza shop was in fact a front for a paedophile sex ring, headed by Clinton. Threats to the pizza shop grew as the news spread, culminating in a shooting in which thankfully no one was killed. This is just one of many examples of the direct consequence of fake news, but its effects also persist in influencing election results, influencing public opinion on key topics such as vaccinations and scientific discovery, and even influencing relations between individuals at a granular level.
Fake news may seem like a relatively recent problem, fuelled by the explosion of digital media, but in fact fake news and sensationalism has been around much longer. In 1835 the New York Sun newspaper published “evidence” of an alien civilisation on the moon (see The Great Moon Hoax) turning it into a sought-after paper, meanwhile in the 1890’s, newspaper rivals Pulitzer and Hearst adopted the practice of “yellow journalism”, publishing rumours as facts in a bid to draw readers. What has changed with the explosion of digital media is that now, anyone can be a content creator (including those generating disinformation with intent); content is easily shared; and it is easily manipulated to make one thing look like another.
A study by Journolink found that 45% of British adults believe that they encounter fake news online every day, while analysis by Statista highlights that 80% of US adults have consumed fake news. According to PEW Research, more than 50% of US adults believe that fake news is a significant problem, and a study by Deloitte identified that 44% of people believe traditional sources can’t be trusted. The list goes on.
Our media-filled lives are chock-full of fake news, misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and even flat out lies. What’s worse is that the term “fake news” while coined to refer to the spread of fictional content, has been subsumed and redefined by some modern politicians (most notably the Trump Administration) as any news story with which they disagreed regardless of its basis in fact, or not. Even satire, a genre created specifically for its humour, has found itself at the centre of the fake news whirlwind with content created purely for entertainment shared as “factual” pieces.
So how do you dodge the dangers of fake news? Here’s what you need to ask yourself:
How did you come across it?
As we’ve already addressed, sensationalism sells, so the more sensational, interesting or different a story is, the more likely it is to be shared. If you’re reading the original source, and that original source is largely credible, you can put more (but not total) trust in the content. If the content was shared by your friend Bob’s great auntie Marge, and comes from a less reputable source, this should be a major red flag for what you are reading.
Ideally, you need to try to verify the source before delving into the content. As we explored in our blog on Truth Bias, our brain indexes content as “primary” and “meta” information. Primary information, regardless of source or credibility, will persist as the most influential information we receive, even if we later disprove its credibility. You can validate the credibility by considering:
- Is this version the original? Or is it a syndication or adaptation of the original?
- Who wrote the article? What else have they written and what is their political leaning or bias?
- When was it first published? Is this new content, or something old being passed off as new?
- What is the URL? Look closely as there are plenty of sites using similar URLs to pass themselves off as the original.
What was your reaction?
While plenty of legitimate news stories, personal stories, and content are emotive, fake news is specifically designed to incite an emotional reaction. That means having an emotional reaction can be a clue that what you are reading is fake. You should also consider whether you had the same reaction to the headline as you did after reading the content, as often “click bait” titles bear little or no resemblance to the content that follows. Consider whether the article feels legit, or whether you are potentially being manipulated.
Who benefits from it?
Misinformation is content that is fake, but not deliberately so, for example generated off the back of a rumour. Disinformation is content that is fake and deliberately so, including propaganda and content designed to manipulate the masses. Recent years have been a hotbed of disinformation campaigns, designed to destabilise governments and economies through election influencing, fuel health and vaccination conspiracy, and even legitimise international unrest. The question to consider is who profits?
You can check the source by looking at the wider website. If you’re unfamiliar with the organisation that is publishing the content, can you find their aims and objectives easily enough, and do they match the content you are reading? You can also spot things such as whether the article has been paid for by a company, whether the sources are cited, and whether the article itself has been peer reviewed.
Have you checked alternative sources?
Fact-checking, which can be effectively done through lateral reading, allows you to consider whether the story is being widely reported, how it is presented by alternative sources, and is there a general consensus on the content. It’s important to note what statements are shared by multiple sources and where they differ, allowing you to get to the crux of the issue.
As we explore in our rule of five blog, deliberately consulting multiple sources of information on the same story, helps you to overcome your own bias, as well as facilitating critical thinking. It also helps to increase the effects of good-quality information, while reducing the impact of poor-quality reporting, such as using a source that isn’t a credible expert, and presenting multiple viewpoints on the same topic.
What is your own bias?
The best critical thinkers are able to become aware of their own bias. Bias is not inherently bad – you are allowed to have your own political and social opinions and beliefs – but it is important that this bias does not leave you in danger of manipulation. As we explore in our blog on confirmation bias, we are predisposed to liking familiar things, so the less aware we are of our own bias, the less able we are to combat it, and ultimately, the narrower our opinions become.
Ultimately, the key is to keep practising that critical thinking, and help break the cycle of fake news.