How to vaccinate yourself against fake news
November 12th, 2018
Fake news is as old as humanity. There are tales of hoaxes, deceptions, and propaganda as far back as Ancient Egypt Rameses the Great. The Romans spread lies about Christians. Jewish communities have been targets of negative propaganda for centuries. Supporters of slavery spread lies about African-Americans. Victorians fell for the great moon hoax. The Soviet Union’s propaganda machine managed to hide horrific atrocities such as the Holodomor.
Fake news spread widely after the invention of the printing press. In the modern age, journalists have devised codes of ethics and many countries have press watchdogs. The British press has frequently been called out for unethical behaviour. Campaigners have often called for retractions and corrections of errors to be more prominent.
Now we are in social media age, hoaxes, fakes, and falsehoods are even easier to spread than ever. You don’t have to be a trained journalist working for a recognized publication to set up a website or a social media account. The scandal of “troll farms” – many from Russia – being used to target voters is a new form of political propaganda, faster, slicker, and harder to regulate than ever before.
There are obvious checks – is the source reputable? Is the author reliable? These can be hard questions to answer, and even the most reliable of journalists can make a mistake. However, there’s a difference between honest mistakes – typos, numbers the wrong way round – and deliberate falsehoods.
Traditionally, being able to find the same information in at least 3 independent sources was a good check. Nowadays, with so much syndicated content, copy-pasted content, and “churnalism”, it is harder to tell if different sources really are independent, or if they have just used the same original source. If the original is wrong, then the errors get repeated and circulated.
So, common sense can be very useful. Is the story plausible? Could it be fact checked? What exactly are the real events that it is relating? Most of the news isn’t really about events. It is about what people are saying, their opinions, and speculations. If you read with an eye for identifying actual, verifiable events, then you will be looking past the talk.
If you break a story down in this way, you can then form your own opinion about how to spin it. This helps to highlight the political propaganda aspects of a report. Who are you supposed to sympathise with? Who is being criticized? Who is being praised? What does that say about the biases and sympathies of the author or the source?
Who is making money out of the story – is it content marketing or a press release? Who will profit from you believing it? How is the author trying to make you feel?
What are they hoping you will do? Are they trying to persuade you that the government should spend more money on education, or a war, or healthcare? Do they want you to buy something or go somewhere?
By reading with these sorts of questions in mind, you can detach yourself from the immediate impact of the article. You can then isolate the actual facts that are being asserted and form your own opinion. At that point, in a way, the facts don’t matter – you can check them later – you are aware of the positioning of the article and so are unlikely to be unduly influenced by it, even if it does turn out to be fake.
The danger with fake news is that it prompts us to make bad decisions and act against our own best interests. If we are alert to the possibility an article could be fake and could be trying to deceive us, then we are more likely to be cautious in any decisions we make as a result of reading it. We are more likely to use our own existing beliefs to form our own judgements about the news, rather than believing everything we read.
If we think about what political position the article is trying to make us take, we can then decide whether we want to be persuaded or not. We can think about whether we want to investigate further, or just dismiss it as nonsense. We can reflect on the core beliefs it promotes and challenges, and whether this would change our beliefs were it to be proven undeniably true.
For example, if there is a story about an immigrant committing a crime, it is likely the bias is agains the immigrant. It is possible the bias is favouring the immigrant – perhaps a story of redemption or forgiveness. If we already believe that it is wrong to punish a category or group of people for the failings of one individual, then we are not going to start accusing all immigrants of being criminals on the basis of this one story. Should we really wish to know if the story is true, we could check court records or other official versions until we had convinced ourselves of the evidence.
So, the first vaccination against fake news is our own vigilance, good hearts, and common sense.
The second vaccination is a free press, while the third is transparent democratic institutions such as the legal system and public archives. More about these in future posts!