Following the news has always been a challenge. There are many reasons for this ranging from intentional manipulation of the news by powerful interests to genuine crappy journalism. While there has always been “fake news”, biased stories and propaganda, the media landscape that perpetuates these stories has evolved into something completely new. In the past, one of the biggest problems with following the news was a lack of accessibility. Now the issue is that there is an overabundance of news. Before the Internet, fake news and propaganda were almost exclusively pushed by a few powerful organizations. The internet has in part helped destroy the old systems of spreading propaganda by providing countless alternative sources, many of which are of high-quality, but it has also caused an entirely new issue; now fake news can come from anyone with an Internet connection. Despite the topic of “fake news” being more prevalent than possibly ever, the fact is that we now have more access to real news than ever before in history. It may seem like a daunting task, but by following a few simple steps you can begin easily navigating the bullshit and getting to the truth.
1.) Check Sources
This may seem obvious, but is apparently something that far too few people take the time to do. The most obvious (and humorous) examples of this are whenever someone posts a story from a satirical site like The Onion thinking that it is actual news. More often, however, people make the mistake of sharing an article without checking the sources cited within the article itself. Whenever a story either has no sources or claims to have insider information from some anonymous source, it should be taken with a boulder-sized grain of salt. Without knowing where they obtained their information, there is no way of knowing if what you are reading is actually a genuine leak or something someone just pulled out of their ass to push an agenda or simply to write an interesting story. When an article does have sources, you should check them as well to make sure they are legitimate. Even well-meaning writers sometimes wind up publishing utter nonsense because they failed to fact-check the sources they were relying on.
2.) Who is Publishing it?
Now, everyone has biases. Every article that has ever been written is biased to some extent since humans are not capable of being entirely objective. However, there is an enormous difference between something written by someone trying his or her best to be as objective as possible, and something published by a person or organization with an agenda. This specific brand of fake news (or propaganda) is sometimes harder to see because instead of outright making stuff up they often rely on obscuring the truth. These types of articles take real events and then frame them in order to help push a certain agenda. This can be done by omitting certain details, unnecessarily tying it to other events or theories, and by subtly inserting opinions to sway the reader’s perception of the story. By knowing the agenda of the publisher it makes it much easier to spot this.
3.) Check Yourself
Now, the biggest problem perpetuating the spread of fake news is not with the writers themselves, but with gullible readers who are too quick to share stories. If there is a golden rule for avoiding falling for nonsense stories it would be this: the more you like what you are reading, the more skeptical you should be. We all love when we see a story that supports our beliefs. This makes it easy for people to forgo any skepticism and go right ahead and share a particular story. This is due to a well-known phenomenon (which we have covered before) called “confirmation bias”. This is also what has helped turn many Internet sites into echo-chambers, where anyone who expresses a dissenting opinion is immediately blocked. If you ever check out certain political subreddits or get involved with commenting on a politically charged twitter thread you will almost certainly experience this for yourself. The commenters who are in agreement with whatever the majority of the community believes gets praised for preaching to the choir, while anyone who even respectfully disagrees gets either barraged with nonsensical hate or simply blocked from the conversation. Now, not everyone is as extreme, but we all do suffer from this to some extent and acknowledging it does a lot to help keep you from falling for a fake story.