Fake News 101: What can we do to fight fake news?

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last part of a three-part series. If you missed Part I and Part II, you can find them through the links. -VFF

The term “fake news” gets thrown around the way the word “internet” used to be thrown around: Everyone is using it, dealing with it and thinking it’s something it’s actually not. For the sake of this post, we’re going to define “fake news” as content posted that the authors know to be false with the intent of fooling readers into believing it to be real.

If you think about it that way, the questions that come into focus are simple even as their answers are complex:

  • Who posts this kind of content and why do they do it?
  • Why do we believe the stuff, especially the really outlandish stuff?
  • What can we do to stop its spread or at least its impact?

This is the last part of a three-part series discussing each of these questions in hopes of helping you get a stronger handle on this topic. Today’s post looks at how we can out-think a situation in which fake news is likely to mess with us:

Fake news has become a prevalent part of people’s daily media consumption and it shows no sign of slowing down any time soon. The ability for people to make money from splashy, fraudulent headlines and slanted, fake stories ensure that journalists will continue to face an uphill battle as we try to inform people and keep them from being snowed.

The New York Times walked through one such situation in which an Austin, Texas, businessman with a handful of Twitter followers sparked a viral fervor in about 48 hours.

The day after the 2016 presidential election, Eric Tucker posted several photos of buses gathered near a hotel and stated that, “Anti-Trump protestors in Austin today are not as organic as they seem. Here are the busses (sic) they came in.”

Tucker turned out to be wrong, as the buses were connected to a software company that held a conference in town that week. However, the tweet was shared more than 16,000 times, leading to coverage on multiple blogs and websites. Even the president-elect tweeted about how “unfair” the busing in of protesters was

Local news outlets began poking at the story to find out what was going on. Coach USA, the company that owned the buses, had to put out a statement that its fleet had no connection to any anti-Trump protests. Tableau, the software company that hired the buses, also made a statement to local media outlets to claim credit for the buses. Snopes, an internet fact-checking site, stated the busing of protesters was untrue. However, the tweet continued to generate a massive amount of attention. Tucker eventually found out he was wrong and labeled his work as such, but the spread of the falsehood far exceeded anything a correction could hope to refute.

In the middle of this mess, Tucker received multiple inquiries about how he knew the buses carried anti-Trump protesters and how he verified his information. In the Times article, he was quoted as saying, “I’m also a very busy businessman and I don’t have time to fact-check everything that I put out there, especially when I don’t think it’s going out there for wide consumption.” (emphasis added for the sake of pointing out the line that made me slam my head into my desk repeatedly)

As journalists, our job is to both avoid getting duped but also to help other people see the importance of being right before they share information.

The first issue to address is our ability to spot the fake news. We’ve talked about this before on the blog, even offering folks a free copy of this poster if they wanted a big one for a classroom or newsroom:

Beyond those basics, we need to look at how we think about news overall. As part of her work with the Power Shift Project for the Freedom Forum Institute, critical-thinking expert Jill Geissler has developed a list of things that critical thinkers do. Here are a few of those items that will help you avoid the snares of fake news and help teach others how to keep themselves out of trouble:

  • Check for biases, including your own: We talked about this in the previous post when we discussed the idea of self-confirming biases and how they can lead people to believe things that aren’t accurate. It is this predisposition to being biased in favor of something (or against something else) that leads us to want to find things that support our own way of thinking. To avoid adding to the chorus of inaccuracy, stop and think about how bias may play a role in your likelihood to believe in something.
  • Dig beyond the surface: This is where journalists tend to separate themselves from private citizens in terms of critical thought. The motto of “If your mother says she loves you, go check it out,” perfectly captures our desire to find the root of all information and the accuracy of it. Digging into something can be as simple as finding the key source of a statement like Tucker’s, or it can be as complex as building data sets to refute a politician’s statement about who donated to his campaign. The goal in digging is to make sure that when you do decide to share information or publish articles (or even retweet something), you feel as confident as you can that the information is accurate.
  • Identify stakeholders: Journalists have a long tradition of figuring out what Side A thinks and why and what Side B thinks and why. To identify stakeholders in today’s era of fake news, it goes beyond that and requires deeper digging. As mentioned we discussed in the first post of the series, the stakeholders of fake-news farms have a simple reason for creating false news: money. The people who share and reshare the content on certain websites can also be driven by financial desires, but in some cases, it’s about gaining popularity, promoting an ideological agenda or just being a dink.
    When you dig into a topic, you want to identify a wide variety of potential stakeholders, including people who are directly involved with making something happen. That said, always keep an eye on those folks who have a way of benefiting or losing from the actions of others.
  • Consider alternatives: One of the questions someone asked Tucker after his anti-Trump-protest tweet went viral was whether there could be another explanation for the buses being in Austin. His response was that he considered that briefly but discarded it quickly.
    As journalists, we want to do more than skip past plausible explanations for things that don’t support our presuppositions. The goal each time we ply our trade is to tell the audience an accurate story, so in many cases, we need to pick through plausible alternatives to what we are telling them and figure out to what degree they could be accurate. Seeing the buses, a critical thinker would wonder why they were there. It was plausible they hauled protesters from out of state, but it could be equally plausible that they brought people in for a multi-level-marketing company rally or a Coach USA convention where everyone brought their own bus. A quick call to the bus company or the hotels nearby would have helped cut this guesswork off at the pass.

In terms of “fixing” others who find themselves enamored by fake news, this can be both problematic and infuriating, especially for journalists who make this their living. It would be like us walking into their place of work and telling them, “See how you’re running this machine? It’s totally wrong. I read this thing on the internet and you’re just lying and faking stuff. Now, let me turn some knobs and buttons because I know better than you do…”

Here are some things experts have found that can be helpful to keep in mind when trying to deal with people who don’t want to hear what we have to say in regard to fake news. Not all of these will work perfectly or even well, but they are more successful than our tradition of trying to bludgeon people to death with information from Snopes:

Nobody reacts well to being told “You’re Wrong.” The instinct we have as people is to address peace with peace and war with war. It’s a lizard-brain thing, but when someone says with absolute certainty that Hillary Clinton is running a child sex-slave ring out of a pizza joint, we want to respond with absolute certainty that the speaker has a two-digit IQ. Immediately both sides dig in and nothing gets done.

One techniques psychologists have found helpful in breaking people of their beliefs in inaccurate or dangerous things is to engage the person with questions about the material, the source and the information in a way that is non-threatening. So instead of saying, “What a bunch of crap that is” try, “I hadn’t seen that on any of my regular news sites. Where did you see that?” It starts a dialogue that allows the person to operate without heightened defenses and starts to allow the person to unwrap the situation on his or her own terms. Continued questions will move that person away from the certainty, allowing for potential self-correction later.

Fights like this are emotional, not rational. When we say, “You’re wrong,” to someone invested enough in a topic to discuss it in a public or semi-public setting, what we are trying to say is, “As a journalist, I work in this area and there are a number of things that trouble me enough about this to doubt it’s accurate. I just want to help you see what I see.” What the person hears is, “You, not just this information, but you personally and your position on whatever topic you’re trying to support with this nonsense are wrong.”

In explaining how to talk to people about fake news, Claire Wardle, executive director of First Draft, explained it this way:

“We’re human and driven by emotion,” says Wardle. When you reject someone’s views on contentious political issues such as gun violence or abortion, you’re challenging their identity.

To prevent this from happening, a good way to reach out is through perspective-taking actions. It shows that you understand their core beliefs, which you acknowledge they are entitled to, but that this information they are using to support those beliefs needs to be better.

It could be something like, “Grandpa, I know you don’t like Hillary Clinton, and you’ve said that a number of times over the past 30 years. I don’t agree with you on her, but I understand that’s how you feel about her.”

Then, provide grandpa with the information that will show why it is that this story about her colonizing Mars with stem-cell embryos to build a colony of liberals on welfare who will plant trees in every coal mine in America isn’t the best way to help other people see why he hates HRC.

Understand that certain people are targets. People who are older and less technologically savvy are the targets for the fake-news farms we talked about throughout the series. The reasons are pretty obvious, once you stop and think about it:

  • Older people tend to have more money, more civic engagement, more free time, and less experience with technology.
  • Older people are often more at risk for certain things, such as the pandemic noted in the article linked above. This means they’re more likely to search out information to protect themselves, but again, are less likely to know where to go.
  • People who are less technologically savvy tend to have lower education or socio-economic status, which puts them into a position of limited nuance. Research on everything from color choices to informational outcomes dictates they prefer thing that are simple, common and familiar. Absolutism in black and white fits that bill.

Above all else, many people who are older tend to trust the media because they spent much of their lives with media they could trust. Newspapers and Walter Cronkite gave them the straight story.

The story that will always resonate for me was the time I came home from college and stopped over to see my grandmother for our family’s traditional Friday night gathering. She was upset and confused because she read in the Cudahy Reminder (the local newspaper) that there was going to be a fish fry at the Kelly Senior Center that night at 5 p.m.

When she went there, there was no fish fry.

The more I tried to explain to her that it might be a mistake or that the paper might have screwed up, the worse it got. In her mind, if the Cudahy Reminder said there was going to be a fish fry at the Kelly Center on Friday at 5 p.m., well, then, dammit, there was GOING TO BE a fish fry at the Kelly Center at 5 p.m.

On the flip side, people with less education or lower socio-economic status, regardless of age, are less likely to trust the media. Therefore, whenever they get a story that tells them everyone out there at NBC and CBS with their fancy suits and their big studios have been lying to them, they’ll buy into whatever “inside scoop” the fake news folks will tell them.

And, again, nobody, lest of all people who feel like they are marginalized or like they’re starting to lose their grip on reality, want to hear from people they know, “You’re wrong.”

To help folks in this position, organizations like the New York Times are working to develop programs meant to inoculate certain groups against fake news. They not only provide information in a way that speaks to them at their level of understanding (whatever it may be), but it comes to them based on their choice to engage. In short, it allows them to decide how and when to challenge their own assumptions.


PICK THE HILL YOU’RE WILLING TO DIE ON: As we’ve discussed before, there are certain things that really matter and we’re willing to give it all to that discussion. We’ll fight it out, regardless of the odds or the enemy, because it really matters a great deal. In other words, we have decided this is a hill we’re willing to die on.

When it comes to trying to disabuse people we know about the facts associated with fake news, it can feel like we’re ready to die on every hill, every day and in every conversation. Facts are our stock and trade, so to abuse them in this fashion can feel an awful lot like someone just told us we have the ugliest baby they’ve ever seen.

However, experts agree that, despite our best efforts, we’re not going to change hearts and minds in most cases. Too many people are too far down the rabbit hole to pull them back out. If that’s the case, consider how much energy you want to put into this. If the answer is, “This is annoying, but its not the hill I’m willing to die on,” then the best answer is to diffuse the situation with a statement that shows you’re unwilling to engage:

“Uncle Jim, I understand you think Joe Biden is on a super cocktail of Ritalin, PCP and Bang energy drink to keep him alive during the debates, but I don’t, and nothing either of us is going to say is going to matter much here, so I really don’t want to talk about it.”

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