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Tips to Spot Bad Apples Online: Volume One

Guidance on how to recognize fake news when you see it (and you will see it).

Fake News As A Form of Entertainment?

I was excited to learn that Channel 4 (U.K.) were to broadcast a week of programming in February on the subject of so-called ‘fake news’ or as I will call it misinformation. A rundown revealed that the event would explore false stories posing as real news, with input from a FactCheck team. The event was a welcome addition to the legacy of satirical shows on Channel 4 (it most notably broadcast the spoof news show 'Brass Eye').

One of the new Channel 4 shows included The Fake News Show, hosted by Stephen Mangan. I like Stephen Mangan. Regrettably, I missed the entire week of programming, including ‘The Fake News Show’. But to my surprise—and delight—I recently discovered that it is now a fully-fledged show in its own right, suggesting that the subject of fake news may have a long-term presence in the world of entertainment.

The Fake News Show

Adopting the conventional panel show format, The Fake News Show takes a look back at major news stories every week, akin to other shows such as Have I Got News For You and Mock The Week. The novelty factor is that it also comments on which news items were false or misleading, name dropping sources which go out of their way to engage in fact-checking.

Source: BBC

Beloved BBC series QI has of course been debunking myths since 2003, but the focus is historical. This new regular show focusing on current events, in the mould of U.S. satirical shows hosted by the likes of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, might just find itself a thirsty audience in the UK.

Why misinformation is important

Misinformation is very dangerous, and therefore very important. Experimental research into conspiratorial thinking finds that belief in conspiracies can have serious consequences such as reduced intention to vaccinate children.

Misinformation concerning vaccinations thrives online. The World Economic Forum lists massive digital misinformation in online social media as one of the biggest threats to society, and rightly so. The Internet has ‘boosted’ conspiracies

We over-estimate the reliability of what we find online. People are far more swayed by conspiracies than they aware of .

Tips to spot conspiracy theories

In their 2014 book American Conspiracy Theories, Uscinski and Parent provide a few simple ‘safety checks’ to take into account when trying to assess how likely a piece of information actually is. These are: Occam’s Razor; Falsifiability; The Worst Intentions Test; The Cui Bono Test; The Eternal Recurrence of the Same Test; and The Impartial Spectator Test.

I won’t go into detail on them all, but instead focus on just one: the impartial spectator test.

This demands adopting the point of view of others. I champion this over the others due to its expected value beyond the realm of misinformation. To adopt the point of view of others involves empathy, which can lead to both trust and understanding—and subsequently cooperation. I can’t really think of anything more important than cooperation. All of the biggest problems we face are shared ones, and we need to work together to solve them.

More tips to stay better informed

Rather than simply unpack which news is or is not fake, entertainment mediums capitalising on the interest in so-called "fake news," including The Fake News Show, would be doing right by me to include tips such as those mapped out above—empowering people to do their own detective work.

There exists a ripe opportunity to promote critical thinking and what researchers from Stanford University refer to as civic online reasoning.

Some other tips can be found here and here, and I would encourage you to check them out. Some tips specifically for children can also be found here.
Oh, and there is this excellent animation. Trust me.

Another good resource is The Skeptical Inquirer magazine. In a recent issue, the editor argued that: "We could say that the whole reason The Skeptical Inquirer exists is to counter misinformation" (Frazier, 2017, p.4).

Indeed, the same recent issued explored the links of statin denialism (yes that’s a thing, where people reject the overwhelming benefits over risks) and the aforementioned pseudoscience surrounding vaccinations (that they cause Autism). It seems there’s not an issue that goes by without this particular topic coming up.

Tetra Images via Getty Images
Source: Tetra Images via Getty Images

As Helfand (2014) explains, also in the same issue: "There was a time when most people writing on a particular topic did so because they had acquired some degree of specialized knowledge" (p. 36). This is no longer the case.

Despite pledges from the likes of Facebook to help tackle misinformation online, we cannot rely upon outside help. We need to develop the tools do spot bad apples online all by ourselves.

More from Steven Caldwell Brown Ph.D.
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