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Don’t Be Fooled: How to Spot Fake News and False Information

Seven strategies for becoming a smarter consumer, and a better-informed citizen.

Whether you’re watching or reading the news or gathering information, it’s more important than ever to become a savvy consumer. From the pandemic to protests to politics, the future is literally at stake. Our lives depend on us knowing the truth about Covid-19. Our communities depend on us to know the truth about racial disparities, injustices, and oppression. Our democracy depends on us to know the truth about voting rights, voting methods, and who we’re voting for.

The Problems

Do you assume that when information is published or broadcast, it must be true? Are you especially trusting if the content is put forth by an official-sounding organization, a charismatic personality, or an entity that reports “the news” in a way that suits your worldview?

Unfortunately, humans are gullible. Even reputable news organizations have mistakenly quoted news-parody sources, such as The Onion. Far more troubling, some organizations are intent on spinning the news to confirm viewers' biases or fan fears, instead of accurately reporting the facts. You might tune in because you sense, “They tell me what I want to hear." Or, "They tell it like it really is.”

Even worse, humans are prone to sharing disinformation. Disinformation is a scourge, specifically created to deceive us. It distorts or disregards the facts to promote an agenda. Or it manufactures stories to sow fear, chaos, and helplessness. When you share disinformation, you’re equal to the bots tasked with its malignant spread. And you’re making someone (not you) more rich and powerful, rather than making the world a better place where everyone can thrive.

Also remember, access to many websites is free. When you owe them nothing, they owe you nothing, making it far too easy for you to become ill-informed. Social media sites and Internet servers are increasing fact-checking efforts, but can they hold back the flood of clickbaits, foreign meddlers, and homegrown deceivers?

That’s why it’s up to you to be a careful consumer of news and information. It’s up to you to determine what is true, and what to believe. It’s up to you to not be fooled.

The Solutions

Here are seven strategies for being a smart consumer of news and information, and therefore, a well-informed citizen.

Check your intuition. Does the news or information strike you as unbelievable, unreasonable, or extreme? Do you feel skeptical, suspicious, or uneasy? Are you questioning, doubting, or distrustful? Are they claiming that government or “experts” are hiding “the truth”? These are all signs that you’re detecting fake, inaccurate, or deceptive information.

Check the source. Look closely at websites and check for signs of reliability and trustworthiness. For example, is the content well-designed, easy to read, and easy to navigate? Are there a variety of reasonable articles or comprehensive coverage of topics? Does the site provide a clear description of its mission? Is it transparent about its staff, funding, partners, and headquarters? If these features are lacking, be wary.

Check your bias. Does the source consistently present content that aligns with your set opinions about certain people or topics? Does it only showcase opinions that mirror your perspectives on the issues? Or does it challenge you to consider all the facts, keep an open mind as new facts come to light, look at topics from different perspectives, and think outside your echo chamber?

Check the images. Fake news stories use images that have been altered or taken out of context. How can you tell? Look for signs of incompatible lighting or fuzzy, incomplete borders between people and/or objects. Has the image appeared in other stories that are similar, or unrelated? Use Google Reverse Image search to check where else an image has appeared.

Check out the facts. Is the story or information factual? Are the facts accurately portrayed? Do they appear in a variety of other places? If you can find information that is consistent across different sources, it is more likely to be accurate. Plus, if a story appears in many big news organizations, it is likely to be accurate as they check sources and facts before publishing a story—and they openly correct their errors.

Check for facts versus opinions, bias, and fiction—and know the difference.

  • A fact is objective, unvarnished information that is accurate, clear, and able to be proven. Example: “The Earth is a sphere.”
  • An opinion is a point of view supported by facts, but could also be arguable. Example: “The Earth is the most important planet.” An opposing opinion: “All the planets are important because they yield useful information.” Both opinions are valid, presenting different ways of thinking about the facts, but they are not facts themselves.
  • A bias is a point of view that reflects preferences, values, and prejudgments. Example: “God created Earth.” Another example: “There is no God.” Both of these statements rest on personal, intangible, faith-based perspectives, not facts. Bias is not bad, as long as you’re aware of it and not promoting it as fact. Also be aware of it in others, so you can take it into account as a reader or viewer.
  • A fiction is conjured up in someone’s mind. It does not accurately reflect reality, verifiable facts, or actual events. Example: “The Earth is flat.” Fiction can be harmless and fun, but it can also be used to distract, deceive, and manipulate. Indeed, beware: An “alternative fact” is fiction.

Check for manipulative techniques. For example, ALL CAPS are meant to grab your attention, as are sensational headlines. When you click on a link, are there lots of pop-up ads? This can indicate you’ve been lured into a money-making scheme, with juicy-sounding but baseless or hollow stories. Most telling: Is the information presented in such as way that it stirs strong emotion in you? If a story makes you feel afraid, confused, or outraged, it’s probably intended to make you feel that way. By being aware of when a source or a website is trying to manipulate you, you won’t fall for it.

The Bottom Line

When you believe or share fake news and false information, you’re putting manipulators in charge of what you think or do. Being a smart, careful consumer keeps you well informed about the facts, and lets you control what you read, what you believe, and what you spread.

For more information:

On how to spot fake news.

On discerning between facts, opinions, bias, and fiction.

On how gullible humans are.

On how misinformation makes money.

On how disinformation is used to increase power.

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