President Trump and I have one thing in common: We both detest fake news. But the term “fake news” has different meanings for each of us, and for many Americans.
For Trump, fake news seems to be media content that is either critical of him and/or outright false. My definition of fake news is a groundless rumor, baseless speculation of a conspiracy, or a story fabricated out of whole cloth or distorted or exaggerated beyond recognition.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find an American who doesn’t bemoan the existence of one or more of the above. If there’s one thing we all seem to agree on, it’s that we’ve got a truth problem.
It’s hard to conceive of what could be more destabilizing to democracy than the absence of a shared foundation for observing and interpreting reality. Nor is there anything more corrosive to the social fabric than distrust. Whereas in 1960, 58% of Americans believed most people could be trusted, that percentage was cut in half by 2014.[i] The political arena has become a not-so-funhouse in which a handful of ne’er-do-wells confuse and disorient the rest of us with their smoke and mirrors.
The human mind isn’t good with chaos. We get enraged at the purveyors, frustrated by the duped victims who seem to live in a parallel universe, and utterly dazed, demoralized and worn out by the whole sorry state of affairs. The choice seems to be polarization (“I hate those dupes more than ever”) or apathy (“I’m so bewildered and disgusted, I give up!”)
In the final weeks of the 2016 election, one in four Americans clicked on a fake news story. At this point, you may be saying to yourself, “Well, it’s certainly a pity that those fools on the other side of the aisle believe every fake news story they see, but my team doesn’t fall for it.”
But I’m here to tell you something uncomfortable—if you’ll trust me and my highly reputable sources–that we all fall for it and that we can all learn to become savvier news consumers. There’s even a silver lining to the polarization of truth—someone on the other team is your best resource for helping you separate fact from fiction.
In a study done last year, researchers created fictitious stories about Obama and Trump and showed them to liberals and conservatives. As predicted, liberals ate up the phony stories that portrayed Obama in a favorable light and the phony stories that portrayed Trump negatively. Conservatives, to the same degree as liberals, bought the phony stories that portrayed Trump in a favorable light and the phony stories that portrayed Obama negatively. The study confirmed that people believe what they want to believe or, to put it more scientifically, engage in “motivated reasoning.”
Though motivated reasoning is an equal-opportunity cognitive error, there is a greater volume of fake news content aimed at conservatives than at liberals. And, according to at least one study, people over the age of 65 and conservatives are the most likely to share fake news stories, though these are probably functions not of greater gullibility, but of the larger volume of disinformation tailored for these groups.
Another group of people who are more susceptible to believing fake news are those who have sub-par analytical abilities, according to one recent study. Here’s a quick test: A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? (The correct answer is in the footnote below.)[ii] If you got it wrong, that doesn’t mean you’re unintelligent or a poor analyst across the board—it just means you may need to make more of a conscious effort to slow down and be skeptical of juicy headlines.
Sometimes, fake news is the product of profit-driven mischief-makers. Jestin Coler got his start by fabricating a story that Obama used his own money to keep a Muslim museum open during a government shutdown. To Coler’s astonishment, Fox News covered the hoax as actual news.[iii] Coler went on, by his own admission, to monetize his penchant for lying after realizing he could rake in pay-per-click ad revenue. Most vexing of all, when he confessed to his victims that he had made up stories out of whole cloth, some of them said they didn’t care, that even if that one story was fabricated, that there are probably other stories just like it that are true. I’ll pause now for a brief intermission while you bang your head against the wall. Done yet? Okay…
The Jestin Colers aside, fake news is often the work of professional propagandists trying to influence elections. For example, in 2017, a handful of rogue Democrats created a fake “Dry Alabama” Facebook page falsely associating Republican candidate Roy Moore with a non-existent campaign to ban alcohol in Alabama. And who can forget the Pizzagate hoax that had millions of Americans believing that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a Washington, D.C. pizzeria?
In the months before the 2016 election, the top 20 fake news stories outperformed top 20 real news, meaning they got more shares, comments and reactions. According to the non-partisan fact-checking site Snopes, right-wing fake news tends to exploit racial fears, while left-wing fake news preys on wishful thinking concerning Trump’s imminent downfall. Heading into 2020, Facebook has announced that it will not fact-check political ads and will not prevent political ads from being targeted at certain groups.
Okay, to sum up: fake news is bad, and fake news is rampant. So what can we do about it?
First of all, don’t be too hard on yourself (or others) for getting bamboozled. By the same token, have enough humility to admit that you likely have been fooled at some point in the past few years, and that your BS detector probably isn’t as good as you think it is. We take in more information in a day than our ancestors did in a lifetime, and it’s hard if not impossible to parse all of it. In 1968, at the dawn of the age of modern mass media, philosopher Marshall McLuhan said, “When you give people too much information, they instantly revert to pattern recognition…An electronic world retribalizes man.” McLuhan could not even have begun to imagine the 24-hour news and social media cycle that has oversaturated our primate brains beyond the breaking point.
Second, think before you share. Ask yourself questions such as:
- Does the article contain hyperlinks to primary sources?
- Who/what are the sources and how trustworthy are they? What motives might they have for lying? Do they have direct knowledge of the reported events, or do they possess relevant expertise regarding the context?
- Is the media outlet a reputable one? Who are its owners, advertisers and underwriters? Read about the outlet on Wikipedia, which has earned a reputation for being as accurate as the illustrious Encyclopedia Britannica. If anyone has voiced concerns about an outlet’s veracity or its owner’s conflicts of interest, you can read all about it—along with rebuttals—on Wikipedia. (Wikipedia also has a list of some of the more notorious fake news sites.)
- How many times have you encountered this story? Repetition doesn’t make it false, but be aware that repetition is a classic propaganda technique—the more a lie is told, the more it starts to seem true.
- Are you assuming the story is false because you don’t like the political ramifications of it being true?
- Are you assuming a story is false because the reporting seems biased to you? Bias is its own problem, but a biased story is not necessarily a false one.
- Is the story a bombshell? If it is, and it’s not being reported by a major news outlet like the AP, Reuters, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post or New York Times, proceed with caution. Someone promoting a fictitious story is much more likely to approach a smaller outlet that lacks the resources to properly vet a big story. For example, when a woman tried to sell a false story of having been impregnated as a teenager by Roy Moore, the Washington Post reporter saw right through her. These outlets are not infallible, especially when it comes to substantiating information given to them by intelligence officials, but they do employ hundreds of highly skilled editors and reporters who are on the ground investigating dozens of stories every day and bound by a code of journalistic ethics.
- What do fact-checking sites like Snopes and PolitiFact say about it? These sites have the staff to dig deeper than you will probably ever have time or inclination for. When they rate a story as true or false, they’re transparent about what facts they found and what their reasoning process was.
If you think a story has holes, contact the outlet’s Public Editor or write a letter to the editor sharing your concerns and asking for more information. You can report suspicious stories you encounter on Facebook to Unfakery, an initiative launched by Houston Tea Party founder Felicia Cravens to ferret out fake news stories and report them to Facebook.
If you’re having a conversation with someone who accepts as credible what you suspect may be fake news, here are some questions you can gently ask them.
- Where did you hear about that?
- Have you found that to be a reliable source in the past?
- What have you experienced or what do you know that makes you believe this is true?
- Are there any aspects of the story that you’re not sure about or would like to see more evidence about?
- Does the source or whoever is promoting the story have a stake in wanting people to believe it or are they neutral?
- Do you have any hope that it’s not true?
- What do you think should be done about it?
- If more people believed it, what do you think would happen?
Offer to take a look at the story rather than dismissing it out of hand as fake. Share a story of a time you were fooled. Say why you have your doubts about the story but, no matter how ludicrous it is, don’t say, “That’s BS, there’s no way that’s true.” The more subjective you are in expressing your disbelief, the less defensive the other person will be and the more likely they are to consider whether your skepticism has merit.
Turning the tables, if you’re talking to someone who is challenging a story you see as credible, you can ask:
- What have you experienced or what do you know that makes you believe this story isn’t true?
- What do you think their motive is for making it up?
- Would it be upsetting to you if the story is true?
- To what degree are you relying on Person X (the subject of the story) dismissing it as fake news and to what degree have you checked it out for yourself. (Note, Trump has been open about his strategy of pre-emptively discrediting the media. According to CBS reporter Lesley Stahl, Trump told her he attacks the press “to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.”)
If the issue is the person’s distrust of experts, you can ask:
- What do you think would make them say that if it weren’t true?
- If they doubt the scientific consensus…Do you think all of the scientists are mistaken? Do you believe they coordinate their research to put out a false explanation?
- How do you handle it in your own life when you have to consult an expert, like a doctor, and you’re not sure you trust them?
Rigorous, respectful conversations across the divide can help expose false and misleading stories. At the same time, what we do as individuals cannot, in my view, solve the problem. I believe the Fairness Doctrine, eliminated in 1987, should be reinstated. (The Fairness Doctrine required broadcast media outlets to give air time to contrasting views.) Online political ads should be independently fact-checked and required to disclose funders. I also think media literacy should be taught in high school and that media itself should have a firewall between news and opinion. Media outlets should educate consumers about what goes on behind the scenes to report the news and how they, as professionals, vet stories. And candidates should follow Elizabeth Warren’s lead and pledge not to promote fraudulent content.
fine line between healthy skepticism and cynically disbelieving everything.
Learning to walk that line is a democratic virtue and, I believe, a duty we
cannot afford to shirk.
[i] Joel Stein, In Defense of Elitism, p. 191
[ii] Five cents
[iii] Stein at 185-88.