America, we have a problem. Too many of us read and share headlines without any regard for the consequences of fake and erroneous content. And we have incorrectly dismissed the larger cultural impact of these stories. The articles that are normally reserved for the magazine rack in the grocery store have made it into our daily and hourly rituals across social media. We’ve failed to diversify and protect the diversity of our news feeds to welcome critical thinking.
Over the past few years, I’ve been disappointed in how heavily-biased news and satire has permeated over social media that has effectively influenced public perception. Facebook has filled in their demographics well beyond the 20-29-year-old segment. Affordable access to the internet has increased. The cost to use modern computing has decreased. The technology is easier; the barrier to access is lower. I’m suggesting that it’s plausible that less tech-savvy users aid in the proliferation of false content across social media. These macro-level factors likely contribute to the rise of fake news being consumed and shared across Facebook. Certain publishers prey on users’ basal instincts in an effort to sway their behavior and generate ad revenue. We used to trust our media and journalists. If someone wrote a letter containing white-nationalist propaganda containing dogmatic fantasies about the government to the news desk, we thank the editors for filing it in the circular filing cabinet. Now, those ideas are given significant reach, duping people with its anti-establishment allure.
Facebook, among others, has become a powerful media leader. Not by way of radical, tyrannical editors; this power was granted willfully by its 1.8 billion users. The news feed algorithm uses numerous signals to determine if you or I see a status update. Those signals include likes, comments, and shares, the velocity of those reactions, and some of the negative signals (like hides, unfollowing, etc). This creates filter bubbles where the news and information we positively value and congregate around are people think alike like us. This transcends into offline life and interactions where many of us don’t freely associate with people who are different than us. We stick to our own; it’s safer; it’s what our lizard brain has utilized reliably after about 200,000 years.
Our ability to discern between fact and fiction has quickly eroded. And it’s not to say that fiction is wrong. Even as a non-fiction guy myself, I recognize that it’s valuable for people to occasionally wander and escape this reality, too. The ability to identify a couple of facts through a haystack of noise is a skill that can help you go far if your passion is in science, law, medical, education, or really any profession. It’s vital that no matter how precarious our current events become, we must not be informed by others, but must maintain the ability to gather and verify facts ourselves–independently.
But how can we do this? I didn’t learn about proper fact-checking procedures as a part of my curriculum in my American Government classes. I’ll admit that it’s getting tougher especially in this election news cycle. I suggest always remaining healthily skeptical of whatever news you are consuming. Publishers of fake news want three things: money, traffic, and reach. When you share their content, you increase the reach of their message. When that reach increases, it drives traffic to their website. And that cohort of traffic clicks on more advertisements more frequently than others. With this perfect triad, it generates income for publishers and the cycle continues. These faux publishers are not legitimate news organizations. They are content farms that will publish anything if it gets clicks.
Here is how I confirm whether an article I’m reading is factual.
Some of these characteristics could describe the “mainstream media” practices, but I urge you to set aside that idea if even temporarily when evaluating the next news story in your Facebook feed. If a story or claim is legitimate, it will survive without ‘unnatural tacticts’ of psychological warfare.
Level 1: The basics
- Headline – Is the headline intended to evoke an emotional response? Does it clearly state a fact? Does it utilize various click-bait headline formulas?
- Publisher – Has this publisher been reliable to publish legitimate news? Do they maintain editorial guidelines? Does this publisher also post articles critical of previously-covered people and organizations? Lastly, does the publisher put the reader’s interests before its own? For less-established publishers, is it a substantive news organization, or a spam blog?
- Author – Is the author of a given story unnamed? Are they “staff” or simply anonymous? If the author is named, have they been reliable at reporting on stories before? A quick Google search for the author’s name and “Snopes” might be helpful to determine if they have historically published satirical articles.
- Overt bias – In the headline or the lede, is there an overt bias to lure readers to click? Does it accurately reflect the substance of the story or was it exaggerated?
Level 2: Facts versus opinion
- Monetization – Legitimate publishers tend to have stringent advertising standards to not unfairly position advertisers in controversial stories. Most Google AdSense ads adapt to the content keywords shown throughout a story with no automated barriers for advertisers. The standard for using Google AdSense is much lower than that of a reputable display ad network. Short of a display ad here and there, the bulk of the the page should not be comprised of mostly advertising as it’s a strong signal that the publisher is questionable.
- Weasel words – Avoid believing statements where a story contains phrases like: “Some people have said…” (who?), “A number of sources…” (what sources?), “On a condition of anonymity…” (is the source reasonably described and are they factual?), “critics/experts say…” (who? what makes them expert?), or “studies have shown…” (what, where?). These weasel words allow publishers to get away with publishing editorialized opinions without any accountability for them all while appearing factual. If there is an element of fact-checking from the publisher, did they offer competent evidence supporting their claims?
- Uncited sources – Similar to the above, if there are factual sources mentioned, does the article link to them? Does it link directly to the quote, video, study, or evidence? Linking back to www.reuters.com is insufficient and is dishonest to readers. Every claim must be backed or it is invariably false.
- Incredible claims – Does the story claim that it has an “EPIC BOMBSHELL!” when it only produced additional information? Does the headline or various statements in the story position the impact of a story to be devastating, even when splitting hairs over subtle policy matters? Lastly, does the claim go so far as making the merit of the story false? Did someone actually have an earpiece on during a televised debate?
- Lack of disclosing opinions – I’m not against the publishing of opinions. It’s when it is not known if a story is a collection of facts or personal collection of thoughts around a given subject. Be aware of stories or publishers that traditionally publish opinion/editorial content and present them as fact. It should be very clear if an article is opinion-based.
Level 3: Merit
- Data access – If a data leak is being referenced, don’t solely rely on the publisher to interpret its contents. Can you access the contents? Is the interpretation of a leak’s contents cited or referenced accurately? Screenshots can be doctored, so be reasonably skeptical when information was disclosed in an unwanted way. And yes, sometimes data leaks (like John Podesta, Democratic National Committee emails) are legitimate but don’t only become satisfied with one person’s depiction of a leak’s contents.
- Newsworthiness – In light of all the above checks, determine if the story is newsworthy. Not just if you liked the stated opinion or outcome. Would this be valuable for the average reader? Or, is it rehashing the same information with a slightly different take? (In the content marketing business, we call this ‘skinning the cat.’)
- Balanced perspective – This is more of an indictment of the author or editor behind a story, but are they including alternative perspectives around the story? Do they include quotes or third-party sources to add substance to a story? And regarding alternative perspectives, do they give them fair treatment in the story or simply a one-line quote in a 1500-word “exclusive.”
Level 4: Discover the real story via multiple sources.
- Advanced searching – Get familiar with the different Search Operators. These are specific instructions to search Google in ways you never have before. Maybe you want to find all stories from The Washington Post about the iPhone, you would search site:washingtonpost.com “iphone”. Also, you might want to regularly clear your cache and cookies and sign out of Google (and/or opt-out of personalized search results) to be served unfiltered results. When viewing an unbelievable story, search for elements of it in “quotes” around certain factual claims. What types of sites appear? Is it a similar content-farm network, or do credible sources reference such quotes?
- Seek local media for local events – When ‘breaking’ news occurs, you might be informed by one of these questionable sources. Always seek local media sources in the respective area or nearby metropolitan area for information on the ground. In the same respect, don’t immediately believe information published on Twitter until it has been confirmed by multiple, credible sources such as verified local government accounts. This is paramount especially when the public is at risk since local citizens also are trying to access valid news and announcements for their safety.
- Reverse-image searches – This is much easier for Google Chrome users, but when you find an image being shown as the focal point in an article, reverse-image search it. The way it works, when you feed Google an image, it will return the websites that also feature the image. It is not uncommon for some fake news sites to use photos out of context to tell a different story.
- Diversify your news sources – Did you hear of a news story from an aggregator like USUncut or Occupy Democrats, or did you actually encounter it from a variety of sources? A good way to remain impartial is to make use of a news aggregator like Apple News, Google News, Popurls, Feedly, Flipboard and include a handful of sources from different backgrounds. For a liberal like me, I also read content published from The Hill, Politico, the Wall Street Journal for example.
I don’t think that every story I read is unbiased. In fact, I’m willing to admit that most articles I read are biased. Unbiased news does not exist, unless it is produced by a robot or is citing relatively benign earnings reports. To me, bias is valuable is because it crosses the cerebral cortex to add a human element to a given story. Biases are not inherently a terrible thing, it is a human perspective on current events. However, recognize that biases of all kinds exist in the content you read and how it is presented across social media.
America, we can fix this problem. We need to work on it together. When you see grossly inaccurate or biased stories in your news feed, I encourage you to do the research and fact-checking and correct the record. This public service is not intended to make your friends feel stupid. It is intended to empower them to seek additional sources when sharing and syndicating information. At a minimum, I recommend sending a signal to Facebook to “Hide this story” or “Hide all from this Publisher” when it is without contest, a toxic publisher with unquestionably false stories. Don’t hide content you merely disagree with—fight to maintain the diversity of publishers so you are informed and not another member of the echo chamber. Engage with friends and pages you disagree with in a healthy and informed way and don’t give in to the urge to attack or hurl insults.
If you find quality and diverse stories helpful, reward those publishers and journalists with the votes that matter: your wallet and your browser. Legitimate news organizations offer premium access for subscribers for a few dollars a month. If you use AdBlock/uBlock, show your support by whitelisting publishers so they can count your visits, serve quality ads and get paid for your presence if you don’t have a few dollars a month. What is an informative, insightful, balanced story worth to you? You decide.
Photo credit: sh4rp_i, Theen Moy