By Matthew Wojtechko
It’s a concept that, today, needs no introduction. When I say “fake news,” you instantly know what I mean (news that is fake) and probably have some kind of emotional reaction (“I can’t believe what people believe these days,” “darn fake news,” “grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr”).
The thing is, even though we are all probably on the same page with that much, I’m sure we all differ wildly on what we identify as the sources of the fake news. You know… that darn pesky other side that can’t even tell up from down – or worse, is knowingly malicious – they believe the craziest of things!
With such a mindset so abundant everywhere you look, what we really need is an open discussion about fake news that everyone is willing to be a part of, right? But as we all know, the terrain of discourse on this subject is a minefield of controversy – one false step one way and kaboom! Half of everybody explodes in disagreement. Another the other way and there goes the other half…
That’s no good. What we really need is someone to reach through to everyone to produce a fruitful, unified discussion without setting anyone off. But who is that person? Who can thread this needle of harmony? Who can walk this tenuous tightrope, conserve the crumbling middle ground? It is me? I dunno. But I’ll try.
So let’s dive into the real news on fake news! To start, let’s figure out who exactly is vulnerable to believing and spreading fake news. Let’s start with… you! Are you one of those people?
Trick question! Everyone is vulnerable to fake news. No, not just the wingnuts, the dingalings, or the knucklehead mcspazatrons – all people. Science says so! And if you answered “no,” well then I got some bad news for you buddy… you could be even more at risk. Fake news preys on the unsuspecting, I believe, and if someone thinks they are infallible, then they are unsuspecting. I say this as someone who is aware of his own susceptibility to being fooled, strives to overcome it, writes an editorial about, yet acknowledges (with some disappointment) that he’s probably still been fooled into believing fake news at some point and hasn’t even realized it!
But we shouldn’t feel too bad about acknowledging this deficiency – it’s how we’re wired! Let’s get psychological…
Confirmation bias and conformity bias influence all of us. Let’s face it: if we hear news that confirms our preexisting beliefs, we have a tendency to accept that news without being critical about it. And this happens even if your beliefs are true – the news may seem to fit in with other true information, but that doesn’t mean the news itself is also true.
Conformity bias is similar: we accept fake news more readily if it’s what the people around us believe. Well, I’m sure you’ve had enough adult figures in your life eloquently pose to you the question “if such-and-such jumped off a bridge, would you do it?” to know that conformity is not an accurate measure of validity.
There are other psychological factors, like how repeated exposures to a claim make us more likely to believe it, even if it’s false. Advertisers know this all too well… And another factor is the inability to recall the sources of news we remember, resulting in us believing things even if we once knew its source was unreliable. Yikes! And there’re more factors out there, but my main point here is that vulnerability to fake news is systemic in the human mind – meaning it’s something all humans struggle with.
With that frightening thought, I think we’re now all on the same page.
Now, it’s one thing to acknowledge people have these deficiencies, but another to recognize that you have these deficiencies, and working to catch your own attention whenever you blindly accept something as true. I think Jesus said it best when He pointed out that it’s easy to notice the speck of wood in another person’s eye without even noticing the plank in your own (Matthew 7).
But I don’t want to be too much of a downer here, so let’s talk about how we can outsmart ourselves.
First, I think just being aware of our weakness makes us a whole lot stronger. Knowing that every time you are exposed to a headline, an article, a quote, a speech, or a Facebook post – especially if you’re not worried about being fooled into believing something fake – you are at risk. So always being on guard and questioning what we are currently accepting as true is a great step in combating fake news, I believe. And that awareness leads us to pursue further techniques.
Now, I think most of us are familiar with these techniques. Read news carefully and critically. Think about the bias of the author, even if you agree with them. What are they leaving out? Check opposing sources – don’t get stuck in an “echo chamber” where everything you read is just your own beliefs echoed back to you. If you read something unbelievable, cross-reference it because it may just be trying to get a rise and shouldn't be believed. Etcetera.
As someone who runs a newspaper, I definitely believe that it is the responsibility of journalists and editors to convey information that is true and clearly stated – but I think it is on readers to also be critical and careful. This stuff is too important for anybody to get lax and take a day off, so don’t sleep even on your most trusted sources.
But let’s be honest, we’re busy people who won’t always implement best news consumption practices. Don’t lie – from time to time, you look at an article’s headline, go “oh my!” and then go about your business as if you read the whole thing. Maybe you’ve even liked the article on Facebook… or worse… shared it…
The rule of thumb I use when reading information is to commit to memory only what is proportional to the credibility of the source and the depth in which I am reading it. If it’s an unreliable source, I take it with a grain of salt. If I only read the headline or the first few paragraphs, I note that I don’t know the full story on the topic. Often, because I sometimes only read articles partially, I can only take away that such-and-such is going on about such-and-such matter. I remind myself I’m not truly knowledgeable about the topic and therefore can only have a limited opinion on it, too.
Sure, it’s kind of sad that I can’t always be in-the-know, but it’s far better than the alternative, I think. I feel culture pressures us to take a stand on issues, so we often rush our vetting process and accept whatever news is easiest for us to accept just so we’re not ignorant. But when you accept being ignorant even on important issues, I think it saves you from accepting fake news.
This isn’t to glamorize ignorance, but only to assert it as a lesser evil than misinformation. And hopefully, recognizing your ignorance on a topic is just the kick in the pants you need to take the time and care to learn news analytically. This, I think, is the key.
Now we talked a lot about you here and you might think that’s a little bit unfair since other people are far worse offenders than you. There are others who believe even crazier and even more damaging fake news than you. And that might be true. I’ll give you that.
But, if those around the most misguided people admit their own tendency to accept fake news, then I’d bet even the most misguided would start to be more critical of the “news” they consume, too. After all, how can you get these people to be more critical without first practicing what you preach? It’s not fun, but they won’t question their most trusted sources unless you do the same with yours. Remember, change starts with you. Do you think then we could finally heal our deep divisions as a nation? Only one way to find out.