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How to Spot Fake News

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“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. They control the minds of the masses. If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” – Malcolm X

Myth: The media is an honest, impartial source of information that exists for the benefit of the public, to keep us informed of what’s going on in the world, and to let us know the most important facts of the day.

Reality: The media is a business which exists solely for the purpose of making money, and to shape public opinion by pushing propaganda – political and corporate.

Ask yourself: Why would some multi-billion-dollar media organisation bend over backwards and spend hundreds of millions of dollars to keep you informed of what’s going on around the world 24/7 live in real-time for free? What’s in it for them? What do they get out of it?

Joe Rogan nails it in this short clip:

“Forget about where your loyalties lie, whether you enjoy CNN or Fox news or whatever, just sit outside of it right now, and look at what it really is… Why does anyone want to give you the news? Are they giving you the news because they love you? Are they really trying to help you? What are they trying to do? Are they doing it because they love you and care for you and they want you to be informed? Or are they doing it because they’re clearly biased and they’ve got an agenda?” – Joe Rogan

The media doesn’t care if they tell you the truth or not, or if you have all the facts, because they’re not incentivized to tell you the truth, they’re incentivized to get ratings: readers and viewers, which in turn attract advertisers and revenue, and to influence the way you think. Or as the satirical website the Onion said: We don’t make any money if you don’t click the fucking link. That’s why you get some stories and not others, why some stories get more airtime than others (till the point that they’re shoved down your throat 24/7), and why the same information is presented differently on different news networks, and why there is so much clickbait, fear mongering, and sensationalism.

Because there is so much fake news and non-news (celebrity gossip etc.) put out by the mainstream media, and thousands of fake news websites and fake news stories are popping up and getting retweeted and shared on Facebook and Twitter, you need to be able to sort fact from fiction, truth from lies, and reality from fantasy, and you need to do your own fact checking, because no one is going to do it for you. Most people don’t fact check before they retweet or share (or gossip), and most journalists don’t either.

“I am at a Donald Trump rally in Manhattan and thousands of people are chanting: “We hate Muslims, we hate blacks, we want our great country back. Disgusting.” – Fake news

“If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.” – Donald Trump, 1998, People magazine – Fake news

“If the Dow Jones ever falls more than 1000 ‘points’ in a Single Day the sitting president should be ‘loaded’ into a very big cannon and Shot into the sun at TREMENDOUS SPEED! No excuses!” – Fake Donald Trump Tweet

MIT did the largest ever study into fake news and examined approx. 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million people, more than 4.5 million times, between 2006 and 2017, and found that fake news spreads 6 times faster than real news in all categories of information, and is 70% more likely to be retweeted than real news.

“Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. It took the truth about six times as long as falsehood to reach 1,500 people.” – Sinan Aral, MIT 

As strange as it sounds, people are just as likely – if not more likely – to believe fake news, as they are real news:

“It turns out that the more unbelievable headlines and articles readers are exposed to, the more it warps their compass—making the real seem fake and the fake seem real. The more extreme a headline, the longer participants spend processing it, and the more likely they are to believe it. The more times an unbelievable claim is seen, the more likely they are to believe it.” – Ryan Holiday, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator

Fake news can be funny:

“Women Arrested for Defecating on Boss’ Desk After Winning the Lottery.”Fake news

But it can also be dangerous:

When #Pizzagate, the weird conspiracy theory that claimed that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta were running a secret child-trafficking sex ring out of Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria in Washington, D.C, went viral, the staff started receiving death threats, and then someone came into the restaurant firing shots with an AR-15. – It was Fake News

Since fake news is on the rise, and most people can’t spot the difference between fake news and real news, we need to know how to spot it so we’re not duped by it ourselves…

How to spot fake news

Questions to ask “the news”

Here are some good questions to ask yourself the next time you read or watch the news:

  • Is the information from a trusted source?

I don’t think any source is completely trustworthy, but some sources are clearly more trustworthy than others.

According to this survey (which you shouldn’t trust) these are some of the most trusted news sources in America (which is only public opinion – and therefore means nothing). I’m not saying I endorse or trust any of these news sites personally:

  1. Associated Press News
  2. BBC News
  3. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
  4. C-Span
  5. The Economist
  6. NPR
  7. PBS
  8. Politico
  9. Pro Publica
  10. Reuters

PS: Just because a news station is popular or number one in the ratings, that doesn’t mean it’s trustworthy, or that you should automatically believe the information presented to you as if it were fact.

  • What is the bias of the author, magazine, newspaper, news station etc.? Are they conservative or liberal? As a rule of thumb: Fox news is conservative, but most other news stations and newspapers are liberal: CNN, MSNBC, ABC, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian – even the late shows try to push a liberal agenda: Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah
  • What is the purpose of this news story? Why was it created? What narrative is the journalist or media organisation trying to push? Black lives matter, Gender pay gap, Gay marriage, Transgender equality, White privilege?
  • What does the journalist/news station want you to think/believe/do?
  • Ask yourself: Why is this important? Why do I need to know this? How does it affect me? Of the thousands of things that happened today, why is the royal wedding the number one story and not a mass shooting or 100 people dying in a plane crash?
  • Is this story even “newsworthy”? Even if it isn’t “fake news”, is it even “news”? Laurel vs Yanny? Stormy Daniels? A celebrity breakup or a wardrobe malfunction? Who cares? Most news isn’t news at all. It’s clickbait garbage. Most news websites should be renamed to clickbait.com or propaganda.com because that’s all they are

99% of all ‘news’ fits into one or more of the following categories:

  • Clickbait
  • Fake news
  • Fear mongering
  • Gossip/rumors
  • Lies/spin
  • Propaganda – corporate or political
  • Sensationalism
  • Smear tactics

Bill Maher absolutely nails it here:

“Since so much of what passes for today’s “journalism” is anything but. For example: When an internet headline reads “You won’t believe” – yes you will – and NO it’s not news. When anyone is demanding an apology, unless they have hostages, that’s not news. And when the offended group are identified as “the internet”, “Twitter”, or “people”, it’s nobody. I used to think something was “news” if a journalist reported it. But it’s just nonsense made to keep you perpetually offended with an endless stream of controversies that aren’t controversial, and outrages that aren’t outrageous.” – Bill Maher

Bill Maher is right. Mark Manson calls it “outrage porn”:

“Outrage porn”: rather than report on real stories and real issues, the media find it much easier (and more profitable) to find something mildly offensive, broadcast it to a wide audience, generate outrage, and then broadcast that outrage back across the population in a way that outrages yet another part of the population. This triggers a kind of echo of bullshit pinging back and forth between two imaginary sides, meanwhile distracting everyone from real societal problems. It’s no wonder we’re more politically polarized than ever before.” – Mark Manson

The problem is:

“People everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with news.” – A. J. Liebling

  • Are you being presented with facts or opinions? If ‘facts’ – on what basis are they facts? The internet and the ‘news’ is full of gossip, speculation, and opinion, masquerading as fact.
  • Does the journalist or news station provide any evidence or sources to support these claims? If so, how credible are these sources? When they say “everyone knows” – says who? When they say “people are saying” – which people? When they say “experts say” – which experts?
  • Has this story already been debunked?

Websites dedicated to fact checking

Here are some websites dedicated to fact checking:

Check these websites to see if a certain claim, story, or tweet, has already been debunked, but don’t trust any of these websites to do your thinking for you, because they may mislead you with their own political biases.

  • Does the headline logically follow from the data? Or is it just clickbait, fear mongering, sensationalism etc. designed to anger, offend, or shock you? The media knows that anger and outrage spreads faster than truth or anything else, and that’s why everything is “Agonizing” “Chilling” “Disturbing” “Horrific” “Terrifying” etc.

“The most powerful predictor of what spreads online is anger.” – Ryan Holiday, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator

  • Does the author or news station have a history of clickbait journalism?
  • How has the information in this story been framed or spun?
  • Are there any fallacies in the reasoning of the article or news story? If so, what?
  • Is the journalist or news station attacking or presenting you with a straw man argument?
  • Is this story really just a hatchet job? (“A severe criticism or malicious written or verbal attack meant to ruin someone’s reputation.” – The Free Dictionary)
  • Are you being presented with both sides of the story? The answer is NO.
    • Whose perspective is this presented from? America’s or someone else’s? Conservative or liberal? Religious or secular? Men or Women? Black or White?
    • What other points of view might be equally valid or worth looking into?
  • What do the other news stations say? If you read or watch the news you should pay attention to multiple sources instead of getting all of your news and information from just one station.
  • Is the information presented to you by the media something you can easily identify with because it reflects your daily life experiences, or does it contradict it? (In other words: Does the medias version of ‘reality’ reflect your own?
  • If you’re watching a group/panel discussion, is there an equal distribution of liberal and conservative pundits, or is it a stacked panel of 90% liberals and a token conservative? (The usual scenario as seen on shows like Bill Maher and The View)
  • If there is a discussion or a debate on a contentious topic e.g. abortion or gun control:
    • Is the host/interviewer showing any kind of favoritism or an obvious bias towards one side or the other?
    • Is the host/interviewer giving more airtime, credibility, or respect to one of the guests?
    • Is the host/interviewer picking sides or ganging up on one of the guests?
    • Is the host/interviewer trying to make one side look bad, ignorant, or stupid?
  • In an interview: Is the interviewer/journalist asking a lot of leading, loaded, or “gotcha” questions?
  • If you’re watching an interview, has it been edited to make someone look bad, or to make them say things they didn’t say? The media is notorious for editing interviews with people they either don’t like, or don’t agree with, in order to make them look bad, and for editing out answers that don’t suit the narrative they’re trying to push
  • Is the interviewer/journalist/news media organisation attacking the argument or the person? The media love to label people, and they’re especially guilty of the ad hominem attack (attacking the person instead of the argument). If they can’t refute the argument or the evidence being presented, they’ll often ignore the argument completely, and attack the person presenting it by calling them ‘crazy’, a ‘lunatic’, a bigot, homophobe, liar, racist, sexist etc.
  • Is someone being quoted out of context? Google the quotes if you’re not sure.
  • Does the domain look credible? Watch out for news websites that end in “.com.co” as they’re often fake versions of real news sources
  • It is joke news? Not all fake news is “fake news”, sometimes it’s satirical like The Onion

Summary

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “Don’t shoot the messenger.”

But that’s only because the messenger is supposed to be an impartial conduit of information, instead of a lying, race baiting, fear mongering, shit stirrer.

Americans don’t trust the media, with 77% saying they believe the mainstream media reports fake news, and we know that lots of journalists have lied to us in the past.

In fact, it seems that the media has been dishonest for quite some time:

“A newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, to true facts & sound principles only. Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors.” – Thomas Jefferson, 14 June 1807

“If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed.” – Mark Twain

I find it highly amusing that the media loves to criticize others, but they can’t take criticism themselves:

“Anytime anyone criticizes the media, the media shrieks “You’re just like Trump!” Why do you think he got elected in the first place? Because no ones believes you any more. You lost your credibility a long time ago.” – Elon Musk

Yep, the media have no problem lying, putting out fake news, fear mongering, spreading rumors, doing everything they can to destroy someone’s reputation etc. but the moment they’re called “fake news” they can’t handle it. The media is now trying to scare people into trusting them by saying that calling the media “fake news” is “how dictatorships start”.

Of course the media wants you to trust them, just like politicians and salespeople want you to trust them. But they can’t be trusted. They’ve proven that time and time again. Because journalists aren’t honest, and they’re not truth seekers, they’re fear mongers, race baiters, shit stirrers, “the boy who cried wolf”, or as Bill Maher puts it:

“The news media lost trust because they became eyeball-chasing clickbait whores who dumped the story about climate change for the ones about grizzly bears in the Jacuzzi.” – Bill Maher

One last thought: Governments are trying to stop fake news but they can’t and they won’t. Fake news has been around forever. Lying and propaganda is as old as mankind itself. Even if governments pass laws to stop fake news, people will find a way around it.

Elon Musk says he’s going to create a website that will allow users to rate the truth of articles of individual journalists and news organizations.

I like the idea, but don’t wait for it.

You need to think for yourself.

Don’t let the media tell you:

  • What to think
  • What to believe
  • What the ‘facts’ are
  • What the ‘truth’ is
  • What things mean
  • What’s important
  • What matters
  • Who the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ are
  • Who your heroes and role models should be

Think for yourself and make your own mind up.

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You might also like to check out these articles:

How to get Smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies – Part 1

How to get Smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies – Part 10

How to Learn: 21 Smart Strategies

“The three rules of journalism are 1. Mislead 2. Misinform 3. Misdirect. The news serves to sever you from reality and keep you in fantasy land.” – Jarod Kintz

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