written by
Flavian DeLima

How to spot fake news

social media 4 min read , September 25, 2020

In 2017, Columbia law professor, Tim Wu, wrote an article titled “Is the First Amendment Obsolete? I agree with his view that we live in a hyper expressive environment characterized by information abundance. He writes:

"It is no longer speech itself that is scarce, but the attention of listeners...Cheap speech will mean that far more speakers—rich and poor, popular and not, banal and avant garde—will be able to make their work available to all."

Tim says "good" speech tends to illuminate, inform, and facilitate healthy debate while "bad" speech discredits, harasses, and manipulates people, and public debate.

Which type of speech gets attention online?

In a study published by Science Magazine, MIT data scientists wanted to detect and characterize the spread of misinformation on social media. They studied 12 years of Twitter data from 2006 to 2016 totaling 126,000 news items that were shared 4.5 million times by 3 million people. They discovered that:

“Fake stories spread six times faster than real ones.”

Also, people, not bots were to blame for spreading misinformation on social networks. They also found fake tweets had a "novelty and emotional charge" that generated more retweets than truthful ones.

Fake vs real news

Journalists are trained and more adept at spotting fake news. They are naturally skeptical, curious, and ask the right questions in pursuit of the truth. With practice, their skills at uncovering misleading and contradictory statements improve.

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote a book about how to spot the truth. It's called Blur: How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload.

The authors believe you need a healthy amount of skepticism coupled with an ability to know how to answer these 6 questions.

6 questions to help spot fake news

  1. What kind of content am I encountering?
  2. Is the information complete; and if not, what is missing?
  3. Who or what are the sources, and why should I believe them?
  4. What evidence is presented, and how was it tested or vetted?
  5. What might be an alternative explanation or understanding?
  6. Am I learning what I need to?

They identify 4 news models, which you need to recognize.

  1. Journalism of Verification (Traditional model) - news that puts the highest value on accuracy and context.
  2. Journalism of Assertion (Newer model) - news that puts the highest value on immediacy and volume.
  3. Journalism of Affirmation (New political media) - news that that builds loyalty less on the accuracy, completeness, or verification. Instead, it affirms the beliefs of its audiences and cherry-picks information that serves that purpose.
  4. Interest-group Journalism - targeted Web sites or investigative news pieces that are funded by special interests rather than media institutions and designed to look like news.

It helps to remember that if something is too good or bad to be true, it probably is.

Fighting Post-Truth

I heard a lecture by Lee McIntyre for this 2018 book, Post-Truth. When asked about how to fight post-truth, he said he wanted to spend more time speaking to audiences in southern US states to fight his own biases. In his book, he writes:

“Whether we are liberals or conservatives, we are all prone to the sorts of cognitive biases that can lead to post-truth. One should not assume that post-truth arises only from others, or that its results are somebody else’s problem. It is easy to identify a truth that someone else does not want to see. But how many of us are prepared to do this with our own beliefs? ”

A glossary of terms from the book, Post-Truth by Lee McIntyre

Alternative facts

Information that is provided to challenge the narrative created by facts that are hostile to one’s preferred beliefs.

Backfire effect

The psychological phenomenon where the presentation of true information that conflicts with someone’s mistaken beliefs causes them to hold those beliefs even more strongly

Confirmation bias

The tendency to give more weight to information that confirms one of our preexisting beliefs.

Dunning–Kruger effect

The psychological phenomenon wherein our lack of ability causes us to vastly overestimate our actual skill.

Fake news

Disinformation is deliberately created to look like actual news in order to have a political effect.

False equivalence

To suggest that there is an equal value between two points of view, when it is obvious that one is much closer to the truth. Often used to avoid accusations of partisan bias.

Information silo

The tendency to seek information from sources that reinforce our beliefs and cut off sources that do not.

Motivated reasoning

The tendency to seek out information that supports what we want to believe.

Postmodernism

Any of a set of beliefs associated with a movement in art, architecture, music, and literature that tend to discount the idea of objective truth and a politically neutral frame of evaluation.

Post-truth

The contention that feelings are more accurate than facts, for the purpose of the political subordination of reality.

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