by Ali Elkin
You’re probably already pretty good at knowing when something in your Facebook feed is fake news. When a post begins with “The one weird trick,” or “AMAZING,” chances are your inner BS detector begins swinging wildly. Maybe it even trips automatically if the person posting is an older relative. Internet hoaxes have been around just about as long as there’s been an Internet, but in the social media age they can gather steam in hours as opposed to days. FactCheck discusses this in their helpful rundown on “fake news.”
Trustworthy news outlets should make clear what is based on reporting and what is opinion. If you’re sharing an opinion piece, share it because it has arguments that are backed up with research, not because it “EVISCERATES” its subject. There are plenty of facts that can do the eviscerating if the author is thoughtful enough to find them.
When you see a story, look at the source. Is it familiar to you? It might not be and could very well still be legitimate. If you’re unsure, look it up. A good resource is this extensive database from PolitiFact, which parses out some of the differences between fake news outlets. While some of what gets called “fake news” is entirely untrue, other sites mix in some stories that are not entirely false, but are often biased to the point of being misleading. Other sites go so far as to mimic the name and design of legitimate news sites, so consumers think they are reading a trusted source. Still others have fine print somewhere on their sites that designates them as “satirical,” though good satire should be apparent without the disclaimer.
Internet garbage masquerading as news is in no way limited to the political. Take, for example, this documented hoax that lemons are “10,000 times stronger than chemotherapy” at battling cancer. It’s been going around the Internet for years, and I saw a video in my news feed quoting that statistic last week.
Perhaps the most insidious thing about the era of “fake news,” is that President Donald Trump uses the term discredit legitimate media outlets. It seems likely that this would have a trickle-down effect on news consumers, and I’ve seen it in action, at least anecdotally. I recently saw someone in my Facebook feed comment on a New York Times story about anti-gay pogroms in Chechnya that there’s no way to know if the story is real or fake. This is a dangerous and harmful mindset. When the New York Times reports news, it goes through multiple steps to verify its sources and their stories. To dismiss reputably reported accounts of persecution because they “might be fake” puts people’s lives at risk and diminishes our ability to help them. Does the New York Times have biases? Yes. Every publication does, but one should be able to read a news story in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal with more-than-reasonable confidence that the facts in those stories are true. Where it becomes important to understand a publication or a reporter’s biases is in their interpretations of events or data. While the idea of “fake news” is distressing, the backlash of unquestioningly glorifying the press is also dangerous. You should always be reading with a critical eye toward any publication’s biases.
My biggest piece of advice is to get your news from somewhere other than Facebook. Even if your friends are all savvy news consumers, you’ll still be getting a self-selected view of the world. If you’re not depending on Facebook for your news, you’ll probably find yourself flicking past the fake posts in your news feed without thinking much about them. Just following a bunch of news outlets and reporters you like on Twitter will be much more helpful. Keep an eye out for well-reported stories and follow the journalist on Twitter. Often reporters are good about promoting each other’s work and directing you to other good sources. Many have their own curated lists of people they follow, so you can create a useful news feed for yourself with very minimal effort. Just doing this will make it much easier to recognize what’s fake or questionable. It may also make it easier to ignore or even unfollow those people who post misleading stories, which might be the greatest act of self-care of all.
Ali Elkin (@alielkin on Twitter) is the fact checker on TBS’s Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.