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How To Spot Fake News And Not Get Duped

You may have heard about the "pizzagate" conspiracy -- fake news about a supposed child-sex ring operating from a pizzeria in Washington, DC. A heavily armed citizen drove from North Carolina to the pizzeria to investigate to investigate the bogus child-sex ring supposedly run by Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The reality: no sex ring. That citizen had been duped by fake news. Shots were fired, and thankfully nobody was hurt.

CBS News reported that the pizzagate conspiracy had been promoted by Michael G. Flynn, son of retired General Michael T. Flynn, Donald Trump's pick for national security adviser. As a result, the younger Flynn resigned Tuesday from President-Elect Trump's transition team.

I use the phrase "fake news" for several types of misleading content: propaganda, unproven or fact-free conspiracy theories, disinformation, and clickbait. The pizzagate incident highlighted two issues: a) fake news has consequences, and b) many people don't know how to distinguish real news from fake news. So, while political operatives reportedly have used a combination of fake news, ads, and social media to both encourage supporters to vote and discourage opponents from voting, there clearly are other real-life consequences.

To help people spot fake news, NPR reported:

"Stopping the proliferation of fake news isn't just the responsibility of the platforms used to spread it. Those who consume news also need to find ways of determining if what they're reading is true. We offer several tips below. The idea is that people should have a fundamental sense of media literacy. And based on a study recently released by Stanford University researchers, many people don't."

The report is enlightening. In the "Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning" report, researchers at Stanford University tested about 7,804 students in 12 states between January 2015 and June 2016. They found:

"... at each level—middle school, high school, and college—these variations paled in comparison to a stunning and dismaying consistency. Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak. Our “digital natives” may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped... We would hope that middle school students could distinguish an ad from a news story. By high school, we would hope that students reading about gun laws would notice that a chart came from a gun owners’ political action committee. And, in 2016, we would hope college students, who spend hours each day online, would look beyond a .org URL and ask who’s behind a site that presents only one side of a contentious issue. But in every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation... Many [people] assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally savvy about what they find there. Our work shows the opposite."

This is important for both individuals and the future of the nation because:

"For every challenge facing this nation, there are scores of websites pretending to be something they are not. Ordinary people once relied on publishers, editors, and subject matter experts to vet the information they consumed. But on the unregulated Internet, all bets are off... Never have we had so much information at our fingertips. Whether this bounty will make us smarter and better informed or more ignorant and narrow-minded will depend on our awareness of this problem and our educational response to it. At present, we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish."

While the study focused upon students, but older persons have been duped, too. The suspect in the pizzeria incident was 28 years old. The Stanford report focused upon what teachers and educators can do to better prepare students. According to the researchers, additional solutions are forthcoming.

What can you do to spot fake news? Don't wait for sites and/or social media to do it for you. Become a smarter consumer. The NPR report suggested:

  1. Pay attention to the domain and URL
  2. Read the "About Us" section of the site
  3. Look at the quotes in a story
  4. Look at who said the quotes

All of the suggestions require readers to take the time to understand the website, publication, and/or publisher. A little skepticism is healthy. Also verify the persons quoted and whether the persons quoted are who the article claims. And, verify that any images used actually relate to the event.

We all have to be smarter consumers of news in order to stay informed and meet our civic duties, which includes voting. Nobody wants to vote for politicians that don't represent their interests because they've been duped. To the above list, I would add:

  • Read news wires. These sites include the raw, unfiltered news about who, when, where, and what happened. Some suggested sources: : Associated Press (AP), Reuters, and United Press International (UPI)
  • Learn to recognize advertisements
  • Learn the differences between different types of content: news, opinion, analysis, satire/humor, and entertainment. Reputable sites will label them to help readers.

If you don't know the differences and can't spot each type, then you are likely to get duped.

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Chanson de Roland

With the Internet, we made the unfortunate transition of most of us getting our news from social media websites instead of from established news organizations and newspapers (hereinafter, "newspapers"). While established newspapers were not and are not immune to bias in reporting, they are far better than most of the crap on social media, because, unlike what happens on social media, where anyone can post anything and do so and where the bias of the owners of at least Google and Facebook has been established, newspapers' reporters and editors are professionals, which means that their reporters and editors have a set of ethics and skills which operate to vet the news and almost always ensure that their reports are accurate as to the facts reported.

Newspapers also police one another with competition amongst themselves, so whereas the New York Times is avowedly liberal and slants its reporting to reflect its bias; there is the counterbalancing Fox News and Wall Street Journal; for NPR's bias, we have McClatchy.

So with newspapers, you have professionalism and competition, while with social media, you have none of that. Instead, you have various peanut galleries that are kept by various zookeepers, who allow almost anyone to throw whatever nuts for news into the galleries that they want. Add to that, that the zookeepers at Facebook and Google take the liberty of occasionally editing the content of their news according to their biases, and you have quiet a witches' brew of bigotry, prejudice, and nonsense in the various social media websites' so-called news.

But who would imbibe such a witches brew as their news? Well, apparently a great many Americas, who are not well enough educated to think critically about the sources of their news. To simply ask questions like: Who is telling me this? And why are they doing do? What are their resources and capabilities? Is reporting their regular business across a broad range of topics? Or do they just occasionally reach into their bag of biases and prejudices to throw something out to their interlocutors on social media to see what sticks? Do they expose themselves in ways where they will be legally liable for defamatory statements? Does the reporter report the news in a way that is fair and balanced? Or is he just preaching to the choir? Have other newspapers, not the social media cesspool but credible outfits like Reuters, UPI, New York Times, Fox News, NPR, TV network news, McClatchy, etc., picked and carried the story? Being able to ask these questions and know where you can get the answers (e.g., research in a good public library or on the Internet, if you know how to separate the news from the social media) is part of what being well educated is all about.

But apparently Americans are ignoramuses and lazy beasts when it comes to the Internet, so they just get in their respective Hillary loving or Trump loving or liberal or conservative groups, where those echo chambers reverberate with the latest rumor. Can our republic long survive as a democratic republic, if we don't fix this with better sources of news, greater legal liability for social media websites that publish defamatory "news," and better educate our people so that they know the difference between propaganda, bias, and prejudice masquerading as news and the real thing? It cannot. President Thomas Jefferson explained the reason for this:

"The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787. ME 6:57

So good newspapers and the ability to read them are vital for a democratic republic, yet Jefferson recognized that newspapers are flawed and suggested this as a remedy:

"My opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted so as to be most useful [is]... 'by restraining it to true facts and sound principle only.' Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more completely deprive the nation of its benefits than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood." --Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, 1807. ME 11:224

So Jefferson would have newspapers that report true facts according to such principles of journalism, as our necessary and advisable for a democratic republic. But, since too few would subscribe to such newspapers, President Jefferson suggest this:

"Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation in some such way as this. Divide his paper into four chapters, heading the 1st, Truths. 2nd, Probabilities. 3rd, Possibilities. 4th, Lies. The first chapter would be very short, as it would contain little more than authentic papers and information from such sources as the editor would be willing to risk his own reputation for their truth. The second would contain what, from a mature consideration of all circumstances, his judgment should conclude to be probably true. This, however, should rather contain too little than too much. The third and fourth should be professedly for those readers who would rather have lies for their money than the blank paper they would occupy." --Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, 1807. ME 11:225

So President Jefferson comes to rest on newspapers that present four categories, supra, for every type of reader, from those seeking truth to those that would rather have lies for their money than the blank paper they would occupy. However, since the currency of social media isn't money but our personal information, everyone pays with the intimate details of their lives for their social-media news, with those who prefer truth paying too dearly for the little that they get, and those who prefer lies getting what they pay for at a bargain, since they value their privacy no more than a goat values Shakespeare.

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