Immediately understand how to spot fake news

The term “fake news” is part of the political scene these days. It’s easy to use the phrase and it’s easy to misuse it. It’s ironic the people who shout “fake news” are the ones who spread fake news of their own. If we’re not careful, thinking of news as being “fake” or “not fake” is dangerous.

I

The term “fake news” hasn’t been around long. President Trump popularised it around the time of his election as Google Trends shows in this graph:

Usage of the term “fake news” worldwide – (c) Google

Before November 6, 2016, there were about 2 uses of the phrase per week. Mr Trump was elected on November 8. In the week starting November 13 there were 37 mentions of the phrase. The graph shows how often it’s used.

Since then politicians have jumped on to the bandwagon and used the phrase as often as can be.  It sounds better than saying, “you’re a liar!” Somehow it doesn’t seem as rude, or as antagonistic.

The problem with labelling something “fake news” is what’s written in between the lines. If I label a news source as fake, I’m implying other sources are somehow genuine.

This is dangerous because all news is fake.

(Hang on, I say labelling things as “fake” is bad and then *I* do it?)

Allow me to explain.

II

The media always pushes some version of a news story to you. You never get the full unadulterated facts because that would be boring. Anyone who’s ever been the subject of a news story will tell you that what’s reported in the news is never the full story.

All news is fake

This is how news works.

  1. Newspapers want you to buy a copy. The prime reason for their existence is to make money. Writing news is the way they make money but it is not their main reason for existing.
  2. Radio and television want you to listen to their advertisements. If they can’t grab your attention somehow they will lose money. This is why radio has short news bulletins and TV programming is based around advertising schedules.
  3. Publicly owned media is owned by the government. They’re not worried about making money like the previous two examples are but this doesn’t mean they don’t have other concerns. Unless government is independent from its media then, as the saying goes, he who pays the piper calls the tune.
  4. Party controlled media may (should?) be worried about making money but their focus is to push the party’s message. Anything they provide is not news. It’s propaganda.
  5. On the internet anything which attracts you to a news source’s web page will give it some type of advertising revenue. What’s important is getting that attention. There’s a huge amount of research dedicated to figuring out what headlines people are more likely to click on, what stories are more attractive and even what font is more engaging.

In other words, the news you consume is going to be shaped, tailored, formed and packaged in such a way as to maximise any of these reasons.

The real story – the real news, if you like – comes second to all these points.

This is the first layer of fakery.

There’s more.

III

Consider that all news is produced by at least one human being somewhere. This means many biases will influence the story you see. Maybe these biases are hidden or subconscious. This doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Consider this list:

  • Misleading. Journalists can frame a news item in particular ways which emphasise one aspect of the story alone. This means I will focus on one part of the story instead of the story in context.
    The Times of Malta reported on a case with a headline that reads ‘Ambulance called in during arraignment’. The headline alone suggests drama and mystery – Why did they need an ambulance? The real story started when someone was arraigned in court. Something happened which led to someone needing an ambulance. That’s the end of the story not the beginning.
    The Times’ intent is clear: pick me not any other newspaper.
The top part of the Times of Malta from Monday 5 November – (c) The Times of Malta
  • Out of context. Journalists can leave out some details which provide context. Maybe they have a limited amount of space and cannot include all the information they’d want to. Or maybe they leave the detail till the end by which time I’ve stopped reading. I may not be able to understand what the real news is if I don’t have all the information I need at hand.
    The Times of Malta reported on the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission meeting in Malta. The report suggests the meeting was a routine part of the Council’s work. It doesn’t mention the Council wanted this exceptional meeting. It wanted to hear the government’s point of view on the assassination of Maltese journalist Ms Caruana Galizia.
  • Promoting liars. Journalists can interview people who are lying. Maybe they think the liars are genuine. The news report they write will still be full of lies even if the intent is good. If a journalist can be tricked by a liar what hope is there for me to spot the lies?
  • Biased reporting. If a journalist reports a biased point of view as if it were fact then I’m getting the wrong news story. This is similar to the previous point but instead of the journalist being fooled, I’m the only one with egg on my face.
  • Complicated stories. Journalists have to figure out how to compress any story into a few paragraphs. When the story is too complicated, simplicity can do more harm than good.
    The European elections are an interesting example here. When the Labour Party announced its candidates for next year’s election it spoke of the need for representatives “that worked in [Malta’s] favour.” The Parliament is there to represent the Maltese people not the country. The country is represented in the European Council. The Times of Malta left this explanation out because going into the details of the parliament vs the council is complex.
  • Representing both sides. Journalists also have to worry about being unbiased. Some news outlets think showing both arguments is unbiased enough. If one side is lying then this does more harm than good.
  • Disdain for one opinion. In cases where both points of view are genuine, journalists’ bias can come across through their writing. If I read a negative account of Mr X and a positive account of Mr Y, I’m going to lean towards Mr Y’s point of view after reading that article.

It’s safe to assume more than one of these points applies to any news you consume. The stuff which is not called fake news can still have severe problems.

So what can you and I do about all this?

IV

I don’t claim to have a bullet-proof solution. My system works for me and I’ve used it over the past 15 years or so which means it’s been refined to a good-enough state.

The stuff which isn’t fake news can still have problems

I’m not perfect, so this system isn’t either.

  • Be cynical about media controlled by political parties. In Malta this would be NET and ONE news. In Italy, Mediaset is controlled by ex-President Berlusconi. Make sure you know if parties control your favourite news sources. (This rule applies for social media too – be wary about following party channels. I’ve written about how dangerous it is for parties and governments to use social media.)
  • If you use publicly controlled media, look out for evidence it is independent. If it never criticises the people who fund it then it isn’t independent. Question these sources.
  • Find a news source that has a reputation to maintain. Advertisers like good reputations and pay a premium to advertise with those channels. This means those news sources have more to lose by doing stupid things like report lies. The Economist and the Times of London are two examples of sources with credible reputations that are almost bulletproof.
  • If you consume your news online you’re going to be attracted by social media clickbait techniques. It’s hard to stop yourself from clicking on certain types of titles or headlines and I think this is close to impossible. You can change how they feed you the news. I use aggregators (like “Flipboard” and “Feedly”) to get the news pushed to my devices. Instead of seeing flash images and adverts I see a clean list of headlines. It’s easier to scan them to get to what I’m interested in.
  • If you’re interested in a story make sure you read it from more than one source. Get into the habit of saying, “According to Newspaper X,” when you’re talking to train yourself to need more than 1 reference point. It’s a valuable way of figuring out if something is relevant or not. It can also help you realise if there is some hidden bias somewhere.
  • Question the story you read. If there is an obvious question you thought of the journalist should have too. Bias of some form would hide answers to certain questions. Questioning what you read is a useful tool.

This is neither easy nor perfect.

Does it make a difference if you ignore all this and continue as always?

V

Yes.

Yes it makes a big difference.

People are always trying to manipulate you. Maybe they have sinister intents or maybe they’re stupid. It’s up to you to filter this out when you can.

If there’s only one thing you take from this article, let it be this:

If someone calls a news report fake, they’re trying to manipulate you into thinking other news isn’t.

But all news is fake on some level.

References

  1. Party representatives meet visiting delegation to discuss the rule of law; Times of Malta; 2018-11-06
  2. Video recording of the Council of Europe; Council of Europe; 2018-10-02
  3. PL approves three more candidates for EP elections; Times of Malta; 2018-10-27

All references were valid and correct when this article was published. Changes to referenced websites or web pages may render some references invalid. If this is the case, please leave a comment below.


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