April starts with a day dedicated to practical jokes, and I’m not just talking about the weather in Minnesota, I mean April Fools Day. In this era of Fake News I’m struck by how on April first everyone questions what they see online and everywhere else but why don’t we do that on a daily basis? Critical thinking and research into what we consume through the media is a skill that we can all benefit from. I googled how to identify fake news and was directed to a great article on NPR by Anya Kamenetz and a great online resource Web Literacy For Student Fact Checkers by Michael A. Caulfield. Here are some highlights from each.
Learn to trust your instincts and check your emotions. Take the example of memes which circulate at light speed around social media. These are often treated like facts and rarely checked by the majority of online readers. Some are all in good fun and don’t cause too much concern, cute animals reminding you to smile are harmless, but a meme that says Yellowstone is erupting (yes this has circulated as recently as 2017) can cause panic if not checked. For our Yellowstone example that was easy enough to fact check with a simple google yet many of my friends hit share and sent this image around social media without checking its validity. If the article or meme elicits a strong emotional response, be it anger, fear, sympathy or righteous validation, you should check it before sharing. Fake news often relies on that emotional knee jerk reaction to get you to spread the word, and it works.
So how do you go about checking your media facts? According to Mr. Caulfield and his book there are four steps:
- Check for previous work: Look around to see if someone else has already fact-checked the claim or provided a synthesis of research.
- Go upstream to the source: Go “upstream” to the source of the claim. Most web content is not original. Get to the original source to understand the trustworthiness of the information.
- Read laterally: Read laterally. Once you get to the source of a claim, read what other people say about the source (publication, author, etc.). The truth is in the network.
- Circle back: If you get lost, or hit dead ends, or find yourself going down an increasingly confusing rabbit hole, back up and start over knowing what you know now. You’re likely to take a more informed path with different search terms and better decisions.
Each step requires work but mostly we need to get in the habit of not trusting everything we see, hear or read. Yes, this is more work and will delay your retweet of that awesome meme of Ben Carson but it’s worth the time to help stop the fake news cycle.
There will always be those out there who refuse to do the research and those are the minds that the fake news relies on to spread its false claims. We can combat this if the majority of us, who I believe are capable of doing a little fact checking, stop, question, and research before sharing. You will likely become that annoying friend on social media (I know I am) who comments with, if you check Snopes this is fake. Even good rational smart people get caught in this fake news trap because often it looks and sounds so real. For example, the recent image that circulated of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas student Emma Gonzalez tearing up the bill of rights, a fake image, shared by many even after the truth was known. (https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/emma-gonzalez-ripping-up-constitution/)
Make a habit of questioning what you see. Try and separate your emotions from your twitter or Facebook posts and you might find yourself educating others and stopping the spread of Fake News. Read Mr. Caulfield’s book, it’s free online, and start making a habit of checking the media you consume before your emotions hit that share button.
Links to a few fact checking sites:
Washington Post Fact Checker