Spotting Fake News: A Tool Kit

Image L.A. Times Carolyn Kellogg


Article written by Ben Rogers PhD. Norfolk State University. Ben teaches courses in American Politics and researches political behavior. Ben draws on techniques of machine learning and data analytics, while also employing theories about why people turn out to vote or form opinions from media.  Here Ben’s CV .

Fake news! From the backrooms of media outlets to the Twitter feeds of prominent politicians, cries of misinformation seem to be everywhere right now, with half of Americans saying it’s a serious issue.  But at the same time, it’s pretty easy to say something’s not true, and a lot harder to figure out if it is. 

That’s where this toolkit comes in.  A single item in a news story generally does not guarantee it’s a lie, misrepresentation, or just plain wrong.  But together, several items can paint a picture of how seriously to take a news story.  Putting the pieces together will make it easier to figure out if something should be believed, examined further, or ignored.

Straight news and opinion

The first task is to recognize straight news from opinion or commentary.   News outlets like CNN, Fox, and the Washington Post will separate opinion sections from straight news. Twitter and Facebook will not.  If there is no way to determine if someone is telling you the truth or not, then it’s an opinion (at best).  This doesn’t mean opinions are wrong or fake.  However, if part of what they’re saying can’t be proven wrong, and it’s not clearly described as an opinion, watch out! 

Even sections of news that are supposed to be about the facts (straight news) can be wrong.  You can use fact checking sites to help you validate any news story – try FactCheck.org.   

Psychology

The second task is to recognize our own desire to accept as true news that fits our political views.   For example, Democrats are more inclined to believe unfavorable news about President Trump while Republicans are more likely to reject it.   Everyone has political views and knowing yours will help you identify the warning signs of fake news.          

Research demonstrates we are prone to trust news that says things we hope to be true.  Therefore, a negative story about a political figure we do not like will be quickly accepted and labeled accurate.  But a negative story about our favorite politician will be considered ‘wrong” or fake news.     

In short, when we disagree with a candidate or public figure, news that makes them look bad is much easier to believe.  Yes, some of it may be true.   But check yourself after reading about the next scandal or transgression.  Do you want it to be true?  If so, you now know that it’s more believable because of your state of mind – which has nothing to do with the veracity of evidence or the reliability of news source.  

Sources

Accepting the professional credentials and reputation of a news source is not enough.  The Drudge Report, an ‘infamous conservative internet tip sheet’ (at least, according to the BBC), broke the Lewinsky Scandal.  The prestigious Chicago Tribune called a presidential election wrongly.  Unprofessional sources can be right and professional sources can be wrong. 

So, who to trust?  The third task: consider what happens to the source if they’re wrong.  If the consequences are modest or nothing at all, then skepticism is your friend.  

Further,  two different sources can tell a similar story.  Yet remember they may not have the same level of trustworthiness.  One can have little to no reputation to uphold.  If their story is proven wrong, nothing is lost.  But if an editor for the Washington Post gets something wrong, it’s going to hurt the editor’s reputation, his credibility, and the paper – all he/she has.  What price people or organizations pay for inaccurate news helps us determine what’s likely to be true.    

This same logic applies to social media.  A CNN hard news reporter will have a difficult day after a mistake on Twitter compared to a Twitter error by a Sinclair national opinion writer.  And they’ll both have more trouble than someone whose livelihood doesn’t require political credibility – like a dentist, pharmacist or factory worker.  These folks risk relatively little and so be cautious about random posts on social media.     

This applies to all sorts of people and professions. Do the news sources work or have expertise in the fields they’re offering opinions on?  If they do, then not telling the truth jeopardizes credibility with peers and perhaps risks future employment.  Tread with extreme caution when sources have little or nothing to lose.

Summary

Yes, I recognize much in this article is known and straightforward.  However, when people read and discuss politics, things can quickly run off the rails.  We lose focus and often ignore the source of news, we wish the story true when it’s not, and we use emotion instead of intellect to judge credibility and veracity.   So, stay composed and remember,     

  •  Separate commentary/opinion from straight news – hard facts.  Most conventional news organizations offer separate sections for straight news and commentary.  Go ahead and use a fact checker, you will be surprised what you discover!    
  •  Recognize that all of us are prone to believing in what we wish to be true.  Check that impulse!
  • Trustworthy sources are generally those that have the most to lose if the information is inaccurate. Be aware of the source!   

2 thoughts on “Spotting Fake News: A Tool Kit

  1. In my opinion, Confirmation Bias is the largest problem from the point of view of the audience. We all love be right and are able to have selective retention of those portions of he news/opinion that we agree with most or can rail against most aggressively.

    The other major problem is that those creating the content, explaining their opinions and even simply relaying the fact based news, all understand Confirmation Bias, thus spinning any communication toward their own preference. This includes the fact checkers. Too often they are simply additional layers of opinion masquerading as arbiters of reality, suggesting that not “enough” credibility is sufficient reason to block opinion.

    If I sound frustrated, its because I just read all the opinions of 15 Propositions on this years CA ballot. You have to take a class just to understand the implications of each one.

    Just my opinion of course………………………………………..

    Like

    1. Hey Chris, like these comments. Confirmation bias may be even more of a problem with increasing partisan polarization. If only weakly attached to a party, the need to be ‘right’ is somewhat muted; that is, you have less to defend. Stronger attachment, stronger motivate to confirm the biases.

      Totally agree that the news media spin the communication to feed an exiting preference. This happened many years ago when news became a profit center for corporate owners not a vehicle to educate citizens. There is far less money in educating today — think Walter Cronkite type news casts, compared to reinforcing the viewers partisan biases. The money is in partisan news.

      Fact checkers can be annoying, yes. And many news media organizations masquerade as the arbiters of ‘facts’ – using their own personnel to fact check. In these instances, they are not credible. Yet the one Ben highlighted, Factchecker.org is non-partisan. On their front page today, they fact check the VP debates, pointing out errors on both sides. One that I thought particularly obvious was Kamala Harris evoking Abraham Lincoln. She asserted that honest Abe delayed the nomination of a Supreme Court justice to let voters choose the next president — by implication Trump should as well. Yet as the fact checker point out, ,Lincoln’s rationale for waiting until after the election is not at all clear, and certainly does not square with Harris’s assertions.

      More broadly, fact checking politician’s claims is a tall task and perhaps not worthy of the effort. Why? I think most people recognize that from day 1 politicians are not truth tellers and it is naïve to expect them to be. But, fact checking the news organizations is another matter — particularly when it comes to key social and economic issues. There are a few out there, though like other such efforts they have been criticized on various grounds. One often cited: https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/columbia-journalism-review/

      Finally, I generally understand CA as an example of direct democracy on steroids. Ha. Lots of time and effort imposed on voters and the propositions are often met to confuse or persuade. And consider the possible motivations for this electoral design. A long complicated list of propositions to understand, lots of cognitive work to be done. With those challengers, what characteristics should be expect of voters that pursue the information and show up on Election Day? Ideally, direct democracy suggests broad participation; in practice it may achieve just the opposite.

      Like

Leave a Reply to chriscjgrpcom Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: