How to Avoid Falling into the Fake News Trap
In recent months I have been involved in several conversations that linked anti-intellectualism in American culture, the loss of tenure-track academic positions, and the cutting of arts and music programs to an inability to think critically and recognize propoganda for what it is. In my mind, there is a clear thread running through these phenomena. The degree to which fake news influenced the 2016 presidential election is still being debated, but what we do know is that “A BuzzFeed data analysis found that viral stories falsely claiming that the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump, that Hillary Clinton was implicated in the murder of an FBI agent, that Clinton had sold weapons to ISIS, all received more Facebook engagement than the most popular news stories from established outlets such as the New York Times and CNN” (Oremus). We’re generating and sharing false information at unprecedented rates.
Even news that is not outright fake can feed paranoia and fear: “To watch even a day of Fox News – the anger, the bombast, the virulent paranoid streak, the unending appeals to white resentment” – has an impact on the psyche, increasing beliefs that average Americans exist in a state of danger (Dickinson). Let us add one more factor to the list that opened this article: ratings. Unbridled capitalism in the age of the internet depends on clicks that generate ad revenue, and shares on social media drive the money machine. Stimulating the fear center of the brain is one very effective way to increase likes, shares, and clicks. Psychologists tell us that fear is one of the most primal and powerful emotions. Fear has been directly linked with a need to exert power and establish control (R. Wilson). Sharing something that scares us is one way of feeling more in control of our lives. It’s a tendency experienced across the political spectrum.
As more and more people began recognizing how fake news and the deliberate spread of misinformation affect our politics and culture, I went into research mode. (As an academic that’s my default position.) I wanted to know if anyone is rating news sources on their reliability. Is there an organization that holds news outlets accountable? Which sources use peer review and fact checking? My main sources of news are NPR, The New Yorker, The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Rolling Stone, Slate, and various academic journals. I know that these sources are all moderate to progressive and I also know that all of these sources are scrupulously fact checked. What are the moderate to conservative-leaning sources that meet my standards for rigor?
In the following paragraphs I will attempt to answer these questions. My goal is to start a list of reputable sources as well as share strategies for identifying the reliability of sources. As always, I provide a bibliography showing the sources I use to establish my positions – we all need to model the behavior of being able to cite where we get information.
We’re all guilty of looking for information to support our beliefs. I won’t rehash all of the research proving that humans - regardless of sex, religion, political affiliation, or cultural background - are guilty of confirmation bias. It’s been proven – that ship has sailed. What I want to do is talk about this graphic from Business Insider:
The first thing that strikes me is that the sources that are fact-checked, peer reviewed, and considered credible by academics like me (I listed a few of these sources as places where I get my information at the beginning of this article) are the same ones that are largely distrusted by people who identify as mostly to consistently conservative. Liberals and conservatives trust different sources and distrust one another’s sources. It’s no wonder we can’t communicate!
The second thing that strikes me is that many of the sources in the middle – ABC/CBS/NBC, USA Today, CNN, Google News – are sources that I, and most of my colleagues in education, take with a grain of salt. When there’s a story that interests me in one of these locations I typically trace its origin through the Associated Press and read multiple articles on the same story. This allows me to identify the elements that all stories have in common and thus, theoretically, come to a closer approximation of the truth. However, it must also be pointed out that these sources rely on fact-checkers as well. They have a vested interest in getting the story right.
The third thing that strikes me is that the sources most trusted by the consistently liberal demographic (mostly) include sources that rely on fact-based news stories as opposed to opinion. Breitbart, for example, is an opinion and commentary site – it posts the beliefs and ideologies of its authors. It does not have an interest in truth, and its opinion pieces are not fact-checked.
Which brings me to my final observation: many people struggle to distinguish the difference between a fact-based article and an opinion piece. A recent study by Stanford University’s Graduate Program of Education found that upwards of eighty percent of middle-schoolers could not distinguish between opinion, fact, and advertisements (Domonosky). While we might hope that adults have corrected this inability, we live in a country where slightly over sixty percent of adults do not have a college degree. The likelihood of these middle-schoolers receiving enough education to be able to think analytically about what they’re reading is low. I teach first and second year college students, and I spend a lot of time teaching my students the difference between fact, opinion, and evidence.
The upshot is this: someone who lacks the ability to critically differentiate between a fact piece and an op ed is likely to accept Breitbart and the New York Times as equally credible. Then, due to confirmation bias, they will accept the one they want to be true.
So What is Real?
To be fair, the amount of information in the twenty-first century is completely overwhelming. Filtering through contradictory articles is time-consuming and exhausting. It would be one thing if we could trust that all people and organizations posting on the internet hold commitment to truth as their highest principle, but the world is filled with people who unintentionally mislead due to lack of knowledge and people who intentionally mislead due to lack of scruples. In addition to honest mistakes, we have to identify information that has been posted to sway our politics, sell us useless stuff, and simply deceive us for the amusement of the poster. It has never been more important to identify reliable sources of information.
However, it is also important to note that there are reliable sites on both sides of the political spectrum. For example, The New Yorker is notoriously progressive but it is written by trained investigative journalists and experts in the fields covered. It is exhaustively fact-checked. On the conservative side the libertarian site Reason is the top recommendation from Jason Wilson writing for The Guardian. (For a complete list of conservative sites worth perusing, I recommend Wilson’s article.)
Vanessa Otero created this useful graphic that attempts to locate common news sources on a continum from liberal to conservative and ranks the sources according to the degree of rigor used to fact-check the information before (and after) publishing.
Essentially, the sources that fall in the top middle are the ones that are reliable. (Discerning readers will note that nothing on either side of this graphic will ever appear in the bibliography of my blog posts.)
One of the things that I like best about Otero’s graphic is that the sources are ranked according to complexity. The world is a very complicated place, and thinking carefully through issues takes insight and stamina. One reason that people fall for confirmation bias is that it’s easier. It’s hard work to think carefully through an issue. But, if we stick to reliable sources, it’s actually manageable! We must train ourselves to recognize clickbait and fear-mongering. Support the best sources by getting a subscription – information is one of those areas where you get what you pay for.
There are tools that can help. Indiana University has created a great page to help people distinguish fake news from real news. It’s linked here; the page contains a definition for fake news, categories of fake news, and tips on “how to fact-check like a pro.” My favorite tip from the page is “Judge hard: If what you’re reading seems too good to be true, or too weird, or too reactionary, it probably is.”
Slate has created a web tool to identify and stop fake news. It’s an extension for Chrome that can be downloaded for free. Once the application is installed, when people access Facebook through the Chrome extension, they can flag information as fake and see a red banner over stories that have been debunked as fake.
Google, in addition to Facebook, has also pledged to take action against fake news. Google is halting ad revenue for fake news and changing the way its algorithm responds to search questions. Twitter has not yet taken such a pledge but the conversation on how to stop the spread of malignant information is ongoing.
It is important to note that stopping fake news is controversial. One category of fake news listed by Indiana University (referenced above) is satire. This genre has played an important role in public life for a long time. It highlights and exposes contradictions, hypocrisies, and paradoxes within culture and thus serves a valuable role. Satire is not malignant; it does not seek to intentionally mislead. Furthermore, censoring opinions is problematic. But we have to be able to clearly differentiate an article based on facts from one espousing opinions.
The other problem I’d be remiss not to mention is that extremist sites, both progressive and conservative, occasionally get it right. Sometimes a real story will break in these arenas. But a broken clock still tells the correct time twice a day: if a site gets it right a few times it’s still not reliable according to the standards of rigor we must adopt.
Where Does all that Leave Us?
We have an obligation to truth. In a time when misinformation is generated both to make money and to control us, vigilance is of crucial importance. In order to be actionable, information must be accurate. So I’m going to leave you with the trick academics use: since we can’t spend every hour of every day investigating every issue on our own, we find sources that we trust. Trustworthy sources are those that are complex, well-researched, fact-checked, and peer-reviewed.
Dickinson, Tim. “How Roger Ailes Built the Fox News Fear Factory.” Rolling Stone. 5.25.2011.
Domonosky, Camila. “Students have ‘Dismaying’ Inability to Tell Fake News from Real, Study Finds.” NPR. 11.23.2016.
Engel, Pamela. “Here are the Most- And Least- Trusted News Outlets in America.” Business Insider. 10.24.2014.
Mason, Kyla Calvert. “Percentage of Americans with College Degrees Rises, Paying for Degrees tops Financial Challenges.” PBS Newshour. 4.22.2014.
Oremus, Will. “Only You can Stop the Spread of Fake News.” Slate. 12.13.2016.
Wilson, Jason. “So you Want to get out of Your Bubble: Try Reading these Conservative Websites.” The Guardian. 11.22.2016.
Wilson, Robert Evans Jr. “Fear vs. Power.” Psychology Today. 3.11.2013.
Wingfield, Nick, Mike Isaac, and Katie Benner. “Google and Facebook Take Aim at Fake News Sites.” The New York Times. 11.14.2016.