How to avoid the fake news trap

How to avoid the fake news trap

Apply critical thinking, consider the source, and think twice before sharing.

'Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it," said the French mathematician and inventor Blaise Pascal.

We are living in an era of pandemic and of increasingly divisive political power struggles at both the national and international levels. Against this background, the deliberate creation and distribution of fake news on social media and official media have become a real problem.

How can you determine the truthfulness of a news story? How can you avoid passing on fake news and becoming a part of the problem? Today, let's explore what we can do to spot fake news better prevent consuming and sharing it.

A few weeks ago, I received a WhatsApp message from a fellow educator who shared a video about Covid-19, featuring some surprising news about a key US health official. It offered some contrarian views and seemed to be credible and offer a new perspective, so without much thought, I forwarded it to a few friends who, like me, appreciate a diversity of opinions.

Two hours later, my fellow educator sent me another message: "Don't watch the video -- fake news." I immediately forwarded the warning to my friends, who fortunately hadn't watched the video yet.

Later on, I felt angry with myself. I had let my guard down. I should have practised what I preach. I should have engaged in critical thinking to avoid falling into the fake news trap. So, I resolved to review my approach and write this article.

What is fake news? Wikipedia describes fake news as fabricated news consisting of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via online social media and traditional print and broadcast news media. Examples include sloppy journalism; propaganda; biased, framed or slanted news; misleading headlines; satire and parody; and clickbait.

Sometimes fake news is easy to spot. At other times, it can be hidden behind the mantle of legitimacy of a long-established media outlet.

An example would be where a news outlet buys news stories from government media sources in a nearby country. This might be to save costs or to gain access to stories in locations that are difficult for local reporters to reach. Be wary of the originating source of the story, not only the publisher.

Why do so many people fall for fake news? One reason is confirmation bias. This is the built-in human tendency to favour confirmatory evidence that supports our own beliefs about what we think is true.

Similarly, when it comes to consuming news, we should make an active effort to also look for media sources that take a neutral, outside or contrarian view on a topic. For example, to get a neutral, undogmatic view on what's going on in politics in my home country, Germany, I read the Swiss newspaper NZZ.com.

So, how can you distinguish fact from fiction in the news you consume? Check for possible red flags, and probe for the underlying data behind a claimed fact or truth, with a set of questions:

  • Who has produced and published the news? Who are the authors? Are they real and credible?
  • How about the media outlets in which the story is published? Are they legitimate? What's their mission and purpose?
  • What main source is the story based on? What are the supporting sources cited to substantiate the claims? How real and credible are they?
  • When is the date of publication of the story? Is it still relevant and current?
  • How do other independent experts with knowledge on the topic view the claim?
  • Does the news piece use a sensationalist or shocking headline?
  • Does the story surprise you? Does it literally sound too good to be true?
  • Does the story confirm your beliefs about the topic, a person, or a group of people? Or does it support a contrarian view that resonates with you and deviates from the mainstream view?

After answering these questions, honestly ask yourself: "How confident am I that this information is really true?" Choose one of three confidence levels: I am 80-100% sure (hard fact); 50-80% sure (dangerous half-truth); less than 50% sure (probably nonsense).

Finally, if you classify the news as a hard fact and, possibly also, a half-truth, validate it by asking: "How do I know that this is true? What is the supporting evidence? How can I credibly make a case?"

If you're unable to solidify the claims of a story with credible supporting evidence, you're likely to be dealing with a dangerous half-truth or total nonsense.

Before you share a piece of news, ask yourself the following questions:

Why do I want to share the story with others?

Is this story worth my time to share? Is it worth the time of others reading or watching it?

Have I checked the truthfulness of the article? Am I confident that the news is grounded in facts and not in fiction?

If you answer "no" to any of the questions above, then don't share the news. We all share a responsibility to avoid becoming an active part of the fake news problem.

"A lie told often enough becomes the truth" is a saying attributed to the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Illyich Lenin. It seems apropos at a time of an ever-increasing flood of fake news. Sadly so, as fake news has real-life consequences.

Fortunately, there is a higher truth that supersedes the "false truth" of a fake news story. But to give this real truth the voice and space it deserves, we all need to do our part by protecting the real truth and by fighting falsehoods. So, be vigilant.


Dr Detlef Reis is the founding director and chief ideator of Thinkergy, the "Know how to Wow" Innovation Company in Asia and beyond. He is also an assistant professor at the Institute for Knowledge & Innovation -- Southeast Asia at Bangkok University, and an adjunct associate professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University. Email dr.d@thinkergy.com


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