How To: Separate Real and Fake News

Separating fact from fiction is one of the most important tasks we have as citizens. Sure, there’s the high-minded political philosophy that we must seek truth to be whole, but I’m just talking about practical terms. Frankly, if we don’t know what is actually happening day to day in our lives and in the world around us, we’re going to make some really bad decisions. Maybe it’s deciding that we can perform field operations because we’ve watched a lot of Grey’s Anatomy. Maybe it’s deciding that we should try driving stunts because it looked super cool in the most recent Fast and Furious. Or maybe it’s sending thousands of servicemembers to distant lands to die.

Fake news isn’t dangerous because we disagree with it; it’s dangerous because it changes our reactions. It keeps us from seeing problems we need to fix, and turns things that are harmless into urgent issues. Indulge in fake news, and suddenly we’re tilting at windmills and ignoring bandits and thieves.

This seems like a very overwhelming process, but it’s really something that you are already doing. When the health inspector closes a restaurant, you probably believe it’s done for a good reason. When you go to a doctor, you see the license and certificates on her wall, and you feel assured that she is an actual doctor. When you drive on roads or across bridges, you believe that a real engineer and real construction workers did their jobs correctly. So too can you see the difference between fake news and real news.

It helps to consider whether you trust the source, or if you have faith in it. This seems like a stupid distinction, but I assure you, none of the other steps will make much of a difference if you can’t get through this one. Faith and trust are not the same thing; faith is given, while trust is earned. Now I have no inherent problem with faith. Faith has done some incredible things for humanity. But it doesn’t belong in news or politics.

Instead, focus on trust. Trust can be earned and squandered. Trust requires asking questions and measuring results. Trust is based on seeing how someone acts, looking at patterns of behavior and constant assessment of worthiness. If someone says untrue things often enough, that should be enough to break your trust.

Real news organizations build trust, not faith. They try to provide sourcing and evidence when they publish a story. They print retractions when they are wrong. They add corrections even on tiny details. They punish plagiarism and liars. They apologize when they get stories wrong, because they don’t want to mislead you or give you information that causes bad decisions.

If you’re reading a site with no track record whatsoever, acknowledge that to believe anything on that page is to take a leap of faith. Then go back and keep your feet on solid ground.

Ah, but you’re about to argue with me. “Kaitlin, what if the narrative is really compelling! What if LBJ, realizing that JFK had found out about his contact with the alien interlopers, really did use mind-control technology to have Oswald murder the President and then used Jack Ruby to destroy the evidence?!”

To that I say: bring me something.

Real news has evidence backing it up. That evidence doesn’t necessarily have to be hard evidence (a recording, a paper trail, a USB, a video), but it should have circumstantial evidence. How did LBJ contact these aliens? How did they contact him? Who knew about it? What incentive did they have to stay quiet? How do you know the mind control existed? Were there any other motives to kill JFK that fit into Occam’s Razor? Real conspiracies have lots of moving parts that seem incredibly obvious when laid out. If you’re still missing pieces – motive, means of contact, delivery and most of all, results – you’re not engaging with real news.

Now that’s all well and fine for things like Vince Foster and the silent coup of 1901 (Teddy Roosevelt has deep, dark secrets), but it is less helpful for the kind of fake news that leapfrogs off of real news. This kind of “fake” really takes pieces of real news and distorts and reshapes it so much that it’s a funhouse mirror version of news. It uses your trust against you by playing up your emotions.

This is where you have to do the hardest work: demanding more from yourself. It is very easy to let what you want to believe overwhelm what is actually happening. This happens to people of all backgrounds and all political affiliations. It is human to want to believe something so much that you will it into reality. But news does not and cannot work like that.

If you have a strong reaction – positive or negative – to a news item you read or see, ask yourself where that reaction comes from and how strong the basis is for the reaction. Example: there was a story about a black woman shot, carrying a baby, while waiting for the bus in Georgia. This sounds abhorrent, and immediately hits a bunch of emotional buttons. But despite having witnesses, none of the names matched up to real people. There’s no bus route in the town where it supposedly happened. There were no recordings made, nor calls made to police (which is what usually happens when people hear gunshots unexpectedly). Before I even asked questions about forensic evidence (blood, concrete, wounds, powder, etc.), the circumstantial evidence was too weak to make the story believable.

For an example of what happens when you don’t do this simple vetting: a United States Congressman used an article from satire and humor site the Onion to make a point about abortion. Now this is a very divisive issue, but I think we can all agree that Onion articles should not be the basis of any kind of decision that will affect millions of lives.

When I feel very strongly about a piece, I often look for other sources. If one journalist can follow this trail, then someone else can do it as well. I should be able to see the work of the research, and if the reactions of people in power reflect the narrative of their reporting, it helps me know that I’m on the right track.

This is a more subjective and delicate process than just shouting “fake news!” It requires knowing yourself and being willing to push yourself. It requires wanting to know the truth, instead of choosing narratives that comfort.

Ask yourself: what do you want to believe and what do you actually see? Are these two things lining up? When you check numbers, are you seeing the numbers reflect what you believe? Or are you looking at facts further and further removed from the main point to shore up your beliefs? (Example: Third and fourth order unemployment statistics that are rarely used have merit, but usually for economists and social theorists. If that is the centerpiece of your argument, and you are not an expert in the field, you need to reassess.) Remember that willful ignorance damages everyone, by catering to our feelings rather than having us accept what is real.

Ultimately, fighting fake news is about doing this process for yourself. You have to want to know what is true. Without that desire – to act on trust rather than faith – you will never separate what is fake from what is real. Truth can only be found when you seek it.

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