5x5 Th-th-Thursday: How to spot a fake news story, even when it’s not political, and why you should care

The blame for fake news is typically aimed at news outlets at the extremes of the spectrum, but that’s a comforting lie that distracts us from the truth that while fake news might be created by these sites, it’s spread by ordinary internet users who can’t tell facts from truth, and often don’t want to.

So here’s a breakdown of a bullshit fake news meme which was shared this week by two friends who I consider to reasonable and intelligent people, and the telling reason they gave for sharing it. I thought it was fake from the first whiff, but both of them were surprised.

If you haven’t seen this one, it’s crowned with a title designed to tickle your brain and crawl into trending web searches:

School wants parents to take responsibility — now their poster is spreading like wildfire online

It’s published by Newsner, which is a meme farm of very dubious parentage that exists to farm advertising revenue. I won’t publish the link to the story because I don’t want Newsner to get any more traffic out of this, so the link points to an ad-free Google Doc where I’ve copied the story (you can always Google the title to find the story).

So what are the fake news bullshit meme giveaways?

It’s a typical Portuguese school, with posters in English (well, what Americans call English)

1 The generic picture A school put up a poster in its halls, but it didn’t include the name of the school, and the picture doesn’t identify the school in any way. There’s no crest or title, there aren’t even any students. It isn’t signed by a member of the school staff. It could be anywhere, or nowhere.

2 The school put up a poster in its halls Remember that headline? “School wants parents to take responsibility”. How are the parents going to see a poster in a school hallway? Is little Johnny going home to tell them: “Hey mommy, my school says you’ve got to stop being shit at parenting”? So it’s a big thing, but they didn’t send it home to the parents. It’s getting a bit whiffy.

3 The school’s in Portugal, but the poster’s in English The story says it’s “a Portuguese school”, but the poster is in American English, using US-specific terms like “math” and “garbage”, and spelling “organize” with a Z. Also, “ok” should be capitalised if they’re any good at teaching English. It’s really honking now.

4 “The online response has been immediate” Strangely, there are no links to demonstrate this response, but there’s an immediate prompt for you to share Newsner’s parasitical little meme and drive their advertising eyeballs. How are you not feeling manipulated?

5 But I agree with the sentiment, so it’s OK to share NO. NO. NO. That’s not good enough any more. Maybe that was OK back in the innocent noughties, but if you’re willing to reflexively share this without engaging your critical thinking, then I’ll bet that you’re willing to share more serious bullshit memes without thinking them through.

If you don’t want to live in a “post-fact” world where it’s impossible to know what you can believe, then it starts with you choosing not share every bit of sentimental crap that tickles the emotional part of your brain and running it through a reality filter.

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