The Sniff Test

Developing a Critical Nose for News

We’ve heard a lot lately about “fake news.” Some say it helped an unlikely candidate win a Presidential election. Some even say that social media networks like Facebook need to try to stop their users from spreading it.

It’s hard to know what role unreliable stories on the Internet played in the recent election. It’s even harder to say if social media companies have any culpability. One thing is for sure: there is too much shoddy faux-journalism online. Even if it didn’t affect the election, it has corrupted our discourse with each other and made the world seem scarier than it likely is. It makes too many people who share it look like fools, and too many others have to work overtime to combat the foolishness.

Fake news sites exist mainly because they can make a fly-by-night profit by attracting eyeballs to ads. That means that they continue to exist because readers believe fake news and are willing to share it. But these readers should know better. A few moments of reflection is usually all that’s needed to check the temptation to believe a fake or misleading story. The fault, dear readers, is not in our social media, but in ourselves.

I’d like to share some tips on how to be smarter about what we believe online. This isn’t like that professor’s dogmatic list of sites to avoid. It’s general advice that anyone can use to figure out for themselves what to treat as reliable and unreliable — to assemble their own list of reliable and unreliable news sources.

The fault, dear readers, is not in our social media, but in ourselves.

My friends know me as someone who likes to posts links from Snopes debunking the rumor they’re spreading. When Snopes can’t do the job, I sometimes do the research myself. People say I’m good at debunking, but I don’t agree. What I think I’m good at is knowing when to look for debunking evidence. I also think anyone can learn how to be good at this. It involves learning how to do a sniff test on the news.

Do the sniff test on your news, too. (Rights reserved from Istockphoto.com.)

The sniff test for news is just like the one you do at the supermarket. You wouldn’t bite into a melon that smells funky, so why would you swallow a news story that does? News is funky when the source is suspicious, when the nature of the claim being made is disproportionate to the evidence offered, and when it’s presented in a dishonest manner.

The sniff test for news is far from infallible. But in my experience, running the test before believing and sharing a story can help avoid embarrassing mistakes.

You wouldn’t bite into a melon that smells funky, so why would you swallow a news story that does?

I don’t know if people who have the bad habit of believing unreliable stories will read this article. I am mainly speaking to those who already see that there is a problem and are looking for ways to combat it more effectively. It seems that no matter how many debunking links you post, the hydra-headed monster of fake and misleading news grows ever-larger.

What it feels like to combat fake news. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

So I decided to write a series of posts with positive tips for readers about how to run the sniff test before believing or sharing that funky-smelling story. Rather than just telling your friends they’ve posted fake news, you might give them a tool to help avoid a similar mistake in the future. If you find my advice useful, consider sharing this article or any of its sequels with people who spread misleading information online. Or just share some of the advice.

In my next five posts, I’ll describe important critical questions we should ask about the stories we hear online. Eventually I’ll include a separate link to an essay about each question here, so you can share just the one you might think an offending poster needs to ask him or herself:

(1) What is the source of this story and what do I know about it?

(2) How likely is the story to be true in the first place?

(3) If this story were true, what else would be true?

(4) Does the story represent its own facts honestly?

(5) Why do I want to believe this story is true?