So you want to read the news

The not-truth is out there.

After this election cycle, the folks at The Onion must feel a bit like Taco Bell did when McDonald’s got up in their grill with Chipotle. Everyone is doing fake news now?

Satire comes at us with varying levels of absurdity, and whether the joke is subtle or a 2 x 4, it depends on our willingness to question our assumptions, to recognize our ridiculousness, and to laugh at our own folly. To be truly funny, some aspect of satire needs to be true.

That’s why the Onion isn’t actually fake news. Rather, it’s a skewed lens that enables us to see ourselves more clearly — if we’re willing to look.

So what is fake news, then?

Fake news is fabrication for the purposes of misleading, antagonizing, and confusing people who expect they’re getting truth. Fake news is the invention of internet schemers who profit from clicks and banner ads. Fake news is the spread of something partly true or not at all true, wrapped in bright paper lies and tied with a bow. Fake news is why Snopes has thrived in the Facebook age.

It doesn’t help that we all have different definitions of “fake”, either.

Folks who are mad at the mainstream media say they print fake news to confirm their editorial bias.

Folks who are mad at grassroots media organizations claim they traffic in fake news because they lack a big-picture ethical standpoint.

Folks who are mad at one side of the aisle see everything that side publishes as fake news, because it’s rife with partisanship.

But however true or not true these notions may be, the reality is that fake news is a part of our lives now. The generations that depended on the town paper and a radio announcer to keep them in the know didn’t have many ways to vet what they were hearing — but the proliferation of channels in the decades since means we’re simply too overwhelmed to vet what we’re hearing.

If we share something that turns out to be false, we have three options: delete it and promise ourselves we’ll check next time; defend our assumptions and demonize the publisher; or double-down on what we want to be authentic… whether the facts contradict it or not.

I’ve seen plenty of all three reactions in the past several months, often from well-meaning people who would tell you they value the truth. And they might — but there’s a big difference between our truth and the truth. Sometimes we tell ourselves a particular lie so often it stops feeling false.

That’s a dangerous place to be.

So how do you avoid the slings and arrows of fakery? The answer is simple, but the task is not: you have to become an equal opportunity skeptic: willing to question what you desperately want to believe.

  1. Vet your outlet. Is there a partisan bent in place — even if it’s the same as your own? Is there a bias evident in the way the story is told, as though there’s only a single conclusion to come to? Are the people being quoted or profiled known for their integrity? Is there a wealth of information presented from credible, verifiable sources? If you said yes, yes, no, no, then move on to the next source.
  2. Do your due diligence. Can a single outlet break a story? Sure. Can an independent outlet get a scoop that the mainstream media overlooks? Absolutely. But if you can’t dig up confirmation from additional objective sources, or sources with an established set of journalistic ethics in place, take a wait and see approach: wait to share, and see how the story unfolds.
  3. Read the whole story. Not just the shocking headline. Not just the intriguing subhead. Not just the bits and pieces that stuck out to you after a quick skim. Read it all. Make sure you stand behind every bit of it, or make it clear which aspects of the story you question.
  4. Consider the source. Your friend’s friend shared it, then your friend shared it, then you shared it, and now your other friends are sharing it — but what page is that? Who controls it? What else are they sharing? Who is the wizard behind the curtain? Do a bit of clicking to make sure the original poster or page is worthy of your endorsement — not just the one post you liked.
  5. Admit you were hoodwinked. It’s not fun to say “I didn’t check” or “I wanted it to be true, so I decided it was” — but your credibility isn’t just about being right, it’s about owning when you’re wrong.
  6. Use the tools at your disposal. Click on the ‘report’ button, even if you don’t think much will come of it. Submit posts and profiles for review. Give spam the boot. Fakery can only proliferate if everyone assumes it’s inevitable and unstoppable.
  7. Delete it. If it’s not true, get rid of it. Some would argue that leaving up a false or misleading post is part of owning a mistake you’ve made, but for the sake of the folks who might not notice your mea culpa before passing it on themselves, give fake news the boot.
  8. Do better next time. It’s never too late to be thoughtful about what you share, what and who you believe, and where you put your trust. Don’t treat your integrity like a balloon that flies high until it pops under the pressure. Grow it like a tree with deep roots — and an insatiable hunger for light.

I know fake news isn’t going away any time soon. People need excuses for the chip on their shoulder or the fear in their hearts, and the organizations and individuals who make money with this stuff aren’t about to fold in the face of a moral challenge.

But you know better, and you don’t have to buy what they’re selling.

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