If You Only Learn ONE New Skill During Lockdown, Let It Be This: (and it’s not Japanese)

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Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Learn to know when you’re being lied to, people. And do it quickly. Critical thinking skills will be of more help to you today than learning Japanese. (Although, it is a beautiful language).

Fake news is not a new concept. But today, thanks to the internet, we are inundated. We’re buried up to our eyes in misinformation; we’re choking on it. And, much like a spluttering cough, fake news spreads easily.

Consider this:

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

Eloquently paraphrased by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari:

“A lie told once remains a lie. A lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.”

Who wrote this, and why?

Enter: the Big Lie theory.

The man who is often attributed to those words was a Herr Joseph Goebbels. If you don’t know him, allow me to me introduce you. Goebbels held the lofty title of Minister of Propaganda for the Nazi party between 1933 and 1945, and has been named by some as ‘the best PR manager of all time’. He did, after all, manage to convince a huge portion of the German public to support the horrors of the Third Reich. Go figure.

A fake news meme or article ‘shared’ once remains fake. Share it a thousand times, and it begins to look like truth.

As in Nazi Germany in the 1930s-40s, the Big Lie machine is running riot in 2020. Through the sharing of memes and fake articles, it’s impossible to avoid. Shockingly, social media posts reach more of the public than verifiable news sources.

How many of us are guilty of seeing an article title that resonates with us, or a provocative meme and clicking the ‘share’ button without investigating further?

Let it not be forgotten that these ‘verifiable news sources’ undoubtedly let their agendas cloud reporting. However, biased news is very different from fake news. While sensationalist journalism is always rife and often poisonous, it is not ‘fake news’.

So what IS it?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines fake news as such: ‘false stories that appear to be news spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke’.

Fake news spreads like wildfire, leaving confusion, delusion, and unrest in its path. That is why it is extremely dangerous. It is our social responsibility to learn to decipher the ‘real’ news, from the fake.

Dandelions and distortion

An excellent analogy is Cory Doctorow’s ‘Think Like A Dandelion theory. The ‘real’ story or news is represented as the whole dandelion flower. However, when the dandelion is blown by the wind, pieces of it disperse and land on fertile ground. Far-reaching, but no longer bearing any semblance to the flower at all. All too often in digital media, the wind has already blown.

Thankfully, there is a way to critically think, and it’s well-practiced. Historians do it every day.

It is the job of a historian to decide what is reliable, and what is not. If we employ the same methods historians use to gauge the reliability of historical sources and apply them to our news consumption, the task of critiquing seems less daunting.

It all comes down to a few simple questions:

What is it?

Is it a Facebook meme, with simply a statement of text that has been ‘liked’ and ‘shared’? It could be anything from a meme to a blog.

Who wrote it?

Was the author an authority on the subject? Do they quote facts from verifiable sources (usually not Wikipedia or personal blogs)? Have they written anything else?

When was it written?

Sometimes outdated articles are recirculated, implying information that is no longer correct. Check the date of publication. If the article is relating to an event, consider if the author was present or if it is a second-hand account.

Why was it created?

Does the article appear to have an agenda? Observe how it makes you feel, what kind of emotions the language provokes in you, and possible reasons for its creation. Try to find other news on the same topic for corroboration.

That’s it.

Asking yourself these four critical questions could help you navigate the minefield of social media news. All it requires is a little effort, to better understand the world we live in.

Alas, herein lies one fateful irony. These skills are most helpful to those least likely to obtain them.

There are none more blind than those who do not wish to see.

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Crushed by the weight of all the lives I'm not living.

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