Fake News: A Socially Transmitted Disease

The epidemic of “fake news” that took place in 2016 was akin to America catching a cultural STD. And there are some hard facts (real facts, not alternative ones) that we have to face if we want to have any shred of a normal existence:

  1. It will never go away.
    Fake news is here to stay. All the wretched spew from Pandora’s Box will never be contained. It’s part of your life now. Accept it.
  2. We will forever be traumatized by it. 
    It is so easy to be taken in by it. Fake news slithers in through what we consider to be positive attributes: our passions, our interests, our morality, our patriotism. And like an actual infection preys upon a weakness in its host, fake news hits us where we live— in our emotions. Like knocking boots on some stranger’s couch, it feels good when we’re reading it— it’s only afterward when we get the oozing discharge in our brains that we realize we maybe shouldn’t have believed it.
  3. We will keep spreading it unless we control it.
    Fake news is viral, spreading person to person, and picking up strength and mutating as it goes on. Fake news relies on something called “the confirmation bias,” a psychological phenomenon that makes us tend to lend more credibility to stories we already agree with. So when we get that emotional gut-punch of outrage, or that zing that lifts our hearts, we don’t want to be alone— and we spread it.
  4. There is no cure, only treatment.
    I’ll admit it— I caught it too. Just like you. Just like everyone else. But like a slutty club kid who caught HIV and is now working to educate the general public not to follow in his tragic footsteps, I am starting a one-man crusade to minimize the impact of fake news on our society. Because it’s killing us.

STEP ONE: EDUCATE YOURSELF

The first thing anybody with a newly contracted STD should do is learn about it: How do you get it? How does it spread? What’s the treatment? What are the long-term effects? Can I live normally if I have it? Should my partner be worried?

It’s the same with fake news. You have to become your own advocate in a world where there are literally people trying to make you sick and give you this disease. Fake news is weaponized. Make no mistake: much of it is planted on purpose, with the overt goal of sowing chaos.

Here’s a quick checklist when you see a story that pops up on your news feed like some weird pustule or lesion:

  1. Does it just really piss you off? Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot of horrible stuff going on that can make you very angry that is quite real. But if a story is presented in such a way that it appears designed to make you angry— it was. Know your emotions are being manipulated.
  2. Is the language inflammatory? Look for hyperbole and obvious bias in the headline. If it uses insulting epithets or provocative teasers, it’s probably fake news.
  3. Consider the source. There is a lot of mistrust of the mainstream media in America today, and fake news creators rely on this. When they present their “alternative” news or specifically say “you won’t hear this in the MSM (mainstream media),” the reason is that it’s probably a lie. The MSM isn’t perfect— competition for clicks has caused them to loosen standards, and editorializing on the major media instead of presenting facts in a balanced manner and letting their readers/viewers decide has very definitely contributed to their poor reputation. But by and large, they can still be trusted. Hold them to the same standards as any other story, and you will see. See the Zimdars list (below) if you’re unsure of the outlet’s reliability. You could be reading the fake news equivalent of that loose cheerleader who gave the whole football team the clap and just not know her reputation.
  4. Check their sources. If a journalist doesn’t use their name in the byline, it’s likely fake news. Anonymous bloggers don’t want people calling them on their BS. Likewise, if they just make some pronouncement or statistic, but do not list a verifiable source, that should be a cue for your fake news spidey-sense to tingle. Follow the link to see if it pans out. Google the keywords in the story to see if any reliable coverage is given to it. If the only outlets covering it are blogs (especially with names like Social Justice for the Planet or Patriot Flagwaver Watch), it’s very likely an outbreak of fake news. Also, once you get the fake-news tingle, run it past Snopes. Again, not perfect, but one of our best allies in the war on fake news, Snopes is practically a fake news condom.
  5. Don’t be fooled by the look or title. Just like the classiest looking dame can turn out to have a cesspool of rankness in her lady parts, fake news purveyors go out of their way to look believable, respectable and authoritative. Don’t fall for professional-looking graphs or important-sounding quotes without diving in for a closer inspection.
  6. Read the story, not just the headline .This is the hardest part. We are all so conditioned to like and share on social media, that when something hits our bias, we spread it. Often, people share stories based on just a headline. The actual story can have nothing to do with the headline, or contradict it, or be framed very differently. Check the sources and make sure it’s real before you pass it on. And when in doubt— don’t.

STEP TWO: DEGREES OF FAKENESS

It’s important to recognize that not all fake news is created equal. Here are the various strains of the disease, and also some things that make manifest fake news symptoms, but are actually something else:

  1. Malicious fake news. This is the stuff that is specifically designed to deceive: “Gov. Soandso is a pedophile” or “Pop star is actually a terrorist” or “XYZ Corp. is a front for the mafia.” These stories are created often by malevolent forces who profit from a confused and deeply divided American people.
  2. Satire. This is not truly fake news, but sometimes, it is so subtle it seems believable: “Gov. Soandso’s new wardrobe cost taxpayers a billion dollars, still looks awful” or “Pop star divorces husband to marry herself” or “XYZ Corp. fires pop star, asks for free merch back.” These are intended to be humorous, though they sometimes fail. The good news is, true satire tends to be from recognizable, admitted sources like The Onion or The Borowitz Report, but there are many others, often less obvious.
  3. Extreme spin/bias. Sometimes, even reality can be presented in a way to manipulate your emotions, and may seem like fake news, and honestly has the same effect. It often distracts from the real issue, or may leave out or cover up some pertinent aspect of the story: “Gov. Soandso spends an outrageous $100K on widgets” (but the last governor spent $700K on widgets), or “Pop star annihilates TV host” (maybe she just disagreed), or “XYZ Corp. profits sink, company is done for” (maybe there are extenuating circumstances). Again, look for the editorializing and be aware of it. This isn’t fake news, but buying into it can make you more susceptible. They are usually riddled with half-truths or gaping holes in crucial details.
  4. Hearsay/unsubstantiated/undocumented details. If a story, even in a reputable news source, doesn’t quote its sources, be leery: “Draft report leaked shows Gov. Soandso caught in tax snafu” or “Pop star assumed to be in rehab” or “Mole says XYZ Corp. may release widget early.” Don’t run with it unless the sources check out. Sometimes real journalists may only cite “sources close to Gov. Soandso” but you have to look for corroboration there too.
  5. Stories you just don’t like. You create fake news in your own head when you aren’t self-aware enough to recognize the truth, and you push back against a story that is actually true, but you don’t want to believe it. “Gov. Soandso dips in polls” or “Pop star’s marriage on the rocks” or “XYZ Corp. target of hostile takeover by HIJ Corp.” These could be legit, but you won’t hear the truth because it challenges your worldview. If that’s your mindset, you are probably a seriously infected fake news victim. This type of story is particularly bothersome when they focus on wedge issues that divide the nation.

STEP THREE: STOP THE SPREAD

Only you can prevent a worldwide epidemic of fake news. Don’t buy into it. Be wary and critical. Consider viewpoints and sources of news that run different to your own opinions. Don’t assume that because it agrees with the way you think that it’s true. The converse is also true. Fact-check, learn what is and isn’t reliable, and only pass on what passes the sniff test. And once again— when in doubt, don’t.

STEP FOUR: STAY VIGILANT AND EDUCATE OTHERS

Fake news is so insidious that it may creep up on you. Once you are able to recognize it, don’t let your guard down, and tell others to be on the lookout for deceptive “journalism” or “blogs” or “alt-news” that is nothing more than lies.

STEP FIVE: WRAP THAT RASCAL

You also want to make sure to use protection so you don’t catch a scorching case of mind-herpes. Make sure the source is legit even down to the address in the URL bar (for example, “fox-news.com” isn’t Fox News’s official site, there is no hyphen). Be careful of redirects and clickbait and everything else that vies for your limited, scattered attention in this post-truth digital world.

Fake news: let’s end it.

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