16 Sensible Rules for Avoiding Fake News Online
How to Exercise Your Critical Thinking Skills During These Troubling Times
These days and times are certainly confusing, with truth being twisted by an overabundance of legalese and unfounded conspiracy theories. Trying to cut through it all requires critical thinking skills. Sadly, there is a huge lack of critical thinking skills in our nation’s populace.
Our thinking deficit is clearly evident. We see it happening in two phrases that have grown rapidly in popularity worldwide: “fake news” and “alternative facts.” Essentially, the growing ubiquity of fake news and so-called alternative facts (facts cannot be alternative) is testing our ability to think critically. It takes a stronger more focused effort than in the recent past to clearly identify the truth.
Because of this, we all have a personal obligation to pay closer attention to the content we review online and try as hard as we can to understand and identify the world of digital misinformation that is being driven by artificial intelligence and new easy-to-use digital tools that can cleverly alter what we read, see and hear. Add in hacks who stick their ugly tentacles into the news cycle, attempting to keep us all off balance, and you have a storm of lies.
One way to identify what’s fake and what isn’t is to learn how to think critically, especially when it comes to information published online. A critical thinker is a person who knows how to evaluate information in order to form a clear and unbiased assessment (short definition).
In 2006–07, I wrote a paper related to critical thinking skills under the banner of “information fluency,” a term used mostly by academic librarians. Information fluency requires the acquisition of three primary skills : basic information technology skills (including computer literacy), information literacy skills (how to analyze and share information), and critical thinking skills. Most of what I wrote in that paper still applies today.
The Noise Factor
That paper became a catalyst for a much bigger project I called “Surfing Through Noise,” a valiant but failed attempt to lasso the web and expose all its misinformation. I worked on it for several years. Unfortunately, I never completed that project .This article is an early strategy to revive it.
Watch Out for Undertows
The theme of Surfing Through Noise began ten years ago as follows: “As this ocean we call the web continues to expand ferociously into something we cannot predict, two elements of the web are certain: On the pessimistic side of life, there’s a strong cross current that floats garbage, misinformation, and lies. And, on the optimistic side of life, there’s another strong cross current containing gifts of knowledge, useful information, and the possibility for valuable interactive connections. Being able to find and consistently surf the latter cross current and stay balanced — and thus avoid the noise — is a skill-set that requires hard and patient work, good critical thinking, and, to use a popular Beatles’ phrase, ‘a little help from my friends.”
This still holds true today, but perhaps exacerbated 100-fold since.
Rules of the Road
From all this work over the years, I have devised 16 rules for identifying misinformation published on the internet. A lot here is common sense, if we just slow down and think a bit more about what we are ingesting online.
1. The first rule has six elements that together I refer to as the “Five Ws/H Test for Valid and Authoritative Websites.” It comes from a reporter-in-training maxim for writing sound stories. It means who, what, when, where, why and how. Here’s how the test works:
Who: Surprisingly, many websites fail this relatively simple transparency test. “Who” simply asks for the identity of the people running the business or organization. Information provided about team leaders makes a business more credible. If the About Us section only provides generic-like, PR-oriented content about a business’s products and services, without bios and/or names with photos of its team leaders, it does not pass the simple Who test.
When: Can you get a decent sense concerning when the content of a website was created? Is their copyright notice up to date, or is it from years past? How long has the site been around? Is there a history section?
Where: The site owner’s location (full address) should also be clearly spelled out and relatively easy to find, typically in the Contact Us section.
Why: What are the motives behind the site owner’s content? In other words, what is their Why? Are they trying to sell you something? If they are giving away information for free, can you determine why? Do you get a good sense of the site owner’s raison d’etre? Is there an FAQ section that answers this question?
How: In what manner is the site owner presenting content? This takes into consideration the design of a site as well as the way they write their content. What kind of tone is used? Does the overall site have a professional look and feel? Is the navigational structure easy to follow?
2. Be very suspect of blogs unless they have content that includes links to other reliable sources of information that supports whatever the publisher states, or, at the very least, is clearly labeled as opinion.
3. The same is true for all the podcasts online. I think we often forget how one-sided many podcasts really are. If you want very one-sided, pro-evangelical, strongly conservative, anti-Democratic views, go to the Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity podcasts. If you want a liberal, pro-Democratic view go to MSNBC and check out some of their podcasts. Perhaps by viewing both, critically with an open mind, you can make an informed decision on who is telling the truth. Notice the tone. Are the hosts speaking with anger or are they more reserved, speaking calmly.
4. Be suspicious of headlines. Don’t take headlines as a primary source of information. Simply put, of course, they don’t tell the entire story, and oftentimes the meat of the reporting, which can be buried two-thirds of the way down into the story, reveals an opposite point of view than what the headline proclaimed.
5. Images can be Photoshopped and videos can be altered in ways that are very deceptive. If you suspect that an image or video has been altered, you can use some online tools to help expose such fakery. Check out this Arizona State University News CoLab article that points to a variety of tools that can help us figure out if what we’re seeing is actually real.
6. Where can one go for unbiased investigative news stories with non-sensationalized headlines? I tend to go to the independent non-profit news sources. Some suggestions that I totally agree with were published by Bill Moyers, a respected veteran journalist with almost 70 years of experience (he’s currently 85). Moyer listed reputable, unbiased sources, such as Pro Publica, The Center for Public Integrity, The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal site, and others. Research organizations and think tanks can also be great sources for both partisan and non-partisan reporting, but not all that claim non-partisanship really are. Some trustworthy organizations under this category that are centrist, in my opinion, include Pew Research, USA facts, The Urban Institute, and a long list of others, such as the Bipartisan Policy Center, and The Earth Institute.
7. Take a look at organizations and books that emphasize the positive side of life, so you are not overly consumed by pessimistic, fear-mongering books, investigative news and feature articles that are prevalent today. Good news is boring. We are more attracted to bad news. That’s what sells. We see it day-in and day-out in today’s mass media. It’s typically described as “negativity bias” — a term that explains our penchant for mostly bad news. “Realistic optimism” is its opposite. For more positive vibes about our world, check out “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think,” by Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund, and Steven Pinker’s extraordinary book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.” I also wrote an essay on this topic.
8. Do not overly rely on Google Chrome’s search box functions only, especially its first-page results. In short, the overuse of Google can decrease one’s ability to conduct valid, full-bodied and meaningful research. Google rewards those websites that have the largest number of other websites that link to them, regardless of the quality of content. Their advertising page-ranking algorithms can also skew what you see in search results. Oftentimes a better way to find valid and authoritative information through Google can be found through some of its other online services, such Google Scholar, a search function that takes users to the world of scientific papers, or via Google Alerts, which monitors the web for interesting new content based on your keyword or broader topical preferences. Also check out other search engine services, such as Bing, DuckDuckGo and/or The Internet Archive.
9. If you happen to like watching panel discussions, make sure you understand the backgrounds of all the panelists and the discussion leaders/questioners. Note their names and look up their biographies, which are often listed on Wikipedia — a decent first-stop resource, as is Britannica. If possible, after getting the encyclopedic bios from such sources, look around for factual agreement at other reliable websites. The most reliable panels are evenly divided among people who are mostly opposed to each other’s views, giving you, the viewer, an opportunity to decide whom you believe is making the more believable case based on any evidence the panelists may or may not provide.
10. Watch out for overly pessimistic views that are aimed at stoking fears. There seems to be an overabundance of fear mongering going on these days. An article that stokes extreme fear in a one-sided manner should be a red flag for blatant misinformation. Political advertisements are notorious for stoking fears. Get ready for an onslaught in 2020.
11. Just because a site or program has the most viewers from a number’s standpoint, that does not mean it is the most reliable source of information. See my Medium essay on Jake Tapper vs Sean Hannity for an example of what I mean here. Two overtly biased and relatively new pro-Trump news organizations are One News America and Brietbart. Just by doing a variety of online searches regarding their ownership and the journalists and editors who operate these two organizations will give you insights into their experience and reliability as purveyors of news. Compare your search results to other news organizations and choose your news sources wisely. (See #6.)
12. Read some of the popular historians and try to decipher their truths based on their extensive research. Check out these three Pulitzer prize winners, for instance: Doris Kearns, Joseph J. Ellis, and John Meacham (sourced from NPR). These historians will give you an excellent baseline for judging and comparing and contrasting past world events and political decision-making to our current times.
13. Understand the basic rules of logic. Check out the Critical Thinking Website’s Basic Logic section for an in-depth overview. As noted, “logic is not very different from critical thinking. But sometimes ‘logic’ is understood more narrowly as what we might call ‘deductive logic.’ Roughly speaking, deductive logic is mainly about the consistency of statements and beliefs, as well as the validity of arguments.”
14. Really be careful about making judgments based on social media, especially Facebook, which has become an abhorrent platform for opinionated discord and hatred that have no real facts to back its notorious claims. I tend to agree with Jaron Lanier’s theories on this topic (not wholeheartedly but mostly). He authored “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now” and “You Are Not a Gadget, A Manifesto,” among other articles and books that focus on the so-called “dark web” and how new technology confuses and deceives us with sophisticated algorithms.
15. Ignore all the polls. They are extraordinarily inaccurate and not a reliable barometer of our society’s real thoughts and opinions. See this story on polling I wrote some time ago for Fast Company. Incidentally, I have never been called to participate in any phone survey. Have you?
16. Know how to identify whataboutism and gaslighting. These two generators of gross misinformation have grown in popularity, causing falsehoods to be more acceptive to people who lack critical thinking skills.
To conclude, George Bernard Shaw said “Beware of false knowledge. It’s more dangerous than ignorance.” By following these 16 rules, you can avoid the ubiquitous, bogus and misleading information published online and ride the unpredictable currents of the wild and woolly web like a nimble professional surfer capable of riding the perfect wave.
Thanks for stopping by,