What Do We Do About Fake News?

Side-eye the shit out of everything, basically

11.29.16

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Facts took a big hit in 2016. With an influx of sensational headlines and a growing distrust in American institutions, the term shifted from needing evidence to needing air quotes. “Facts.” Yes, media is to blame, but it’s a mistake to overlook the consumers themselves. You know…us. Now, more than ever, we can window shop for headlines that contain the “right” information to hang on our wall. Half-truths that reinforce our culture of narcissism.

Maybe it’s because people are using Facebook — an echo chamber of algorithms — as a main news source. The home that fake news has found on the platform is more than a little concerning. There we get to pacify our egos with the sweet, reverberative hug of outside validation as it pings off the walls of our personal information bubbles. “I knew it,” we get to say every time we log on, basking, unchallenged, in our own ideological comfort. It feels great. You know, until it doesn’t.

Frankly, I’m tired of being my own worst dupe. Sheltering myself has only made me feel disillusioned. I’ve personally decided to step out from the soothing glow of my chamber and into the harsh bright light of Discerning Media Consumer. If you’re looking to do the same, consider using the guide below – it’s how I’m approaching it — and adding your own best research practices in the comments.

School yourself on the other side

In order to understand how people form their viewpoint, you need to see why they are struggling. Empathizing or trying to will allow you to step into the emotional motivations of others. Figuring out what they need is where the real discussion lies. If you can’t physically be around those who hold different systems of thought, consider calling, texting or emailing. Resist the urge to unfriend people on Facebook just because they disagree with you, but don’t necessarily engage them there either. That what will surely end in further misunderstanding between you.

Perform immersion therapy

Read everything across the reputable spectrum (New York Times, The Economist, ProPublica). If you’re feeling up to it, dip your toe into the inflammatory stuff on occasion. This will give you a more nuanced idea of where people are coming from. You will also begin to see what type of media is being consumed by others based on their language use, which can help you understand their perspective and engage with them on common ground.

Learn to spot the evidence

With so much information available, it can be difficult to identify the difference between evidence and accusation, especially when accusation-style reporting has found a home in established news sources. An accusatory reporting style is baseless and acts on fantasy or unverified rumor. It’s the equivalent of middle school note-passing. Whereas evidence-based reporting is more like your university professor banning the use of Wikipedia for your research paper. Only trust facts from reputable sources.

Always be a skeptic

We all know the power of subtle bias. Why would we expect our media outlets to be able to eradicate all of theirs? Especially when they are trying to hook a dwindling readership and competing with FAKE NEWS!!! AND THE PROLIFERATIVE USE OF ALL CAPS AND EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!

Some things to look out for:

a. Inflammatory language. When you’re reading through a piece take a minute to reflect on the feelings it evokes. Are you enraged and/or weeping right now because of sensationalist language?

b. Weak sources. Dig deeper than the article itself (or, let’s not kid ourselves, the headline). Ask yourself if the author or publication might have financial incentive that could influence their viewpoint. Find out which way the publication leans. Look to see if other, more well-known publications are reporting on this issue and cross-reference the facts.

c. Your own bias. What is it telling you and what’s your evidence for believing it?

This sounds like a lot of work because it is. Skepticism is tiring, but it’s an important step towards becoming an informed citizen. One of the greatest privileges of being an American is the expectation of tolerance and respect when engaging in the candid free exchange of ideas. When we wall ourselves off from dissenting thought, we rob ourselves of that freedom. With 2017 and lots of political change on the horizon, there has never been a better time to burst our own bubbles. Let’s do it together.

Photos by Krista Anna Lewis.

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