How to tell truth from… everything else (Fake News 101)

This is the year of the little round virus. So it’s also the year when we all really, seriously, need to get a grip on “fake news”. It’s always been important, but we are now in a place where sharing something dodgy on WhatsApp might affect someone else’s health.

Journalists are engaged in complex debates about this (of course) – what is fake news, how to counter it, is fake news even the right term for it?

For everyone else, this is what you need to know.

“News” is a report on events that happened, generally found in a newspaper, an online newspaper, a TV news broadcast or a radio news broadcast. Or perhaps a Twitter thread, or a live blog. (It can also be an investigation, an interview, an exploration of two sides of an issue. The people quoted in these ways will have been subject to some due diligence by the reporter or publication.)

The basic idea is: this news refers to something that actually happened, or something that is widely understood to be factual or truthful

(And, yes, of course, those reports will be slanted in some way: the reporter and the news publication will have their own ideas and opinions and prejudices.)

When it isn’t news

BUT If the report says something happened, but it didn’t, then it is a lie. If it so distorts the event that most reasonable people would think something was fishy about the report, it is dis- or mis-information. If it is written to further a particular political aim, it is propaganda. If it gives health advice that is not based on generally accepted science, it is quackery. If it interviews people who are at the fringes of anything, without making that clear, it is dubious. All of that is now called “fake news”. Journalists might not like the term, but it is useful shorthand.

Most people don’t really want to be guilty of sharing lies and trickery (I assume). But they do it anyway, mostly without thinking too much about it. I think that is because a lot of the time, the “report” confirms their own beliefs, or says something that they would like to be true (and perhaps they just want to share something entertaining with their friends). We are all gossips, in the end.

Simple rules

So how to tell when not to share? I have some simple rules. The first, and most important, is to click on the link and actually look at whatever it is you are about to share. Then ask yourself:

1. Does it come from a reputable source? (My 2018 post about that is still useful.)

2. Does it have a date and the name of the person who wrote or produced it? (The date is important – people often share old stories, which are then taken up as if they are recent news).

3. Does it have links to other places where this has been reported, or to background sources?

4. Do a Google search – are there other reports about the same topic?

If you can answer yes to those questions, you can probably go ahead and hit the share button!

* A version of this was first published in my newsletter.

* Main picture: Hayden Walker, Unsplash

Comments are closed.