How to find the truth in a world littered with fake news?
While casually browsing Facebook this Sunday afternoon, I came upon yet another post by one of my contacts who was sharing a link to an article from a reputable publication. Normally I would just continue scrolling but his comment caught my eye... he quoted the article which was about mass COVID testing in Wuhan, China after their first lock-down and he commented that after 10 million tests of the population of Wuhan, which is the assumed starting point of the COVID-19 pandemic, only 300 people were found to have the virus and all were asymptomatic. Researchers found that none had spread the virus to their close contacts.
Having quoted this statistic, he then commented that 'that' was:
"clear evidence that people with no symptoms are not contagious. Media will not talk about this. The research will be ignored when making a new set of restrictions or prolonging lock-downs."
My first reaction was surprise that someone who I respected for his business acumen would have such views about handling the pandemic. But my second reaction was skepticism about the findings of the research quoted in the article in Nature to which he linked which was backed up by another link to the British University that participated in the research. So I took a look at both links and found that the Facebook post from my contact was not misquoting, but selectively quoting the research. The research itself came to the following conclusion:
"The research team warn that their findings do not show that the virus can’t be passed on by asymptomatic carriers.
Rather, strict non-pharmaceutical interventions such as mask-wearing, hand washing, social distancing and lockdown have helped reduce the virulence of Covid-19."
So the research was making a conclusion which was the exact opposite of what my Facebook contact was proposing.
Was it politically motivated malice or simply academic incompetence? The fact that someone I would have expected to have had enough critical thinking capacity to verify data before quoting it and drawing conclusions from it highlighted clearly the information malaise from which a disturbingly significant proportion of the population is suffering: biased interpretation of facts and malicious spreading of fake news.
Normally I would just pass such conspiracy theories or misquotations as the stuff of those who don't pay attention to detail, but in this case we are dealing with a topic that can have fatal or life changing consequences for those who act on this misinformation. For that reason I threw down the gauntlet and set aside my Sunday Evening to write this blog post.
There are two issues that need to be addressed:
1) Is it acceptable to allow the leveraging of the protection of free speech to become a double edged sword where its protection becomes a shield to allow the dissemination of fake news and false information?
I must concede that I have neither the expertise nor time to explore this first issue in detail but I think it may become an existential topic of discussion in the months and years to come... but I do believe, exercising my right to free speech, that while free speech is a right, like all human rights, it also comes with responsibilities.
It seems that in the rush to protect free speech the focus on the associated responsibilities has been lost... the responsibility to tell the truth as best you know it, the responsibility to verify before sharing information, the responsibilities associated with being a good digital citizen.
This issue of unfettered free speech needs to be addressed at every level because I see it as a cancer in society - cancer becomes a problem when cells in the body mutate and grow wildly because the immune system is no longer able to keep up with the corrupted cells and eliminate them. Social media has acted like a massive source of radiation whereby our 'information organism' is constantly irradiated by false facts and fake news and an effective immune response has been slow to react to the spread of the information tumour.
Unless an effective treatment is found to eliminate these cancerous information cells I fear society may suffer a dismal outcome.
Now to address the second issue.
2) What can the average user do to find out what the 'truth' really is?
Thankfully, for those who are willing to use their critical thinking skills and put a little effort in, it is possible to apply a few simple techniques to help filter out the misinformation.
Firstly, I always follow the rule, if it sounds hard to believe, it must be hard to believe. Many of the false claims and conspiracy theories going around sound hard to believe... do you really believe Bill Gates wants to implant a chip that will control you? For one thing, such technology doesn't even exist! Do you think any responsible government would allow a vaccine into global distribution if it wasn't safe given the 'quick to litigate for any reason' society we live in? In general, we live in a world which isn't replete with conspiracies and where people in general try to make the best of their lives and I find it hard to believe there is a cabal of hidden shadowy people pulling the strings from afar. There are governments of varying degrees of competence and that's it.
So how do we get to some sense of truth from our media? In Ireland, there is a very useful website called Be Media Smart which offers advice on how to identify misinformation. While the website is Irish, its advice is universal.
It has some great advice.
In a nutshell, STOP, THINK and CHECK. Rather than reinvent the wheel, here are the main elements of advice from that website, you can get deeper into the subject by visiting the Be Media Smart website or the other resources at the end of this article.
Read more than the headline.
Headlines are designed to catch your eye but a headline can’t give the full story and neither can a short social media post. If it sounds unbelievable, it probably is.
Don’t assume that a picture or photo is giving you the whole story.
Sometimes pictures lie. If a picture has been altered or ‘photoshopped’, or simply used out of context, then it can be easy to draw the wrong conclusions. You can search for the photo or image to verify where it came from. Tools like Google Reverse Image Search can help to fact-check images.
Just because information goes viral or is trending, doesn’t mean it’s accurate.
Disinformation can be designed to provoke a strong emotional reaction and prompt instant sharing or ‘liking’ in a moment of outrage, excitement, disbelief and so on. Social media and messaging applications make it really easy to share information quickly to wide groups of people.
Think carefully about what the information is for
That means asking yourself some questions. Information is created to:
- tell us something (news)
- entertain us (satire, cartoon strips, funny videos)
- persuade us (advertising)
Look at the style, tone and source of the information to help you to judge how reliable or accurate it is.
Consider your own biases
Ask yourself whether the information challenges you or does it match your own views. We are more likely to believe information that supports our own views – even if it seems a bit dubious.
Formulas like algorithms can track what you read, see and hear online and generate recommendations for you based on your previous choices. So the information that you get can be highly personalised and not necessarily reflect broader views or opinions.
See if the information is being reported anywhere else
If you can’t find the same information elsewhere, it could be because it is inaccurate, unreliable or out of date. This is especially true if the information appears to very topical or newsworthy.
Look closely at the web address
Sometimes disinformation is found on websites with a web address (URL) that looks very similar to a well-known news or media site. There might only be a small change in the spelling of the URL. If in doubt, go to the real site and compare the URLs.
If the information comes from a website that you are not familiar with, look for an "About" section to learn more about who is behind the website and why they might have this information.
Find out who the author, producer or publisher is
Knowing who created the information will help you judge what their motivation is. Are they trying to sell something, a product, an idea or something else? If so, why? Is the author or publisher a supporter of a particular political idea or figure? Is the author an online "influencer" like some Youtubers? Are they likely to be paid to say this?
Look at the detail to check for accuracy
Do any dates mentioned make sense? Are there references to unnamed experts? Are the links to the author’s sources clearly visible? Information that comes from reliable and trustworthy sources is usually well written. So, watch out for typos and strange sounding sentences.
Ask the experts
Get a second opinion. There are many free fact-checking services available. Irish fact-checking sources include theJournal.ie and Factcheckni.org
For a list of other fact-checking sites across the world go to the fact-checking database created by Duke University’s Reporter’s Lab.
From my own perspective
Apart from the good practical advice above, I would add that when you see articles shared on Facebook, Twitter or others, take a look at the link and see if you recognise it from news or information sources you know. Many fake news or biased websites are created with a specific agenda, just like in the print press and TV and radio. The difference with online media is that there are not the safeguards of libel and other laws preventing publication of anything one wants on the Internet.
Websites like Breitbart, Fox News on the right and more left leaning ones like the Huffington Post or Mother Jones tend to focus on their specific agendas, while some centrist news sources would be the Wall Street Journal, BBC News, USA today and RTE news.
Some websites are clearly just set up by certain governments for the spreading of propaganda or nationally biased news like Russia Today and China Global Television Network.
Then there are spam websites which are set up only to spread specific types of purely fake news or misinformation. Such sites will have names such as The Irish Sentinel, LifeSiteNews or Bitchute and will typically disallow comments to prevent any chance of their information being shown to be incorrect or fabricated.
Fake news sites will normally use emotive language and hyperbole to push their ideas and articles on their readers. One fake article will usually have links to more and more outrageous articles which will usually give the game away... no normal news source will only have shocking news in it, life in general is pretty mundane and proper news outlets will reflect that.
You can find a list of websites that have been identified as having 'intentionally, but not necessarily solely, published hoaxes and disinformation for purposes other than news satire'. In this respect, they should not be confused with satirical sites which of course provide everyone with a needed laugh and, as the Russians say, "behind every joke there is a grain of truth!"
Stay safe and I hope this article serves its purpose of shining a light into a dark and murky virtual world with real world ramifications.
Other Fact Checking resources for those around the world: