The term “fake news” has been bandied about to such an extent American political discourse that it has become something of a cliché, even as it has become an epidemic.
Just how bad is it? According to a study done by the University of California, Berkeley, on virtually all social media platforms (especially Facebook and Twitter), more fake news is shared than news from legitimate sources – on both sides of the political spectrum.
This isn’t abstract. Fake news is something that you or people in your social circle have almost certainly engaged with, perhaps even shared. You might have done so without even thinking about it.
So, what is fake news exactly? Put simply, fake news is an attempt to spread misinformation by either reporting things that are flatly untrue, or characterizing actual events in such a partisan way that the reporting completely misrepresents what occurred.
Why is it an epidemic? It is incredibly easy for a tech-savvy person to set up a website that can be used to generate political misinformation. America is extremely polarized along partisan lines, which means that there exists a significant market for said misinformation. Moreover, social media enables rapid communication and information sharing among like-minded people, thereby allowing misinformation to spread like wildfire.
So how do you spot fake news? There are a number of ways to do so, and we’ll look at a few below.
For starters, if a headline is making an extremely strong and improbable claim, like “aliens land on earth with message for mankind” or “Donald Trump resigns from office, plans to take up goat herding”, you ought to be skeptical. Look for confirmation or supporting evidence from reputable news sources, like Reuters or the Associated Press.
Fake news is generally highly partisan. If a headline has extremely partisan implications, or the article is written with a particular political slant, then it is much more likely to be fake news. If the website that the article is on has other content with a similar tone, it’s much more likely to be fake news.
Anything that uncritically involves aliens, secret organizations (such as the Illuminati), or large institutional conspiracies should be regarded with strong skepticism.
Fake news isn’t limited to politics – it exists in other fields as well, not the least of which are those relating to medicine and health. Some claims about medicine can be easily dismissed as fake news, having been repeatedly debunked scientifically. The idea that vaccines cause autism, for example, has been debunked numerous times.
Other claims, especially those promoting supplement and alternative health treatments, should be viewed with strong skepticism.
As a final tip, be sure that the article you’re reading isn’t actually an advertisement. The practice of “native advertising” has gained steam amongst a number of online publications, including mainstream ones. Native advertising is a type of advertisement designed to look like an online publication’s normal news content. These articles can be distinguished by the name of the brand or some other indication, usually given in small print beneath the title.
There exists a plethora of deceitful, misleading, and outright false information that can be found online. It may seem overwhelming, but prudence, skepticism, and critical thinking will help you sort the wheat from the chaff.
Feature photo courtesy of Flickr.