Fake News: Be Highly Skeptical Right Now

If the upcoming contentious election weren’t enough to put us on guard (given the foreign influence campaigns in the 2016 election), we now have a pandemic that has suddenly infiltrated the highest levels of the US government. In the next two months, you should fully expect to see concerted efforts by various people and groups (foreign and domestic) to spread dangerous disinformation via “fake news”. As you’re watching or reading a scary news story, especially if you get the story indirectly via social media, you need to be extremely skeptical.

fake news

Fake News Litmus Test

Here’s the most basic test for a potentially fake news story: Did the story make you angry, disgusted, or scared? If a news story “triggers” you, that should be an immediate red flag. If it sounds too good – or too bad – to be true, then it probably is. Before you react any further – and definitely before you repost or forward the story – do some research. Here are some questions you need to answer:

  • What are the motivations of the author or person who sent it?
  • Who is the actual, original source of this information?
  • Is any other reputable source reporting this same story?
  • Does the story contain bad grammar, spelling mistakes, or strange URLs?

Note that stories that contain a kernel of truth are often the ones that are most potent. Just because one part of a story is true, it doesn’t make the entire story true or the conclusion drawn correct. Beware of real audio and video snippets that have been edited to remove the original context or change the intended meaning. And avoid click bait headlines.

Fact Checking

The term “fact checking” has itself been called into question lately, ironically enough. But it’s still required for any critically thinking person. You have to find multiple, credible sources for any story you read. The more incendiary or provocative a story is, the more sources you need to corroborate it. And it’s not sufficient to merely quote a well-known person or claim that information came from a trusted source. Go to that source yourself to verify. (Remember this story?)

Two of the most reliable and unbiased news sources are the Associated Press (AP) and Reuters. The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal are pretty good, too. (The news section, not the opinion section.) If you’re wondering about a particular news source, check out the Media Bias/Fact Check site.

You can also check Snopes.com, particularly for hoaxes and viral news stories. And this site lists some other fact-checking sites with the least bias.

You Can’t Trust Your Eyes or Ears

With today’s technology, we all need to realize that video and audio can be easily manipulated. The software has gotten so good that in many cases only an expert can spot the tampering. We’ve come to understand that images can be “photoshopped”. But altering video and audio recordings has recently become truly viable on everyday computers. Check out this fake audio of Ellen DeGeneres and these fake videos of Presidents Obama and Trump. You can bet that nation states (say, Russia or China or even the US) with nearly infinite financial and computing resources can do way better than these.

Social Media as a Weapon

Social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook, are wonderful tools for communicating with friends and family, as well as establishing virtual communities with similar interests. They have also been used for valuable free speech purposes around the world. But because of their “viral” capabilities, they can also be used to manipulate public opinion and sow discord for nefarious purposes. If you haven’t done so, I strongly recommend watching The Social Dilemma (watch through the credits) and The Great Hack, both on Netflix. If you can’t get on Netflix, you can try reading one of these articles or maybe reading one of these books.

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