Something called “fake news” appears to be on the rise during the last election and even today. What exactly is fake news, why is it dangerous, and what can you do about it?
What are you up against?
Below is a list of things commonly associated with “fake news”. We’ll go into what each is, what role it plays in the media, and what concerns you should have about it.
Ultimately, bias is impossible to remove from the news. It is more or less the political opinions of the journalists, editors, and companies involved in the creation of the news leaking into the news itself.
Bias more or less makes itself known through the style and word choice of news, through what’s covered and what’s not, and through any implied conclusions.
The most important thing to note about bias is that it exists, and while it may be related to where actual fake news shows up, bias is not actually fake news.
Another issue is the unintentional reporting of falsehoods. That basically is to say that occasionally, newspapers or television shows report things that we later find out aren’t true or aren’t true in the way that we were lead to believe.
The difference between fake news and shoddy reporting is usually that shoddy reporting is either retracted or later contradicted by the same source with updates.
Not everything you hear, even from good sources, is necessarily true. Many of the techniques described below to combat fake news can also help in dealing with occasional shoddy reporting. Moreover, when combined with the above, it’s important to recognize that biased, shoddy reporting is not fake news, although it can also be a “bad thing”.
I think this is the narrative that most bothers me right now – people are using the moniker “fake news” to attack any bad reporting, or even just reporting they disagree with. This is dangerous, as it gives an excuse to people to have close minds.
Finally, even in news sources that attempt to be unbiased or transparently biased, and that try to keep quality reporting high, even here, we have noise. Noise is just the fact that not even our news sources always have access to all the facts. They may engage in reporting rumor, and so long as they stress the unsubstantiated nature of what they’re reporting, then they’re doing good work and not “shoddy reporting”.
This means that facts are updated all the time, and the more you attempt to stay as current as possible, the more you must be willing to accept new information and throw out old information.
Now we get to actual fake news. This is news that was generated intentionally to be false or misleading or alternatively, generated without regard to factuality or truth. It can be written for pure satire purposes, or written for more naked commercial gain.
In fact, much of the fake news in this last electoral cycle was “click bait”. News sites get paid money for the eyeballs they bring to their advertisers. Thus, one good tactic to get eyeballs is to write inflammatory material you know will get shares, likes and views on sites like Facebook. If no one is checking that it’s factual, then it’s just click bait, no better than tabloids (which we all acknowledge are fake).
A problem occurs either when this fake news is treated as factual – leading to people having a completely false view of reality – or when real news is treated as fake – again, causing people to shut out potentially true facts.
This is by far the worst form of fake news. Propaganda is news-like content that doesn’t have a commercial interest in mind, but rather, is designed to change your opinion. It works like fake news in that it is intentionally false or misleading, but instead of ultimately being random words that may drive clicks and impressions, it is an aligned and coordinated campaign designed to make you think something that isn’t true, something that benefits someone politically.
Domestic propaganda is put out by political interests that distort the truth to get you to vote for their preferred proposals and candidates. Foreign propaganda is designed to make you believe that a foreign power’s interests are your interests. Many three-letter organizations have stated they have evidence that there was, in fact, a foreign propaganda campaign during the last election, and it mimics the same tactics used in places like Georgia and the Ukraine.
This kind of fake news is designed to keep us distracted if not outright working against our shared national interests. Sharing, liking or passing it along unintentionally is commonly called being a “useful idiot”. Doing it intentionally is sedition.
Identifying fake news, and even worse, foreign propaganda, is, therefore, a duty of all of us in a free democracy like ours, where the people are ultimately responsible for making governing decisions.
The General Approach: Reading News like a Bayesian
Some people have argued that the prevalence of fake news has put us in a “post-truth” mentality, where anyone gets to choose whatever facts they believe.
These people are right, but only by accident.
We’ve always been in a post-truth mentality. Epistemologists – philosophers who study how it is we ‘know’ things – have long argued that there’s no guarantee we have access to any sort of ‘absolute truth’, or that our beliefs necessarily align with anything we might call truth.
Probably Correct Beliefs, the Next Best Thing
What we can, do, though is have processes and methods for believing things about the world that, on average, are probably, approximately correct. That is what we’ll be talking about here.
We’ll be talking about ways to think of news like a bayesian. This means that you acknowledge your set of beliefs, like Clinton runs a pedophile ring, and you update your confidence in those beliefs in proportion to the strength of new evidence.
News, in this case, is evidence.
Treating beliefs and news in this way gives you the best path forward to actually having beliefs about the world that are probably, approximately correct.
You need to be prepared to be wrong.
What weapons do you have?
Let’s say you’re in charge of analyzing two hospitals’ track records. You’re in insurance, and you’re trying to adjust what you’re going to pay those hospitals as part of a contract negotiation. You have before you rates of mistakes reported in the hospitals. In one hospital, it reports a very low rate of mistakes, far below the average. In another hospital, it reports a rate of mistakes at about the average.
You need to identify which hospital provides better care so that you can adjust your payments to them in accordance with their value. Which would you pick?
Most people would pick the hospital that reports fewer mistakes.
They’d be wrong.
The unintuitive insight here is that the reporting of mistakes is itself an indicator of the culture of the hospital. Mistakes are going to occur, and they’ll occur at about a natural rate. Lowering that rate, slowly over time, is a great goal to have. Having a reported rate dramatically below your peers doesn’t mean you’re a much better hospital – it just means you’re far less willing to admit mistakes.
A culture that doesn’t admit mistakes can’t find and fix them. So the same doctors that keep committing mistakes keep getting away with it, and never learn how to get better. The hospital that reports the average number of mistakes shows that it has a feedback mechanism in place to correct itself and improve.
Likewise, so it is with the media. People have often pointed to news articles retracted or subject to later edits by major sources, such as the Washington Post’s reporting of Russian hacking of the utility system, or reporting on women in coding, as “proof” that those sources are in the fake news business.
As you can see from the hospital example, though, it’s actually sources that provide little to no retractions or later edits that should be untrusted. To claim that a news website that never issues a single retraction simply ‘gets it right’ all the time is naive. Humans make mistakes all the time, and a lack of mistakes being reported should be an alarm bell that the news you’re reading is not trustworthy.
Think of the following example. Do you think that the Nazi propaganda machine issued even one single retraction of any of the news they put into party newspapers? They didn’t.
Propagandists never retract. Journalists do.
It’s called journalistic standards or ethics, and it’s one layer of protection you have against fake news. It does not protect you from bias. But it does protect you from fake news.
Speaking of bias – it’s there. It is there in whatever news you read. This is because, in addition to people making mistakes, people are also always biased. Always. The better that bias is acknowledged and the more transparent it is, the easier it is to work around.
What this means is that you can never read a news article that isn’t biased, at least slightly. There exist no sources of news out there that are without bias. Many sources are open about their bias, even more, are working to control their bias, but no one – no one – is without bias.
So, you’ll have to read news with the bias in mind, rather than trying to eliminate it altogether.
There are browser plugins that will help you figure out the bias of the article you’re reading, as well as analysis like this. As I’ll explain below, reading from a variety of sources on the left and right is best, but all other things being equal, the more sources you can get from the center, the better.
Figure out where on the spectrum your source is, and understand that. Don’t stop reading just because it’s conservative, or liberal. It’s impossible to find something that’s completely unbiased. But understand everything you read comes from a perspective, and that knowing where that perspective helps you further unbias the news.
This is critically important.
All too often, bias is treated as a bad thing, and people believe that all news sources are biased except for their preferred source. In other words, liberals will claim that the New York Times and Washington Post are unbiased, while conservatives will claim that Fox News is unbiased.
Both media outlets are biased.
Moreover, people will misunderstand how to react to bias and believe they are supposed to shut it out. This is impossible. All that actually happens is that liberals turn off Fox News because they see it as biased, and the New York Times as telling the truth. And conservatives do the exact opposite.
This is bad, as I’ll explain later – more information (if you read news like a bayesian) is always better. There is never any reason at all to shut out a news source. Resisting propaganda is not done by simply creating blacklists of fake news sites and never reading them. That’s actually helpful to propagandists.
Resisting propaganda is done by trusting ourselves to use the tools outlined here to personally reject propaganda and accept honest reporting on a word by word basis.
Okay, so you’ve identified the bias of your source. Now, what do you do? Read more. Read especially on the opposite end of the spectrum as your primary news source. Combining sources from either side of the aisle is going to give you better information, overall, than reading one source or reading sources that are near each other on the spectrum.
Same Story, Multiple Angles
One way to combine news sources is to look for the same facts. If Fox News and the New York Times both are reporting similar facts, that gives you very high confidence that those facts are true.
If you read a story in Breitbart and it isn’t reported anywhere else, that should give you pause. That doesn’t mean the story is false. It doesn’t even mean that the story is fake news. It means that the chances of it being noise, shoddy reporting, or fake are higher.
When looking for multiple sources, look for multiple first-hand reports. That means that you need to find instances where both the New York Times had a reporter on the scene, and Fox News had a reporter on the scene, and they’re both reporting things independently of each other. Contrast this with Democracy Now reporting something, and then Mother Jones picking up the same report from Democracy Now.
Those are not independent reports. That’s just Mother Jones parroting Democracy Now, and you’ll gain very little information from the second report that wasn’t in the first.
Reading on different sides of the aisle is important because of the echo chamber effects described above. It’s more likely that Drudge Report will simply link to Fox News rather than do independent reporting than it is for Washington Post to link to Fox News.
News organizations from different sides of the aisle are less likely to parrot each other and more likely to send their own reporters and gather their own facts. Finding sources that you like from both sides of the aisle (again, preferring those closer to the center), is a great first step towards being “probably, approximately correct”.
Big and Small
Another way to diversify your news consumption is to mix large and small providers, for instance, a large newspaper and a few small bloggers you like. Large providers tend to have higher standards of ethics and more resources to draw upon for reporting, however, small providers tend to have more detailed opinion analysis and may sometimes be the first to break certain kinds of stories.
Note on the above, bloggers tend to have better opinion. If a blogger is reporting news, and that news is never picked up by another site, think whether or not that blogger actually has the resources to do reporting. It is more likely to be fake.
Mixing dedicated providers like newspaper websites as well as aggregators like Reddit or Facebook can also work. Mixing local and national news is another great diversification.
More Information is Always Better
I’ve mentioned this above, but it bears repeating.
At no time is it ever justified to turn off the TV, to shut down a website, or change radio stations. At no time is shutting out information going to make you smarter.
Dismissing news based on its source is the “genetic fallacy“. It’s a dangerous precedent to set, because as soon as you say you can ignore Breitbart, then you’ve normalized a conservative ignoring the Washington Post.
DO NOT SET THIS EXAMPLE. IT IS LAZY AND INCORRECT.
Let’s say you’re a conservative, and you think that the New York Times is filled with nothing but lies.
You’re a smart person. Use the tools outlined in this essay. You can check the New York Times yourself, check it against other sources, use independent rational judgment, and verify its claims against what actually happens. The New York Times is not so cunning that it’s going to trick you into being a liberal.
So read the New York Times, along with other sources.
Think of a compass that is broken and points south rather than north. Can you navigate using this compass? Yes.
What’s important is that a source has a consistent bias, that’s what separates it from being just noise. Again, if you’re an avid Fox News reader and you see the same facts reported in Fox News and the New York Times based on independent reports, then you have practically ironclad beliefs.
Understand the difference between Opinion and Reporting
Often, I’ll see accusations of bias when that’s exactly what a news source is trying to sell.
This actually gets liberals pretty bad. Often, liberals will point to the “O’Reilly Factor” or “Fox and Friends” as proof that Fox News is overwhelmingly biased. But those shows are explicitly opinion shows, they’re not reporting shows, and they aren’t the news.
Likewise, conservatives will often claim NPR is much more liberal than it is based on some of its opinion or discussion shows, which are not news. If you’ll look at the chart referenced above, NPR’s actual news reporting is one of the most centrist there are.
Knowing the difference between opinion and reporting will cut down on the amount of stuff you have to analyze. Opinion articles almost never relay new facts. They’re useful to hear viewpoints on already reported facts, but are not facts themselves.
You can often see if you’re on an opinion page on a website based on its URL (it will show editorial or opinion). Alternatively, the article will be declared as an op-ed.
Some sites with less strenuous ethics standards will mix opinion and reporting, which means you just have to rely on your own reading of the article to see if it’s reporting new facts, or just communicating the author’s opinion on facts.
There are two main patterns you can use in treating the news like an experiment. You can say it’s ‘observational’, in which case things like reading different viewpoints with an understanding of the bias of each is a good way to ‘find the mean’.
Or you can treat it like a literal experiment. If the article is predicting something will happen, does it happen? If it does, then the source becomes more trustworthy. If it does not, then the source becomes less trustworthy.
For example, a lot of sites were talking about Obama declaring martial law under something called “Jade Helm” a year or so ago.
Did this ever actually happen?
If not, why are you still believing the site is trustworthy?
There are three possible outcomes here.
First, the article was written in error. If this is the case, did the source issue a retraction?
Second, the article reported the truth, but somehow Jade Helm was stopped, or otherwise halted by some conspiracy. We’ll talk about this more below.
Third, the article was fake news.
Understand Conspiracy Theories are Rare
Conspiracies do, occasionally, happen. That’s what’s so great about being ‘probably, approximately correct’. It means, sometimes you’ll be wrong, but that you’ll be less wrong than everyone else.
Many times, instead of fake news issuing retractions when the things they claim don’t happen, they’ll claim at the last minute conspiracies halted or covered up the actions, or even worse, it was due to the overwhelming reporting they did that they stopped the action from occurring.
To borrow the same example as the above, this is what happened with Jade Helm. Fake News reported Obama was going to seize power, and when that didn’t happen, it was because of further conspiracy.
This may or may not be real. But the question is – how likely is it. That’s all a bayesian is interested in.
For this, you have to acknowledge three things:
- Conspiracies do happen
- They don’t happen all that often though
- The more complex a conspiracy, the less likely it is to happen
To illustrate 3, let’s talk about an example. Some people believe that the moon landing was faked. This runs afoul of three because this means a whole lot of actors had to be in coordination, from the news media to the government. There’s no real explanation of what was in it for all the actors – for instance, why would the media have any interest in displaying a fake landing? Or even better, wouldn’t the media get great ratings by exposing such a conspiracy?
It’s an insanely complex conspiracy, and given that the government couldn’t even get a website together for Obamacare, it should be questioned whether they had the wherewithal to fake a moon landing.
Of course, conspiracy theorists might counter-claim that inefficiencies and ineptitude on the government’s part are just what they want us to think since it makes us doubt that they’d be capable of conspiracy. In other words, the government faked the ineptitude too. This means, even more people had to be involved, in even more complex ways, and absolutely none of them are talking.
From a bayesian point of view, this is even less likely.
Again, we’re not saying impossible, just unlikely. Ultimately, if you follow the tools and methods outlined in this essay, you should know what are the most likely facts. It’s your choice to believe them. But you do have to understand that if you chose to believe something that’s unlikely, then that’s on you.
Media Blackouts are Another Kind of Conspiracy
A particular conspiracy theory I hear about a lot is that you can only find some news on Democracy Now or Infowars because there’s some sort of grand media blackout on the subject.
This is a conspiracy, which means somehow a bunch of actors in the media have to all get together, get on the same page, and not make any mistakes in following through with the plan. Communication is hard, mistakes are easy, and getting everyone incentivized to go along with a conspiracy is also very hard. Conspiracies are hard and rare. Media blackouts are hard and rare.
It isn’t likely. The more likely explanation for only your news source picking up something is because it’s either shoddy reporting or fake news.
Always Be Updating Your Beliefs!
Be prepared to be wrong.
The beauty of being probably, approximately correct is that there’s a built-in method to fix your beliefs. If you have wrong beliefs under most other methods – such as “The New York Times is the sole source of Truth” then not only will you keep those wrong beliefs, but you’ll never know you’re wrong.
Under the bayesian view, we already acknowledge that we’re always a little bit wrong. So there’s always room to grow – more information to consume, more perspectives to find, and more of our own biases to root out.
We’re humble. And humble people can acknowledge making mistakes. How does this make your consumption of the news better?
Becuase you know what, maybe you just didn’t like Hillary Clinton. Maybe you just thought she was mean spirited, even corrupt or a criminal. And maybe you wanted so much to dislike her that you’d believe anything about her, even absurd stuff like running a pedophile ring out of a pizza parlor.
As a bayesian, you can say “whoops!” and update your beliefs. You can still happily keep your belief that Hillary Clinton was not a great person, while also acknowledging that she’s unlikely to be involved in a pizza parlor pedophile ring.
Others have no mechanism to correct themselves, and so they just fall deeper and deeper into conspiracy. Unable to explain why they were wrong about a pizza parlor, they have to believe more and more complex theories on why they were right about the pizza parlor. These more complex theories are less likely to be right.
Worse still, there’s more than a few people out there who are willing to tell you whatever you need to hear to save your ego. Some of them speak with Russian accents. Humble folks are hard to propagandize to because we have no real incentive to believe one thing over anything else outside of our interest in the truth. We have no egos to protect.
Look for Contradictory Viewpoints
Speaking of valuing only the truth, this means not only should you be willing to be wrong, but you should outright try and prove yourself wrong.
Finding out you are wrong about something is wonderful. Becuase now it means you are more right. You have a process to get more and more right over time, whereas many other people don’t. They stick to their beliefs statically and are unwilling to change or get better.
Being willing to get better at things is a universally good thing, it leads to happiness, wealth, and prosperity. To get those things, you have to look at what you’re doing wrong and fix it. This requires humility. And it requires you always trying to do better than you are.
In consuming the news, this means you have to challenge yourself. If you are a liberal, not only is it wrong for you to blacklist Breitbart, it’s right for you to read more Brietbart.
This has another benefit than simply challenging your beliefs. It helps you understand the other side.
As citizens in a free democracy, we have a duty to share what we believe to be true. It’s how we vote, it’s how we organize, it’s how we collectively decide.
And you have no chance of sharing your thoughts outside your echo chamber if you don’t even understand where others are coming from.
Conservatives have a duty to read Mother Jones. Because if they want to persuade liberals, they have to know what liberals believe. And liberals are going to largely believe Mother Jones.
Sharing ideas is important. But given what we said about sensor fusion, it’s most important to share with people you disagree with.
Use Logic and Rationality
A Primer on Logic’s Role
We’ve talked above about how to take in facts from the news. And how to combine multiple source’s reporting of a single fact (sensor fusion). But how do we combine multiple facts? That’s where logic has to step in.
Logic’s role in understanding news is to test every new fact coming in from your sources against all of your established facts. Updating knowledge goes both ways – if something comes in that goes against a lot of other evidence, you should both:
- Believe that new fact less than you otherwise would
- Believe all of your current facts less since this is new information that questions it
Doubt is a good thing. But to know whether a new fact comes in and supports or challenges you requires logic and deciding how to fit the new fact into the existing belief structure.
What all this means is that you need to be reading news all the while thinking rationally – like a spell check in the back of your mind – for logical fallacies both formal and informal.
You can find lists of these online – the informal fallacies show up on a list I cited above when I talked about the genetic fallacy. Formal fallacies like affirming the consequent also pop up pretty regularly in news consumption.
Practice spotting these fallacies in other’s reason as well as your own allows you to critically read any article that comes your way as well as think critically about your own belief structure – a one-two punch.
Thinking logically is actually something that comes pretty easily so long as you don’t run afoul of the fallacies, and there’s only a finite list of them. Liberals better understanding, for example, that correlation is not causation, would dampen fears about vaccines and autism. Conservatives not falling prey to the bandwagon fallacy might help them better recognize their president-elect doesn’t appear to do or say anything traditionally conservative.
Thinking rationally while reading and consuming news also lets you read the news like a news editor yourself. If the news makes a citation, does the citation actually say what the article is claiming?
For this, my best example is the plethora of articles out there citing leaked emails. The leaked emails are freely available on WikiLeaks. Anyone can go and look at them. If an article claims an email is proof that Clinton operates a pedophile ring out of a pizza parlor… read the email yourself. Does it actually prove that?
This gets into a subset of fake news that is popular lately, and not just in politics. It’s common practice in the nutrition market to add a whole lot of citations to your product about how it will make you leaner and stronger. The only problem is, nothing you actually cited says that at all.
Editorializing myself here, it’s kind of ironic that a kind of know-nothing segment of society is willing to read fake news articles to question the elite, but aren’t willing to question their fake news. If the article says Podesta is a pedophile based on an email, and I can see the email myself, and I don’t see how the article is saying that Podesta is a pedophile… but I believe the article anyway, because after all, some very smart people wrote it…
That whole thing is just confusing. Either you don’t like elites telling you what to think, or you do. And if you don’t like elites telling you what to think, why don’t you read the emails yourself and decide what to think? Why did you just change your source of authoritarian elites?
Speaking of editorializing, thinking rationally is the only tool you have in analyzing op-ed and opinion pieces. Most of the rest of these tools are about facts themselves – getting multiple sources, recognizing your own biases and others, checking sources against the future via verifying them, and so on. But logic can be used to tear apart op-eds since op-eds are just arguments.
For beginners, try this checklist on the next opinion piece you run across:
- Are the author’s assumptions about the world based on facts you can support through other sources?
- Does their conclusion follow from their assumptions?
- Do they fall prey to one of the many informal logical fallacies?
Some have described this environment we’re in right now as a second civil war over Twitter. The battleground of ideas is on Facebook, Twitter, and other social sites. It’s on Reddit and 4chan.
Weapons in the war of ideas – like those outlined above – help everyone better approach the truth, and that’s the side we all believe we’re fighting for.
It is especially important to share these ideas and other ideas with people whom you disagree. If you both can agree to a set of ground rules such as ‘we can disagree on whether or not something is true, but we agree that there are methods to discover the truth and we’ll both accept the result of those methods’ then you’re already on the right track towards a Twitter Gettysburg Address.