Post-Trump and leading up to his election there’s been much hullaballoo about fake news. Various online publications have weighed in providing lists of fake news sources. Reading these articles leads me to believe there’s some conceptual cloudiness that needs clearing away. “Fake news” is being used to refer to several different phenomena. Let’s distinguish and discuss each in turn as they pertain to good “epistemic hygiene” and good critical thinking habits. In short, I will offer you one weird trick (OK, it’s actually 3) to reduce your likelihood of falling for fake news. Fake news creators hate me!
Fake News vs “Fake” News
By ‘fake news’ (vs “fake” news) I mean news that is genuinely fake. It is manufactured whole cloth. It has little or no grounding in any actual events that occurred in the real world. Fake news sites manufacture content to fit a particular group’s narrative then hope that the story gets picked up by other sites in that ideological bubble. More clicks=more advertiser revenue.
For example, Jestin Coler runs several media platforms that publish fictional news. One of his sites, Denver Guardian, created the widely circulated story that an FBI agent who leaked Clinton emails was killed. He says that in just over 10 days the site got 1.6 million views.
“The people wanted to hear this,” he says. “So all it took was to write that story. Everything about it was fictional: the town, the people, the sheriff, the FBI guy. And then … our social media guys kind of go out and do a little dropping it throughout Trump groups and Trump forums and boy it spread like wildfire.” See NPR interview
To repeat, ‘fake news’ refers to fictional stories circulating in the media. Very often, the large sites that republish the fake news don’t know (or care) it’s fake since the story didn’t originate with them (and draws traffic to their site). The origin, motivation, and nature of fake news gives us our first hint regarding how to deal with fake news:
Rule 1: If a story fits too perfectly with your world-view, it’s probably fake or missing important qualifications.
Recall that fake news is designed to get people to “like and share.” In order to ensure this effect, creators reverse engineer what a particular audience will *want* to be true. We are almost never skeptical of articles or headlines that confirm what we already believe. However, the opposite should be true. We should be most skeptical of articles and headlines that conform to our beliefs. In such cases, we are much more likely to be fooled because our biases quickly override our critical faculties.
Rule 2: If all links go back to the same source article, be skeptical.
We know that larger online media sites that repost articles don’t fact check–especially if it conforms to their audiences’s narrative. They will, however, show a link back to the original source. This link makes the article appear more legitimate. Your brain says, “oh, it’s not just this site saying it. They have an outside source! It must be true!” Links to sources are only a superficial indicator of legitimacy. You have to check the actual source. If all articles point to the same source, be skeptical!
Many of the articles I read lumped together fake (i.e., fictional) news sources with biased news sources. The two are not the same. Also “biased” can be further subdivided into legitimate and illegitimate bias.
Two Kinds of Bias
People often fail to distinguish between two kinds of bias. In the first instance, bias merely means having a point of view. It’s not objectionable in itself and nor is it troublesome from the point of view of critical thinking. The second kind of bias is objectionable because it interferes with our ability to correctly evaluate arguments and evidence. I’m not saying that the two kinds of bias can’t bleed into each other, rather that they are distinct and must be recognized as such. Having a point of view doesn’t necessarily undermine one’s ability to reason. If it did, we’d be in trouble because no one is without a point of view. Let’s work though some examples to distinguish between the two kinds of bias and how we ought to approach them from the point of view of critical thinking.
The first kind of bias I’ll simply call “world-view” or “legitimate bias.” Consider that for every event–even something as simple as brushing your teeth–it could be described in an infinite number of ways. It could be explained from the point of view of physics, psychology, sociology, economics, history, at molecular level, and so on…The fancy phrase for this is “level (or frame) of description.”
Now, consider any complex event like an election, the introduction of a piece of legislation and its potential impact, a natural disaster, a protest, a political issue like marriage equality, or a foosball game. Recall that for each of those events, like brushing teeth, there are infinitely many facts and infinitely many levels of description.
Take a moment and imagine all the events that have transpired around the world in a 24 hour period. Taking into account that any event can be described infinitely many ways and has an uncountable number of facts, suppose you are asked formulate a report on what happened in the world within the last 24 hours AND you must do it all within 22 minutes. And two and half minutes of that has to be the weather. Essentially, this is what a news site is asked to do. It is simply impossible to present all facts, all points of view, and all events–even if we confined our subject to events in a country or state.
This is where world-view comes in. The media platform–be it TV, radio, newspaper, website, etc… must pick and choose which events it will cover, which perspectives of those events it will cover, and which facts it will cover. It can’t do all of everything. Choices must be made. World-view of the target audience is in part what’s going to guide these choices. Different media outlets focus on different events and different perspectives on those events. It doesn’t follow automatically that they misrepresent the events.
Picking and choosing a focus isn’t problematic so long as doing so doesn’t objectionably interfere with an audience’s ability to reason about the event. Space and time constraints on which events and perspectives can be covered in any reasonable detail implies that inevitably, if we consume media from only one source, some events and perspectives will be underrepresented. This leads us to
Rule 3: Consume media from a wide variety of perspectives. No single media source will represent all perspectives and kinds of events proportionately.
A media platform’s world view will necessarily underrepresent some kinds of events and perspectives. This is being charitable. While some media platforms passively underrepresent some views, others will intentionally do so. Worse still, they will [GASP!] misrepresent and distort other perspectives. (I know, I know…Say it ain’t so!). This is what’s called illegitimate bias. Knowing in advance that this will happen should push us even more strongly to observe Rule 3. [Everyone should read this article on fake news after finishing mine].
Here’s the deally-yo. Most people live in an ideological media bubble. Rather that seeking out a variety of views, people prefer to consume media that reenforces their present ideology and world-view. However, if you really are interested in being informed and are willing to change your views in the face of evidence, you should get a significant portion of your news from sources that you disagree with. There, and only there, will you find information that challenges your views and your favored media sources.
Everyone thinks the other guys are getting fed lies or are misinformed. But I submit that it’s impossible for one source or one bubble to get it right all the time. At least skimming through antagonistic news sources gives you a chance to check you own believes. If you only inhabit a media echo-chamber you’ll never run into challenges to your beliefs.
And let’s face it, it’s simply statistically impossible that every single one of your beliefs is true while everyone who holds contradictory beliefs to yours are all wrong. Experience tells us that we’ve all been wrong in the past and so there’s no good reason to believe that right now, at this one magical point in time, you’ve finally figured out the truth about all things. You are the Truthwhisperer.
What Do I Do?
Many of the articles I read on what to do about fake news suggested the very opposite of what I suggest. They suggest we insulate ourselves from heavily biased (and fake) news. I think that’s precisely the wrong way to go about it.
Indulge my gym analogy: What’s the best way to avoid the discomfort of lifting a heavy weight? One way is to never go to the gym. That’s what many articles have essentially suggested with regard to avoiding fake news (both kinds). The other alternative is to get your ass in the gym, and lift that weight 3-4 days a week. Soon it won’t be hard to lift. This I believe is the correct solution. You can never develop your critical thinking capabilities by running away from the work of critical thinking. You must exercise it to develop it.
Surround yourself with a diversity of sources. Some intentionally bad, some intentionally good, some intentionally expounding a world-view different than your own. Subscribing to bad news sources (fake or heavily biased) allows you learn what to look for so when you encounter it in your own favored sources you’ll be able to identify it. Over time, with some luck, your views might even change to conform with evidence and arguments rather than ideology!
Here’s what I do. In my newsfeed I get news from at least 5 conservative, 5 libertarian, 5 conspiracy, 5 liberal, 5 science news sources. [I pity the data miner/algorithm that tries to figure out my views.]
A couple notes on what I find to be good sources on political news. First of all, as a rule, the party that is out of power tends to be more critical of government. So, if you want a critique of whatever government party is in power, subscribe to media from the opposing party. During Obama’s reign of terror, if you wanted criticism, the liberal media wasn’t as fertile as a (thoughtful) right wing source.
This all brings me to something that pains me as a good liberal to say: If you want consistently good criticism of government I suggest following libertarian news sources. They’re never in power so they criticize both sides equally. This isn’t to say that all their criticism is good, and certainly not that I agree with all of it. Rather that since they’ve never been in power and oppose government generally, they probably are the most logically consistent in their criticism. The left and right seem to flip flop on a lot of issues depending on whether they’re in power or not. Libertarians don’t care who’s in power. It’s gonna get criticized.
Here’s a list of some of my main/favorite media sources I have in my news feed. Some I have on my list so I can know what crazy people and the extreme ends of the ideological spectrum think..
If you know of other good sources in the relevant categories, please leave a comment and I’ll add to the lists.
- Conservative Tribune
- Drudge Report
- Peterson Institute
- We The People of the United States
- Conservative Review
- Democracy Now
- Mother Jones
- Washington Post
- New York Times
- The Intercept
- The Economist
- Libertarian https://www.lp.org/
- Bleeding Heart Libertarian
- The Cato Institute
- Skeptical Libertarian
- The Federalist
- Natural News
- Alex Jones/Info Wars
- March Against Monsanto
- Food Babe
- Vaccine Information Network (Orwell would love this name).
- Risk Monger
- Sciencebased Medicine
- The Credible Hulk
- Genetic Literacy Project
- Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe
- Skeptic Wars
- Scientific American
- Skeptical Science
2 thoughts on “Fake News vs “Fake” News: Critically Thinking About Media in a Fact-Free World”
Thanks for a really useful, thought-provoking and well argued article.
The crazy list could use Occupy Democrats.