Fake News: When Crap Detection Backfires

In chapter 2 of his book, “Net Smarts: How to thrive online”, Howard Rheingold presents us with a few tools to detect crap online, such as incorrect information and false news reports (Rheingold 2012, 78-79). These tools include:

Look for an author. Professional journalists tend to “sign” their articles. Articles that are false, however, tend to be signed by the “News paper” publishing them, or not at all. This makes sense, because most people would not want to sign an article intended to spread false information. But that does not mean that unsigned articles are false – I myself have written technology articles that were not signed by myself, but for whatever reason were published (by myself as editor) without any information about the author.

Look for and evaluate sources. It is important to ask where the author has his or her sources from. If there are none, it does not speak well for the authenticity of the article. But having sources doesn’t automatically mean that the information is correct. Non-serious articles tend to be read by and influenced by like minded individuals who use each other as sources. It reminds me of the “historians” who write about the ancient aliens-hypothesis about aliens visiting ancient cultures, who are all publishing articles and books citing each other’s articles and books in a never-ending circular dance of affirming each other’s points of view.

Look for an owner. If there is no sign of an owner or publisher of the article other than the name of the website itself, there is a good chance the site is not serious. There should also be some contact information. Rheingold mentions the existence of a comment section as a sign of a website being serious. I personally disagree with this point, for two reasons: 1) Plenty of serious websites do not have comment sections, and several serious news websites have over the past few years closed down their comment sections (Ricardo 2014; Clothilde 2016). 2) Plenty of non-serious websites do have comment sections, because this might add to the website traffic.

Look for design flaws and grammatical errors. An amateurish design would indicate a non-serious publisher. The problem with this statement is that it’s becoming increasingly easy for people who know little or no coding to create a professional looking website using, for example, WordPress. I have myself created a news website using WordPress, and it would not be a problem to create one that looks like what one might expect from a professional news organization. Grammatical errors – especially if they are often occurring and obvious – is something that should be taken into consideration when trying to judge the credibility of a website.

Look for what other people think of the website. Who are the people linking to the website? And what are other people online saying about it? I personally find it challenging to judge the validity and seriousness of a website based on what other people think, which is something I will explore in the following section.

Fake News

The most popular election story of 2016 was a false news story.

During the 2016 Presidential Election, the phrase “fake news” became a very popular term. The election saw a new level of false news articles, with 17 of the 20 most popular of them being directed towards the democratic candidate (Silverman 2016). An unprecedented crap detecting operation was undertaken by journalists, and to some degree social media giants such as Facebook (although, not nearly enough). This lead to more awareness surrounding the problem of false news stories, and their potential impact on society – which sounds like a good thing. But is it?

At the time I remember thinking that the awareness of the fake news-phenomenon could easily backfire because of what psychologists have named the Confirmation Bias. This refers to the tendency of people to embrace information that confirms to their established beliefs, while rejecting or ignoring opposing information (Heshmat 2015). This is a purely psychological phenomenon which was discovered long before we became connected to the Internet. So this is how the mind works and process information even before we bring concepts such as the filter bubble and echo chambers into the discussion.

When the term “fake news” became popular, I feared that this would make it easier to fall victim to the effects of confirmation bias. Rejecting and ignoring information that opposes our established beliefs can create a situation of cognitive dissonance, where our actions (believing in X) is contradictory to newly received information (X is wrong). The term “fake news” gives us an easy way to resolve this conflict (the people reporting that X is wrong are lying).

Of course, thinking that people are lying about information that one doesn’t agree with is nothing new. But as the term “fake news” becomes mainstream, it becomes easier to use. And we have seen the effects of this over the past year. The term, which was originally meant to be a description of falsified news stories, have become a standardized response to critical news stories. We see this in President Trump’s response critical journalists, and I have seen it several times during the current Norwegian election – by politicians and voters on both sides.

It is a worrying development. Politicians, and their voters, should be allowed to say that they disagree with news articles, even say that they are wrong. But there is a big difference between “This article is wrong” and “This article is fake”. Fake means wrong by design – an intended action to mislead. And if we start to convince ourselves that some news articles by a news paper are faked, then the whole news paper becomes untrustworthy. And if all we are left with are the few news papers not being critical about the things we believe in, we will be so trapped in our own echo chambers that the very thought of new and opposing information becomes an alien concept. And if that happens, crap detection becomes unnecessary – because we believe that we have already eliminated the crappy news papers – which just so happens to be the ones that we don’t agree with.

 

Sources

Bilton, Ricardo. 2014. “Why some publishers are killing their comment sections” Digiday UK, April 14. Accessed May 8, 2017.http://digiday.com/media/comments-sections/
Goujard, Clothilde. 2016. “Why news websites are closing their comments sections.” Medium, September 8. Accessed May 7, 2017
https://medium.com/global-editors-network/why-news-websites-are-closing-their-comments-sections-ea31139c469d
Heshmat, Shahram. 2015. “What Is Confirmation Bias” Psychology Today, April 23. Accessed September 4, 2017. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/science-choice/201504/what-is-confirmation-bias
Rheingold, Howard. 2012. Net Smart: How to thrive online. Camridge: MIT Press
Silverman, Craig. 2016. “This Analysis Shows How Viral Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Real News On Facebook” Buzzfeed News, November 16. Accessed September 4, 2017.                        https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/viral-fake-election-news-outperformed-real-news-on-facebook?utm_term=.ciAa8gO1xz#.akxjNlR845

 

2 thoughts on “Fake News: When Crap Detection Backfires

  1. Quite a rich and deep first post, Magnus. Greetings from the country where “fake news” was hatched from an un-inspected laboratory.

    I resent the word. If someone or some group can deem news as fake or not, that implies that they hold a supreme power of ultimate truth decreeing. I cannot see one person holding that power so I aim to not use the word. It’s a catch-all and a flag for what you describe well as confirmation bias.

    The veracity of “truth” “accuracy” is always contextual, negotiated, dynamic and interpreted, never absolute.

    • Greetings from the country that have adopted “fake news” for low-level politicians and bloggers who occasionally find themselves in short supply of real arguments.

      It’s interesting that you should say “if someone or some group can deem news as fake or not, that implies that they hold a supreme power of ultimate truth decreeing”. One group, the journalists, do at least have a responsibility (and hopefully the tools) to be as unbiased and factually correct as possible.

      In Norway we also have another group, called the Norwegian Press Complaints Commission, that tries to uphold ethical and professional standards in the Norwegian press by considering complaints made against the press. I’m not sure what measures they can take to punish a news organization – but any judgment made is taken very seriously. Do you have anything similar in the U.S.?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *