Tinfoil hats, duct tape, and bubble gum: Practical precautions when threatened by Fake News

By: Patrick W. Zimmerman & Richard W. Sharp

Get the feeling that not everything you’re hearing about the election is quite what it seems?

Good news / bad news.  You’re not crazy; that seed of doubt is on to something. Your finely tuned bullshit detector is working. There was something fishy about the pro-leave campaign leading up to the Brexit referendum. Even Jeff Session’s Justice Department has noticed and charged a Russian woman with conspiring to interfere in the US political system during the 2018 midterms. So, great; you’re not paranoid, but only because people are actually trying to manipulate you and steal your vote.

One of the reasons why the fake news anti-media narrative is so effective is that its central conceit is manifestly true: journalists do have a clear motivation to maximize readership in an industry which still hasn’t figured out how to consistently turn a profit in the digital age.  Thus, the narrative just has to convince people that this constitutes a sufficient force to compromise the integrity of the MainStream Media.  Convincing people of a hyperbolic claim of bias is a good deal less difficult than claiming outright mendacious falsehoods, and it’s almost as effective.  The greatest rhetorical achievement of President Donald J. Trump may very well be his elision of the difference between “biased” and “wholly fabricated” in the catch-all “FAKE NEWS!” (all caps required to keep its original meaning).


So how do you know what’s real these days?

What can you do? Well, we know what not to do. Facebook’s “daddy knows best” approach to centralized decision making about what is “true” or “false” is of limited utility.1

Really effective fake news is the truth, but not the whole truth. It’s delivered with a hidden agenda.2 And it doesn’t come clean about what it’s left out or glossed over.

Enemies, foreign and domestic, are out to get your vote by any means necessary.  Here is a quick primer help you sift through the facts. Apply liberally to the next campaign flier that lands in your mailbox (digital or print). 

  1. Know your sources.
    1. Follow the money. Who is agreeing and disagreeing with a given argument? We received an anti-1631 poster in the mail. Washington Initiative 1631 is a state ballot initiative that would put a tax on carbon emissions. I’ve seen a lot of “vote no, you’ll have to pay more!” ads, but this flier was the first “vote no, it doesn’t go far enough” poster. Funny though, it was mailed by the same group that sent the others, which takes most of its funding from oil refineries in Washington
  2. Cross reference. Multiple different TYPES of sources = more good. Oh, wow, some rumor is flying around Twitter!  Go ahead and lol yourself up, but before you pass that on down the chain, it might be worth the 30 seconds it takes to google that sucker and see if it also shows up through multiple other social networks, news sources, wire associations (AP, Reuters, Europapress, etc, who tend to have much less editorializing in their reports).  If you see a report about a “study,” always, always click through to the actual study (or find it yourself), rather than simply take the word of whatever news aggregator you found it in.
  3. Distinguish between argument and evidence.  Argument is what someone is trying to convince you something means.  Evidence determines whether or not they should have any shot of doing so.  A popular way to bias analyses (in the scientific, journalistic, and fake news worlds alike) is to cherry-pick evidence that supports a hyperbolic argument.  In some extreme cases, such selective evidence is used that it attempts to support a point entirely counter to what the majority of learned, logical, and competent readers would conclude if presented with its totality.
  4. Look for historical parallels (either short or long-term patterns).  If something seems weird for a certain group of people, then the argument merits closer inspection. A good historical example is the March 2004 bombings in Spain, 3 days before nation-wide elections were held. The conservative (and anti-separatist) Popular Party blamed Basque separatist group ETA immediately, even though it didn’t fit their typical modus operandi (e.g., there were a large number of randomly selected victims and no accompanying propaganda video).  Guess what, it wasn’t ETA deciding to act like Al-Qaeda. It was Al qaeda acting like Al-Qaeda.  Likewise, when someone makes the argument that neo-Nazis were peacefully protesting and minding their own business before being set upon by an angry left-wing mob, you should probably double-check that source.
  5. Verify before circulating. Fake news thrives on propagation; shares and retweets magnify its impact.  We’ve all been burned at some point.  Learn from that, and check before sharing.
  6. Call it out when you see it.  A hail of negative comments or criticism can help debunk a story before it really goes viral.  There are hints that Facebook’s watchdog algorithms specifically monitor comments on shared pieces to alert them to suspicious stories.
  7. Follow the money (yes, we’re saying it again).  Deep Throat was right: if you want to know who’s going to benefit from, say, a piece of legislation, pay attention to who’s paying to promote it.

Other people are trying to convince you of something, and they do have an agenda of their own. Next time somebody tries the old “strongly denies” approach, you’ll remember some others who tried it before: Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, Raphael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa…. So, the next time somebody argues for stricter voter ID laws because of fraudulent voting, ask to see that evidence.

Fake news is kind of like a zombie. It keeps coming back unless you know how to arm yourself. Go grab Occam’s razor and get to work.


Notes:
1  A credible source referred to Facebook’s War Room, motivational posters, and media minders. Now, why would that be cause for concern?^
2  Unlike ours, which comes with a pretty clear agenda, as much evidence as we can throw at you, and clear statements about levels of cerrtainty.^

About The Author

Architeuthis Rex, a man of (little) wealth and (questionable) taste. Historian and anthropologist interested in identity, regionalism / nationalism, mass culture, and the social and political contexts in which they exist. Earned Ph.D. in social and cultural History with a concentration in anthropology from Carnegie Mellon University and then (mostly) fled academia to write things that more than 10 other people will actually read. Driven to pursue a doctorate to try and answer the question, "Why do they all hate each other?" — still working on it. Plays beer-league hockey, softball, and soccer. Professional toddler wrangler. Likes dogs, good booze, food, and horribly awesome kung-fu movies.

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