Fake news: how to call BS

Your moment
The Collins dictionary named "fake news" as the word of the year 2017. We've all heard of it, but how can we make sure the news we consume is factual, not fictional?
"Lies, damned lies, and statistics" - Mark Twain

Actually, the quote above is not by Mark Twain. Most believe it was British PM Benjamin Disraeli who said it but that's subject to debate as well. Yet if one wished to score a point in a debate, a quote by a well-known author like Mark Twain would lend more weight to an argument than a quote by Disraeli. 

There's fake news for you.

Truth is a matter of popular perception. The Machiavellis, Robespierres, and Goebbels’ would nod along to that. The fake news debate, though popularised by President Trump, has pervaded our society since the beginning of time in various guises (propaganda, disinformation and what-have-you). Yet the cynical lens through which we now view the world of reporting is on a scale unprecedented.

The subject of fake news has highlighted the remarkable levels of cognitive dissonance prevalent among us. According to a study by Gallup and Knight, 73 percent of Americans believe fake news to be a major issue with reporting in current times. I do not speak of “actual” fake news websites that deal in parody and satire such as The Onion; rather those claiming to be custodians of the truth. It's common to witness arguments in which one quotes articles from highly agenda-driven media sources such as Breitbart News or The Boston Tribune to prove a point.

More infuriatingly, the debate itself has made it rather convenient for the powers-that-be to label any news outlet that voices criticism as fake news.

Recently, an Indian news portal exposed the sudden spike in revenues of a company owned by the son of a prominent politician. The story got labelled as fake news immediately and the news portal now faces a $15 million defamation suit it cannot afford, unlike the opposing side.

So what can we, as individuals, do to ensure we remain informed and not manipulated?

Keep our eyes open. Here's how.

Be wary of emotional, inflammatory headlines. Content curators are encouraged to write flashy, click-bait headlines that pull in eyeballs, which is fine. But a news article with a headline intended to tug at emotional chords or making sensationalist claims should be given a wide berth. This goes for sharing articles on social media as well. Be responsible, read the whole story before posting it online. 

Watch out for red flags. Thankfully, most fake news writers are lazy. Articles riddled with grammatical errors, anonymous authors, or clearly-photoshopped images are a strict no-no. 

Fact-check sources. If you come across a claim that sounds suspicious, check the source. Odds are, it will lead you to another news website making the same claim. If it's not an original, reputable source, you should approach it with doubt.

Get help from the internet community.  A number of resources exist that fact-check news articles and name-and-shame known offenders. A good resource is Snopes, arguably the largest fact-checking database at present. A similar one is Knife Media, which strips news stories down to bare facts and provides updates about the objectivity standards of prominent newspapers and magazines. 

Finally and most importantly, figure out your own bias. For instance, I've always loved reading about dirty great snakes. Every other Google search I make is usually along the lines of "biggest snake ever" or "actual anaconda not Nicki Minaj Anaconda". So obviously, when I came across this piece, I was inclined to believe it (yes, I know).

Point being, before reading any news, take a moment to consider your own stance on the issue. Do you want a particular claim to be true or false? Unfortunately, our social media activities have long betrayed our predispositions. We tend to get the news we want to read. Simple awareness of your own proclivities may help you in distinguishing between news and cajoling.

The first step to fixing a problem is knowing you have one. Be informed, and do it right.

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