Developing Your Fake News Detector

News comes at us every day from every direction, and from every imaginable source, as well as some we may not have imagined. To deal with this, critical thinking on our part is more important than ever.

We hear the term fake news a lot. It means a false story that appears in the media or on the internet that is intended to manipulate political views or behavior.

But legitimate news and commentary can also influence our views or actions, and some of it is intended to do so. Given the amount of information that is shoveled our way, how do we tell if an article or news story is real news or manure?

Academics weighing in on the subject suggest that we should do an extensive Google search of the source, the subject and the author, which is, no doubt, the best way to get an objective and definitive answer.

As a psychologist, I am less concerned with how we get a definitive answer than I am with how we decide to ask the question —  that first whiff that makes us wonder if we’re about to step in a cow pie.

If you don’t have an effective fake news detector, Google can’t help you, because you won’t bother to initiate a search.

Effective fake news detection involves asking yourself pointed questions about everything you hear and read.

Here are some of my favorites:


This first question opens the mental door to critical thinking. In the world of psychotherapy where I work, everything happens for a reason, whether conscious or unconscious. People rarely say things without an agenda. Think about what that agenda might be.

Every form of communication is a transaction.  Ideas are being sold for a profit.  Always ask yourself what is it he is trying to sell me and what does it cost?  Who gains if I believe the story?


If what you hear or read scares you or angers you, remember the more emotion you feel, the less effectively you think.

Purveyors of fake news don’t want you to think.  Some will tell you that you’re really smart to be scared or angry.  This is not neurologically possible, but it is often an effective way to get you to believe that a complex situation is actually simple.

The really dangerous ones will simply toss out false scenarios and let your fear, anger, or prejudice fill in the blanks.

Incitement to emotion is often disguised as an appeal to common sense, implying that you are stupid if you don’t believe.


Now that you’re thinking rather than being swayed by emotion.  Pay attention to specific content.  Is your source relaying facts or opinions?  Or perhaps opinions disguised as facts.  The devil is always in the details.


Facts require observable evidence; fake news doesn’t.  The best evidence can be independently verified.  The more sources, the better. The worst evidence demands only that you take someone’s word.

That is why hearsay – an out-of-court statement by someone who is not present to be cross-examined — is not considered evidence in a courtroom.  It is unreliable.

Suppose the question is whether animals have the capacity to reason in some fashion. A statement that is prefaced by “many people think” or “our sources tell us” should raise red flags. We should be more comfortable with a statement that begins “Jane Goodall, who spent a lifetime working with Chimpanzees, says that . . .” We know who Jane Goodall is, or can check up on her if we don’t.

But we should be cautious about the “experts.” Somewhere, there must be an Institute of Good Science, whose members can be hired to testify that sugar is good for you, cigarettes don’t cause cancer or that global warming is a hoax. This just shows that experts have an agenda too. Often it is personal profit.

Beware also of personal attacks masquerading as evidence.  In formal debate an ad hominem argument is tantamount to throwing in the towel.

Many times the evidence offered for fake news is, at the very least, equivocal.  Saying that something is true because it’s in the Constitution or the Bible is not valid evidence without at least citing article, chapter and verse.  Also, bear in mind that the Constitution and the Bible are purposely ambiguous, inviting deeper thought and meditation.  If it were not so, we wouldn’t need theologians and Supreme Court Justices.  Media personalities could make everything clear.


Conspiracy theories are fun, but if you think carefully, they require hundreds of people to keep a secret.  How many people do you know that are capable of that?

A good example of a conspiracy theory that is totally unfeasible is voter fraud. How much would it cost, and how much infrastructure would be needed to pull off enough voter impersonation to swing an election?  And how could you find all these people willing to commit a felony? What would you have to pay them? And how could the whole process be kept totally secret?  And how would you conceal all the money involved? How would you arrange for all the buses?


Money for nothing, effortless weight loss, tax cuts that pay for themselves – if it sounds too good to be true, it is.

Snake oil is the quintessential example of this kind of fake news.  It is usually sold as a secret cure that real doctors don’t want you to know about.  Another conspiracy that plays on the cherished belief that training and expertise are unnecessary if you have what fake news purveyors pass off as common sense.


Real common sense involves critical thinking.  If you have read this far and are asking this question, you are well on your way to developing an effective fake news detector.  May the force be with you.


Al Bernstein is a clinical psychologist, author and business consultant living in Portland, Oregon. Read more about his work at

West Virginia Republican Legislators Propose “Death Star” Preemption Bill to Strip Counties, Cities and Towns of Power to Enact Progressive Policies

State preemption of local government is all the rage among conservative legislators around the country these days. Here’s how it works. Suppose the Jefferson County Commission wished to pass an ordinance banning plastic bags at grocery stores as a threat to the environment. Or suppose the city of Beckley declared it unlawful for a private employer within the city to ask for information about race or sexual orientation on employment applications. State preemption seeks to strip local governments of the right to regulate certain matters within their own borders. Usually these matters are of concern to progressive cities but not conservative Republican-majority state legislatures. And preventing West Virginia local governments from adopting progressive policies is just what the Panhandle’s own Senator Patricia Rucker and her conservative Republican colleagues are now seeking to do.

West Virginia is one of the states that follows Dillon’s Rule. In a nutshell this principle of law states that municipal governments owe their existence to state legislatures. They can be created, eliminated or limited in authority any way the state legislature decides. Unless a power is expressly given to the local governments, they don’t possess that power. Even in those areas where local governments have express power to regulate, those regulations cannot be inconsistent in any way with state law. This played out in the rejection of Morgantown’s local ban on fracking, which was found by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to be inconsistent with the state’s licensing of drillers under its broad oil and gas laws.

The Legislature has expressly granted certain “home rule” powers to all West Virginia cities in WV Code 8-12-5. Among these are the powers to furnish local services, to protect order, safety and health, and to tax under certain limitations. West Virginia has also created the Home Rule Pilot Program, under which 34 cities can apply for extra power to solve specified problems. Martinsburg, Shepherdstown, Charles Town, Harpers Ferry and Ranson have been granted these limited extra powers.

But standard home rule power under WV Code 8-12-5 is generalized, leaving the municipalities much room for interpretation and action. For example, in order to protect order, safety and health a city might pass an ordinance banning handguns. That is where state preemption comes in. At the behest of the NRA, the West Virginia Legislature has specifically preempted localities from regulating firearms.

Other Republican-controlled states have gone much further to shackle local governments than preempting firearm regulation. Michigan, for example, passed what opponents called the “Death Star” bill because of the extent to which it imposed state control. That statute affected local government ability to pass ordinances that raised minimum wages, raised benefits, required sick leave, regulated union organizing and strikes, or regulated apprenticeship programs. As originally proposed, the Death Star would have retroactively invalidated local ordinances protecting the LGBT community. That feature was removed and the bill that passed has prospective effect only.

The vehicle for state preemption of local governments in West Virginia is SB 458 sponsored by Sen. Rucker and a handful of other Republican Senators. The Bill passed the Senate on February 15, 2018 on a vote of 22 to 12. Panhandle Senators Rucker, Charles Trump (R-Berkeley/Morgan, 15) and Craig Blair (R-Berkeley/Morgan, 15) voted in favor, while Sen. John Unger (D-Berkeley/Jefferson, 16) voted against. The Bill is now with the House Judiciary Committee.  The Bill is worded to apply to county governments as well as cities.

SB 458 is nearly identical to the Michigan Death Star bill. In fact, it is worse in some ways. It would retroactively invalidate any local ordinances that regulate matters the bill now would declare off limits to local governments. In addition to prohibiting local governments from regulating wages, benefits, paid leave, strikes and apprenticeship programs, SB 458 would preempt any effort by local government to restrict what information a private employer requests on an employment application. And in an obvious concession to certain business interests, SB 458 would preempt any local regulation of consumer products or their packaging. Think plastic grocery bags.

The retroactivity provision of SB 458 would invalidate several current West Virginia city Human Rights ordinances that regulate what a private employer may ask on an employment application. A non-exhaustive survey shows that Charleston (Code 62-81 (2)(a)), Beckley (Art IV, 10-450 (2)(a)), and Martinsburg (Code 154.03 (2)(a)) all have such ordinances.

It is no coincidence that the Death Star bills in Michigan and West Virginia are so similar. Both were taken from “model” laws written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), of which Sen. Rucker is State Chair. ALEC was formed and is funded by big business and the notorious billionaire Koch brothers. It is determined to strangle local democracy because it rightly sees the normally more progressive cities as a threat to the libertarian agenda.

West Virginia’s local governments cannot be responsive to local needs and interests if their power to act is snuffed out from the start by conservative Republicans in the state legislature. Stopping SB 458 deserves your attention and action.