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:
WHY IS HE TELLING ME THIS?
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?
IS HE TRYING TO ELICIT EMOTIONS?
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.
WHAT EXACTLY IS HE TELLING ME?
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.
WHAT IS THE EVIDENCE?
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.
IS IT FEASIBLE?
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?
DOES IT SOUND TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE?
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.
SHOULD I BELIEVE THIS ARTICLE?
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 albernstein.com.