Trump to meet with leaders of newly discovered Martian colony

The Truth is Out There

February 3, 2017

It’s not real. You know it’s not real. But in recent days, it may have been more difficult to distinguish between truth and lies in your newsfeed.

News stories planted by Russian operatives working to influence the US election may come immediately to mind, but we’ve all seen health and wellness articles that cite questionable science, stories about some study that “proves” guns make people safer courtesy of an NRA-supported website, and posts denying climate change that link to a website funded by big oil. Entertainment satire aside, the purpose of these planted stories is to spread inaccurate information, to promote a big-business agenda, to sway, to mislead, and to confuse.

Two weeks into the new presidency, we’ve seen the White House openly providing alternative facts, denying, whitewashing, gas-lighting and otherwise bending the truth. Under this new world order, how do we protect ourselves and ensure the information we’re reading is true?

“Fake news is not new,” says Jeffrey Dvorkin, a Lecturer and Director of the Journalism Program at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus. “There has always been the temptation for people in the media to “spin” a story to suit their purposes.” Dvorkin cites the yellow press of the19th century — a type of journalism that focused on exaggeration, lurid descriptions and sensationalism to increase readership. What is new is the ease with which we can share a fake news story — in this digital world, a simple click instantly posts an article to your Facebook page from anywhere, at any time.

So why do we fall for it?

The story may seem true on the surface—perhaps experts are quoted, or it comes from a source that appears legitimate, or maybe it involves a conspiracy, a secret, a revelation. We all love a good conspiracy story don’t we? After all, the truth is out there.

Our busy lives mean that we scan headlines and skip quickly through an article before sharing. “Information is more impressionistic than ever,” says Dvorkin. “We share stories we’ve read online or through Facebook as if they were fact without truly absorbing the story, without assessing it and without remembering or citing the source.” Consider your last get- together; at least one of your friends likely said, “I read this story on Facebook the other day …” before sharing a story about a new health discovery, such as how unhealthy lemons are.

We may want the story to be true; says Dvorkin: “when the world around us is complicated, we seek out stories that support our bias—it simplifies the world by making us feel that our view of the world is the right one.” And, often, we simply aren’t asking for the truth: “Assessing a news story requires scepticism on the part of the reader, a forensic approach to our news feeds, and people don’t have the time or the inclination to dig further.”


What can you do to avoid falling for—or sharing—a false story?

  1. Check the rumour: Does a story you read smack of rumour or bad science? You can check, a well-known website that digs for the truth in rumours, urban legends, email scams and news stories. They’re a great place to start if you want to know if that story about lemons is true. And it’s simple: search lemons unhealthy snopes … whatever the truth, you’ll likely find it.
  2. Consider the source: Does the story quote “experts”? Dvorkin suggests you ask some key questions about those experts: Do they work for actual research organizations? Are they being quoted in context, either for the story or for their subject matter expertise?
  3. Assess the news outlet: Find out who funds the site—is it a front for a lobby group or industry? This can be tricky—front groups don’t generally share information about where they get their funding—but a little digging will likely show links to a particular organization. Back to the lemons example—the source for that story might be a site that looks like a health and wellness site, but is, in fact, a pseudo-science site run by a conspiracy theorist in Des Moines.
  4. Check the site: Look at the site that has posted the story. Are there a number of questionable articles posted? Does it have a working About us section? When you click on Contact us is there a real address and return email address?
  5. Share the truth: Found a phony story? Share it on your feed. Let your friends and family know that that story about lemons is circulating is just not true.

Informed reading takes work—it requires the reader to be sceptical, to ask questions and to dig a little. Soon, Facebook will call attention to stories that come from questionable sources, but the scope of their efforts will be limited. There is no simple answer to the question “how do we fight fake news” … it takes awareness, willingness and vigilance on the part of a reader to avoid falling for and sharing untrue stories.