They say children learn by example. I don’t know where my father got his honesty from, but I certainly got it from him. Unbelievable as it may sound, I have not once caught him lie. For this and other reasons, I take particular offence in one of the fastest emerging challenges of the twenty first century: fake news. And so should you. Besides an explanation of what fake news is and why it is such a problem, this more practically oriented essay will offer some concrete tips in avoiding fake news.
Let us first analyze what is so special about fake news and how it functions, before discussing what can be done about it. Fake news is not propaganda, although it is frequently mixed with it. Propaganda are political messages or biased news that support a particular ideological interest by stressing (or diminishing) certain aspects of reality. A certain amount of bias or framing is normal and almost unavoidable since communication science will teach you that we never just ‘register’ reality. In contrast, fake news is either trying to force real news to report on untrue facts (think of Trump’s claims of having the largest inaugural crowd), or simply crafting news stories about events that didn’t happen.
While it always existed to some extent, the current wave of fake news is a child of online social networks. First of all because of the speed it travels, which makes it hard for any correction or restatement to catch up with the message – the damage is already done. A perfect example are the thousands of people who still believe the president’s son drives a Lamborghini, despite being falsified over and over again, including in property declarations. Second, in the case of forged news it often avoids professional editorials which (even if biased) could be held accountable as a brand. Third, we were more critical in the past when there were just a limited number of news outlets, than in this new situation where the news is received from sources and especially people in our social networks that we both chose and trust. After all, your tia Marta would not lie to you, right? All these factors make for a particularly hard problem to root out.
So why is this such a big deal? You – a distinguished reader of El Extranjero Politico – never get caught in fake news right? First of all, you probably do.
Second, fake news is a direct attack on and sign of disrespect for democracy. The very fact that one does not try to influence citizens through real arguments, but instead skips the dialectic of democratic dialogue with fake information, shows a profound mistrust in democracy and the people in general. If I approach you with fake news, it implies I both don’t trust your capacity to understand reality, and don’t think you deserve to articulate you own political voice. It, by the way, also means that normal reality probably doesn’t favor my side. Besides being a key element of fascism, this blatant disrespect for democracy betrays the deeply classist notions of those spreading it.
Third, because fake news invalidates real news. Once one gets drawn into fake news, one starts to wonder why real news is not reporting all these hidden realities. If real news then gets caught with misreporting a fact (which regularly happens), one is driven fully into the arms of the farsantes. The nefarious effect of this is that it becomes harder to ‘bust’ fake news, because the sources that can do so are mistrusted. Key case is the successful campaign of Donald Trump – the most lying politician in living memory – to convince millions of Americans that the real news is the fake news, irreversible blurring the waters. This leads to the fourth problem, that fake news tends to create different realities of information. Before we used to debate on the interpretation of commonly acknowledge situations, but fakes news risks isolating people on ‘alternative reality’ islands with little hope of rescue. After all, the means of this rescue – real information – is mistrusted.
What is to be done? In what follows I will offer some tips you can use to avoid believing and more importantly sharing fake news. And thus avoid becoming an enemy of democracy. I will use as a recurrent example a minor fake news story a good-hearted person shared by accident. It fakes a report of Milenio about the King of Spain responding to AMLO with a very aggressive message.
1. Prevent being fooled by being knowledgeable: a general minimal knowledge of how the world works can save one a lot of manipulation. I find knowledge of history or general data (geography, demographics, economic data) especially useful. For example a while ago I saw a post floating with hundreds of likes that claimed “communism killed 100 million people in Spain alone”. Understanding that Spain never had a) a communist government, b) hundred million inhabitants, could have prevented embarrassment. In the case of our Milenio story this is not as clear, although one could reason that it would be widely out of line for trained Spanish diplomats to unnecessary provoke a key ally. Note that I do not demand of people to spend their days reading Wikipedia; just not to share spread things they don’t understand.
2. Be skeptical of messages that sound ‘too good’ to be true. Fake news is persuasive because it is designed to feed into our ideological stereotypes or fantasies. Especially conservatives have a strange need for ‘political fan fiction’ in which real events or statements are changed in a way that would sound cooler – of which our Spanish news story is a perfect example. The only time I almost shared fake news was with a picture of Ricardo Anaya with a 2014 World Cup sticker book trying to imitate an earlier 2018 picture of AMLO with his grandson. Since the PAN likes to copy things it fitted my general knowledge of politics (step one), but it sounded too crazy so I looked deeper and saw that the picture was real but actually from 2014. In these cases, look for corrections that are often already posted by others.
3. Check other, and preferably original sources. When suspicion arises in step one or two, try to find if the news is reported by other sources. This however can still fail since fake news is often spread simultaneously across multiple platforms or real news might get tricked themselves. Better is to check the original source. In our Spanish example, that would first of all be Milenio (the faked source), which never actually posted such a story. Still, the best is primary data: I definitively exposed the fake story by looking at the statements of the Spanish ministry of Foreign Affairs, which shows that Spain did react but with a respectful message (shared in other media).
4. Remember who lied to you. Fake news flourishes through exploiting not only our ignorance, but also above all our lack of memory. Much could be avoided by applying the simple rule of not being fooled twice by the same trick, although I keep seeing people stubbornly share news from the same source over and over even if they get exposed each time. In the case of our Spanish story (51.752 shares) it was a random guy called Gerardo De La Rosa, but usually it is a particular page. Whether it is your aunt or a podcast, when a person repeatedly exposes you to humiliation by feeding you fake stories (and doesn’t correct it), you should remember this. They intentionally lied to you, and probably consider you just a tool to be manipulated. No self-respecting conservative or progressive should stand for that.
Armed with these four
steps we stand a small chance of fighting this 21st century evil.
Excuse me, what did you say? This is too much to ask of the people? Well, I’m
not asking ‘the people’, I’m asking you!