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Activism Focus

Combating Fake News

Hal Conte December 4, 2018

At a time when the president of the United States, the London Times, and scholarly researchers are all equally alarmed over the rise of “fake news,” it’s clear that the problem has captured the attention and concern of the world. It’s equally obvious that those focusing on fake news have no consensus on what the term means, and in fact often offer definitions that directly contradict one another.

The vagueness of the rhetoric surrounding fake news is not just an epistemological problem facing news consumers desiring to find out the truth – since Donald Trump, authoritarian regimes across the globe have used the pretext of fake news to shut down dissent. As students in the process of becoming the next generation of scientists, entrepreneurs, media professionals, lawyers and activists, it’s important that we are able to distinguish what news to trust and what we should doubt.

Some people have proposed technological fixes to the problem, using artificial intelligence to detect fake news or lower its ranking onsearch engines like Google. However, this is unlikely to prevent false information from slipping into your feed when the President as well as many foreign leaders promote outright conspiracy theories without help from fringe blogs or trolls.

Additionally, any belief that Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page could be trusted to determine for society what the parameters of reality are has been completely eviscerated.

So it’s up to us. Fortunately, most of us don’t have to learn any new techniques, just how to apply them.

When we write papers for classes, we cite authors, dates, publications, and other information. Ask yourself whenever you read a news story: would I be comfortable using this in an assignment? If not, you should probably steer clear.

Of course, this isn’t the only step you can or should take. Typically, we also include more than one source in whatever paper we write. Similarly, if you see a story that has some significance to you, whether it relate to a cause you’re passionate about or a candidate’s position on, say, student loans, see if you can find more articles on the topic.

Beware here: a lot of websites cross-post identical articles without additional research. In this case, it might even be good to try to see if you can find the original. I’ve seen some environmental and social activism sites that largely provide reliable and solid information re-post content from sources like Zero Hedge, a conspiratorial financial blog. Make sure not to be deceived by the label.

International news sources can be super helpful whenever a controversial geopolitical event arises. In a US-Russia conflict over chemical weapons or election meddling, it’s unlikely that either American media or Russian-linked media will be free from bias.

During the Helsinki summit, for example. I made sure to get my information on the Trump-Putin meeting from a third party, China Daily, avoiding some intense and misleading rhetoric that looks overblown in retrospect.

Additionally, as youth in a globalized world, reading news from outside America can help widen our perspectives and expose us to facts obscured by partisanship and nationalism at home.

Many newspapers and websites outside the US were more skeptical of George W. Bush and Tony Blair’s false claims of finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq than our media.

And to those on the left – I know it sounds painful, but it isn’t a bad idea to read some National Review or Wall Street Journal articles once and a while. Not only is it good to “know your enemy,” of course, but it’s easier to debunk false claims from the other side when you know what’s being fed to them. The same goes for conservatives regarding outlets like the New York Times and the Guardian, of course.

A good website to check to see an outlet’s credibility and political leanings is Media Bias/Fact Check. While it isn’t perfect (it labels otherwise trustworthy websites skeptical of GMOs, such as Greenpeace, as pseudoscientific), it provides pretty good guidelines overall.

Finally, see where a source’s funding comes from and how that might affect its content. If Lockheed Martin takes out ads constantly, don’t expect a hard-hitting expose on excessive defense spending.

Taking these steps not only make you more informed, but makes those who trust you more informed as well. Hopefully, creating this kind of positive feedback loop will eventually relegate the “fake news era” to the past.