April 2018 – Is This For Real? How to be a Truth Warrior in the “Fake News” era

Newspaper stand with half of the papers labelled "fiction"

Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it – Jonathan Swift

Poor old truth, trying to survive on a diet of plain facts. – Tom Parsons

A few weeks ago, I started to put together this talk for this group on media literacy.  I’ve actually taken multiple courses on sorting truth from fiction online, and lots of people work professionally on it, so I thought I’d be gathering links and tips and sage thoughts from the usual sources. But then word came that Cambridge Analytica probably used self-disclosure on Facebook to craft messaging for the Trump campaign.  And then danah boyd, who is a REALLY SMART lady who has been paying attention to how kids make sense of the world using social media, gave an hour long talk at the SXSW conference in Austin a few weeks ago on how traditional media literacy instruction may be seriously backfiring.

So, at the risk of contributing to the problem, but with an eye toward addressing the new developments which make this so hard, I offer the following thoughts.

Consider the Source

Media are creations, by humans. Usually these humans wish to persuade you to believe or buy or do something. Thinking a bit (or digging a bit to find out) about who these humans are, what they are likely trying to do, and how we might be extra vulnerable to their messages.

We’ve understood about the ways media are crafted to sell us stuff since Vance Packard’s 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders.  I learned at my momma’s knee to consider that it was a toy company behind that ad for the beguiling thing on the TV, and they might even use trick photography.  I taught my own kids to notice and interrogate the premise — were people REALLY going to be more interested in being your friend if you were drinking Pepsi?

We have also long known that market research informs political speech.  But we are used to believing that political messages are straightforward in their aims, trying to get us to “buy” one candidate or another.  That may not be so true any more.


Vanessa Otero,  a patent attorney, has been analyzing news sources for a while.  Her chart is well-regarded by people I respect.  She explains her background and how she does this chart here


Vanessa Otero's Media Bias chart, placing sources pf news about the United States in a grid as a function of their political orientation and their reliability for reporting truth

(used by permission of the author for this not-for-profit talk)

An Example — Several Articles about the same research

The spread of true and false news online
Soroush Vosoughi1, Deb Roy1, Sinan Aral2,*
Science  09 Mar 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6380, pp. 1146-1151
DOI: 10.1126/science.aap9559

Crap Detection 101

Howard Rheingold has been beating this drum for a long time — here are his thoughts from 2009

Howard is best experienced visually, however!  Here’s a video from 2010

American Library Association weighs in

Librarians are notorious for their dedication to facilitating the development of a well-informed public.  They offer these tips

  • Does the headline sound unrealistic? Don’t believe everything you read
  • Check the URL. Does it have any odd suffixes or substitutions?
  • Check the author’s credentials. Skip anonymous news reports
  • Check that the headline and picture match the content
  • Consult and compare competing sources
  • Fact check stories with Snopes, Politico* and Politifact
  • Dig Deeper. Follow up on cited stories and quotes
  • Beware online “Filter Bubbles” that show you only items that are similar to items you have liked
  • Be open-minded. Ask Questions

(*Val note: Bias alert! Politico is not a fact-checking site, it’s a news site! Take a look at where it falls in the chart above! Makes me wonder whether the author made a mistake, typing “Politico” when they meant something like Factcheck.org or whether they really do look to Politico to fact check things!)

IFLA makes its contribution

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) is the leading international body representing the interests of library and information services and their users. It is the global voice of the library and information profession.

8 ways to spot fake news

This infographic is based on a very useful article over at FactCheck.org, which goes into further details on each point.

Searching for truth:  Google vs. Wikipedia

Google knows a lot about us, as Dylan Curran demonstrates

So let’s do the experiment: logged out, incognito, and logged into my main google account.

What’s old

  • Efforts to appeal to our vanity and our fears to persuade us
  • Sophisticated psychological approaches designed to undermine our common sense
  • Hucksters trying to make a buck
  • Politicians willing to say what they think will get them elected, whether or not they plan to follow through.
  • Research telling politicians what they might say to get them elected
  • Media outlets amplifying or suppressing stories that might have an effect on ad revenue
  • Product placement in TV shows
  • Hijacking emotion to create memorable experience

What’s new

  • Vast amounts of data on our likes and dislikes and self-image, apparently available to the highest bidder
  • Invisible “filter bubbles” in addition to the ones we create for ourselves
  • Highly sophisticated operatives prepared to provide misinformation to likely recruits in online fora
  • Mildly sophisticated operatives, who spread misinformation for the thrill of having put one over
  • Efforts to change public discourse via long term (sometimes cloaked) investments.
  • Efforts to “Gaslight” the public – to make us doubt our own capacity to tell what’s really going on
  • Efforts to discredit traditionally reliable sources, so we decide we can’t really tell what’s really going on

danah boyd discusses these issues, including the way the “marketplace of ideas” is not filtering out falsehood, illustrating with the introduction of the term “crisis actor”

The talk is depressing, but well-worth watching.  Because she feels obligated to suggest ways out of the problems she sees, boyd does offer some ideas at the end, but doesn’t have a lot of confidence that they are sufficient.  One of her key points is that we need to be reaching out to the frustrated in our classrooms, and seeking ways to help them find themselves. Probably true, but not wildly helpful to the individual sense maker.

She suggests:

  • Developing “grounded” empathy — when presented with an idea, try to take it out of context to see whether the idea still holds up, and whether the emotional content can be tamped down to build some distance between it and you.
  • Appreciate epistemological difference — develop a strong sense of  where other people think from, and the reasons why people with different world views respond differently than you do
  • Keep in mind well-known human cognitive glitches like confirmation bias, selective attention, and our tendency to fill in the gaps of a story with our best guesses
  • Recall how interpretation is socially constructed, and a function of shared (or unshared!) assumptions
  • Don’t assume that fact checking and looking things up is guaranteed to uncover truth
  • Understand that a simple fact can be manipulated for a variety of purposes
  • Understand that just because you know you are being manipulated doesn’t necessarily mean you can resist it.
  • Understand that the attention economy is being hacked — be mindful of what you pay attention to!
  • Make it a point to talk to people who think differently from the way you do.

I would add

  • Remember that Google and Facebook have algorithms, based on their understanding of your preferences and who you think you are, which filter what you see
  • Remember that local news sources have their own, often commercial reasons, for filtering what you see
  • Think twice before sharing a thought which discredits somebody or something you already dislike. Maybe even do what you can to fact-check it
  • Cultivate the capacity to respectfully ask questions of people who say things that don’t immediately strike you as likely. You can learn a lot about people and the way they think, which comes in handy for making sense of future things they might say.  Sometimes, people will think a bit more about their thinking when they hear what they are saying!

What do you suggest?