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How to avoid falling for fake news

“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it,” noted the French mathematician, physicist, and inventor Blaise Pascal. We are living in an era of COVID-19 and of increasingly divisive political power struggles both at the national and international levels. Against this background, the purposeful creation of fake news and the willful distribution of fake news stories on social media and official media have become a real problem. How can you determine the truthfulness of a news story? How can you avoid passing on fake news and becoming a part of the problem? Today, let’s explore what we can do to spot fake news better to prevent consuming and maybe even to share it.

Falling into the fake news trap

A few weeks ago, I received a message on WhatsApp from a fellow academic educator sharing a video with me. The clip related to the COVID-19 crisis and featured some surprising news about a key US health official. It offered some contrarian views and seemed to be credible and take a new perspective on the topic, so without much thought, I forwarded it to a few close friends who, like me, appreciate the plurality of opinions. Two hours later, my fellow educator sent me another WhatsApp message: “Don’t watch the video — fake news.”

I immediately forwarded the warning to my friends, who fortunately hadn’t watched the video yet. Later on, I felt angry about myself. I had let my guard down. I should have practiced what I preach. I should have engaged in critical thinking to avoid falling into the fake news trap in the first place and then help to spread it around. So, I resolved to review my approach to counter fake news and to write this article to share my strategy with you.

What is fake news?

Wikipedia describes fake news as fabricated news consisting of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via online social media and traditional print & broadcast news media. Examples of fake news include sloppy journalism; propaganda; biased, framed or slanted news; misleading headings; satire and parody; and clickbait. 

Sometimes, these types of fake news are easy to spot. For example, who of a sane mind would believe that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring from the basement of a pizza restaurant in Washington D.C.? (Sad but true, many of her opponents willingly bought into this fake news story now known as “Pizzagate”, and one man even stormed a D.C. pizza shop with a gun before getting arrested). 

At other times, fake news can be hidden behind the mantle of the legitimacy of a long-established media outlet. An example would be where a national news outlet buys in news stories from government media sources in a nearby country. This might be to save costs or to gain access to news stories in locations that are difficult for local reporters to reach. Be wary of the originating source of the story, not only the publisher of the story.

Why do so many people fall for fake news?

One reason why fake news can spread easily is because of a widespread cognitive bias. The Confirmation Bias is the in-built human tendency to favor confirmatory evidence that supports our own beliefs of what we think is true. We often neglect to search for contrary evidence or viewpoints and tend to dismiss evidence that might undermine our preferred views. So, beware of collecting only evidence that confirms your belief.  

In our X-IDEA Innovation Method, we help innovation teams to stay clear of common cognitive biases and procedural thinking traps with a methodological feature that we call X-IDEA Traps. Would-be innovators typically face the Confirmation Bias in the initial process stage Xploration, and we alert them of it and set them the task of actively looking for evidence that disconfirms their preferred beliefs about their innovation challenge.

Similarly, when it comes to consuming news, we should make an active effort to also look for media sources that take a neutral, outside or contrarian view on a topic. For example, to get a neutral, undogmatic view on what’s going on in politics in my home country Germany, I read the Swiss newspaper NZZ.com.

How can we spot fake news?

In Thinkergy’s X-IDEA Innovation Toolbox, we have one thinking tool that we use to separate fact from fiction. Called “Fact Check”, we use this X Tool with clients whom we guide through an innovation project to help them validate what they think they know about their innovation case by checking it against reality. 

Naturally, we can equally well use the principles of “Fact Check” to validate the accuracy and truthfulness of a news story to find out if we are dealing with hard facts, dangerous half-truths, or complete nonsense. 

So, how can you distinguish fact from fiction in the news you consume? Check for possible red flags, and probe for the underlying data behind a claimed fact or truth, with a set of questions: 

  • Who has produced and published the news? Who are the authors? Are they real and credible? 
  • How about the media outlets in which the story is published? Are they legitimate? What’s their mission and purpose?
  • What main source is the story based on? What are the supporting sources cited to substantiate the claims? How real and credible are they?
  • When is the date of publication of the story? Is it still relevant and current?
  • How do other independent experts with knowledge on the topic view the claim?
  • Does the news piece use a sensationalist or shocking headline?
  • Does the story surprise you? Does it literally sound too good to be true?
  • Does the story confirm your beliefs about the topic, a person, or a group of people? Or does it support a contrarian view that resonates with you and deviates from the mainstream view?

After probing these questions, honestly ask yourself: “How confident am I that this information is really true?” Here, you can choose one of three confidence levels: I am 80%-100% sure that this is true (hard fact); I am 50%-80% sure (dangerous half-truth); I am less than 50% sure (probably nonsense). 

Finally, if you classify the news as a hard fact and, possibly also, a half-truth, validate it by asking: “How do I know that this is true? What is the supporting evidence? How can I credibly make a case?” If you’re unable to solidify the claims of a story with credible supporting evidence, you’re likely to deal with a dangerous half-truth or total nonsense that probably is grounded in some fake news.

How to avoid spreading fake news?

Before you share a piece of news, ask yourself the following three questions: 

  1. Why do I want to share the story with others? 
  2. Is this story worth my time to share it? Is it worth the time of others reading or watching it?
  3. Have I checked the truthfulness of the article? Am I confident that the news I intend to share is grounded in facts and not in fiction?

If you negate any of the questions above, then don’t share the news. We all share a responsibility to avoid becoming an active part of the fake news problem.

Conclusion: Take responsibility to be a part of the solution, not amplifying the fake news problem

A century ago, the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Illyich Lenin already noted that “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” He seems to be right in times of an ever-increasing flood of fake news in traditional media and social media. Sadly so, as fake news have real-life consequences. (For example, in “Pizzagate,” the man who stormed the pizza restaurant with a loaded gun ready to kill people got arrested. Hillary Clinton didn’t get elected to become the first female US president). 

Fortunately, there is a higher truth that supersedes the “false truth” of a fake news story. But to give this real truth the voice and space it deserves, we all need to do our part by protecting the real truth and by fighting the falsehoods perpetrated by fake news. So, be vigilant. Beware of fake news. Check on the accuracy and legitimacy of a piece of news. And before you share a story, be sure it’s founded on facts and not on fiction.

  • Would you like to learn more about X-IDEA, our innovation process method and toolbox? Check out this link or download our X-IDEA booklet.
  • Contact us to let us know about what’s keeping you up at night during these challenging times, and to jointly explore how we may help you with our creative problem-solving expertise and innovation know-how.
  • © Dr. Detlef Reis 2020. The article is published in the Thinkergy Blog on May 21, 2020.

Credits: Photo by Max Muselmann on Unsplash | Illustration by United Nations Covid-19 Response on Unsplash