What good can we get from fake news?

Fake news is bad. There is nothing nice about deceiving and manipulating people. However, that there are people with bad intentions and motivations is a fact of life. The least we can do is to be aware of it and try to protect ourselves from it.

The issue of fake news reveals a critical problem about the way we consume information. We tend to trust information that we receive through certain channels. If we see something in print or on a website that looks like a news site we assume that it’s true, particularly if it’s something that is consistent with what we already believe.

During the last general elections in the United States where fake news was a major issue, there were quite a few fake stories circulating about Donald Trump that people just assumed were true because of the depths of the low expectations they had of him.

One of the most circulated was the one about a quote he supposedly made to People magazine saying that if he ever ran for president he’d run as a Republican because they are the dumbest group of voters and would believe anything. People took it and ran with it because it sounds like something Trump would say. How many of us bothered to google the comment to see if we could find references to it in other sources and in People magazine itself? A search of People’s archives found no evidence of that comment.

Things like this show our bias to things that we already believe but if it’s something we disagree with we’re more likely to be skeptical and critical of it. What we should take away from this is that not everything we like or believe is true, so as far as it’s practical, we ought to be skeptical and critical of the information that we consume or even more importantly, the information we share. It’s one thing to believe something that is false but to spread false information is like contributing to an epidemic.

So how do you detect fake news stories?

There are some basic habits and tips you can use to detect which stories are questionable or false. When you receive information, the first thing to consider is the source of the information. If it’s from a website that you’ve never heard of before you should be on your guard. If you go to the website check the other information on the site to see how credible it looks. Look for a disclaimer on the site (usually found in the About section) to see if it’s a satirical or comedy site. The next thing to consider is whether the story is being reported on by other sources, particularly sources that are established news organisations that you know. If a famous person dies, it should be all over the news and social media; if it’s just one questionable site reporting on it, then odds are that it’s false.

These guidelines will help to protect against the most blatant attempts to deceive with fake news. It may not be practical to check every single piece of information, but being aware of the problem should motivate us to be more responsible about it. If we’re consuming information just for personal use and it doesn’t get beyond us, that is one thing, but if it’s something that we’re going to share we ought to take steps to ensure that it’s not misleading. And if as a result of this fake news phenomenon, we end up with a society that is more conscious and critical of the information it receives, then we’re better off for it.

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