Its a frustrating time. Politics are polarizing. There is a lot of lying and half truths being spread on the internet. This is especially true when there is a lot at stake, as there is when there is a pandemic, or in politics when the opposing sides have dramatically opposed positions.
The motivations for lying are pretty basic. Greed and Pride have been with us since nearly the beginning of time. Hackers create fake news stories because they know that controversial and inflammatory articles drive traffic and traffic drives ads and that makes them money. Political parties and their members manufacture or exaggerate stories about the opposition in the hopes that it will increase their support and get them elected. They do this because they are strongly wedded to the ideological identity of their candidate or because they crave the power the candidate’s win will bring them.
Though this isn’t new, its specially problematic with the advent of social media technologies. The network effects inherent in large social media platforms allow someone with little resource to create a lie and see that lie span the planet in a matter of hours. There are few barriers left to prevent lies from spreading like the disease it is.
So how should we evaluate the news? I don’t claim to have a comprehensive list, but here are some of the ways that I look at stories and facts when trying to evaluate if they are true or not.
The more extreme the claim the higher the bar of evidence required
The old adage, “If it feels to good to be true, then it probably is” has a lot of wisdom to apply here. If the claim being made is extreme, then the evidence required for belief should also be very clear. Often, extreme claims are made on thin evidence. Whenever that is the case, there is a good chance the claim is false. When confronted with claims like those, if you care enough to want to know the truth, then you should spend some time researching the claim to see if there is solid evidence to substantiate it.
Consider your sources
If you can’t independently verify the claim yourself then you must choose a source to trust. It matters who you listen to and not all sources are equal in terms of trustworthiness. Here are some of the criteria you can use to vet your sources:
- Choose sources that are as close to the original as possible
First hand witnesses if its reporting of an event. If possible, watch video of the event and/or listen to the actual audio. If its a scientific study, look for the actual study not the news report on the study. If possible try and get access to actual data so you can draw your own conclusions. We’ve all experienced the telephone effect and know that more people between you and the original event the greater the chance the information has been compromised.
- Be suspicious of sources that don’t show you data so you can make your own judgments
Data can be manipulated, but what’s even easier than manipulating data is simply lying about it or making it up. And this can happen to even reputable sources and sometimes in very small and subtle ways. It can be unintentional, and thus it can happen to people who are known to be trustworthy. This is why its important to try to get as close to the original source as possible.
- Be suspicious of sources that don’t discuss the opposing view
Few things are without nuance, and few issues are so clear that the opposing view point doesn’t have some legitimacy. Articles and posts that don’t acknowledge the other side may be either blind themselves or deliberately trying to deceive you for some purpose.
- Be suspicious of sources that speak in absolutes
Its not that absolutes don’t exist, but they are rare. If a source uses a lot of absolute language, they may be hiding nuance that is important leading you to draw conclusions prematurely.
- Know a sources biases
Everyone has biases. They are impossible to avoid entirely. When discussing highly controversial topics, you should know the biases of the source and take that into account. If the source is supporting your view, know those biases make it possible they are hiding or ignoring evidence that is important because it contradicts what they want to see. The more controversial and/or extreme the assertion, the more likely it is that their biases have influenced what they are telling you. If the source is in opposition to your view, know that the same is true. It can be useful here, if you can’t find a source whose biases don’t apply to the issue, to look at sources from both sides. By doing so you will at least hear facts presented from sources who are biased in both directions, and that will help cancel out suspicious facts and create a more complete picture.
- Prefer sources that aren’t people
People lie. And most of the time its not even intentional. Our memories aren’t all that reliable. Every time you access a memory your brain modifies it. Some of what you see and hear and experience is actually made up by your brain. Your brain takes the facts and information fed it by your senses and assembles it into a cohesive narrative, a narrative that is influenced by your past and your beliefs. You should be suspicious of your own thinking on most days, and doubly so of other people. Most of the time this doesn’t matter, but on topics that are charged emotionally where there is a lot at stake, it can lead to critical lapses in judgement.
Be aware of your emotions
If you are experiencing intense emotions in general or about an issue specifically then you are in a place where your judgement is compromised. You should be suspicious of any claim but extra suspicious of claims that make you feel better. Your emotions aren’t your friend when trying to determine fact from fiction.
Look for corroboration
A single reliable source is good. Two or more reliable sources are much better. A single source might get it wrong unintentionally for any number of plausible and innocuous reasons. The more independent sources there are the more reliable the information gets.
Be wary of the echo chamber
A lot of news sites report on things where they didn’t do the original reporting. They will simply pick up the story from the original source and reprint it. You may see dozens of news outlets publishing a story that all came from a single source. These echoes shouldn’t count as corroboration.
Pay attention when opposing sides agree on facts
The facts that opposing sides agree on are the facts least likely to be false.
Be wary of claims that are almost universally dismissed by experts
This is similar to my first axiom that extreme claims require extreme evidence. Conspiracy theories are often called “fringe theories” because their views are not just held by a few, but those views are rejected by most people.
It is possible for most people to believe a lie, but it is improbable. When you don’t have compelling evidence and can’t verify something yourself because you lack the training and/or expertise to do so, then it is unreasonable and thus unwise to trust a minority opinion on a subject that most people who do have the expertise to judge have rejected.