How to recognise fake news

Half way through the seventh week of lock-down, and no end in sight.

It’s easy to become despondent!

When I wrote “In the absence of data, how are governments responding to COVID-19?” I pointed out that the lack of quality information creates confusion.

In life, as in business, each of us deal with uncertainty in our own way.

It does not help that there is a potentially overwhelming flood of contrary content arriving – via traditional news channels, via social media (Facebook and Youtube in particular), and from our social circles – spread more easily by group posts on Whatsapp and similar messaging platforms.

The need for control

Last week, Melanie Verwoerd explored the psychology behind the need to find certainty, asking Are the conspiracy theories true?

She writes, “As human beings we don’t like uncertainty or feeling out of control. We like to know that someone has a plan or that we can make our own plans.

Otherwise, life feels just too unpredictable and dangerous.

It is therefore not surprising that there is such a tsunami of conspiracy theories at the moment.

When fake news is presented with conviction, it can allay our fear by bringing the illusion of control.

It does not help that many of us have learned to distrust mainstream media.

The introduction of 24-hour cable news channels 30 years ago meant that news has become big business.

Television networks compete with each other for sponsorship – which means that they are also competing for viewers. 

It is impossible to fill 24 hours each day with compelling news – so the news cycle are increasingly dominated by “analysis” – so-called experts presenting their interpretation of the news and what it means – in most cases pursuing an agenda that is linked to their political or business sponsor’s interests.

In many cases, the distinction between actual news and analysis has become blurred. 

No wonder then that similar content posted on social media looks real.

How do we identify fake news?

Let me make it clear that I am not suggesting that every thing posted in mainstream media is true, or that everything posted on Facebook is false. Back in 2018 I spoke about the need for discernment when evaluating content, in an interview on SAFM.

So what does this mean?

When evaluating any content I find the following questions to be useful:

Is this presented as fact, or as opinion?

Undisputed factual content is (typically) not emotional and can be independently verified

For example, “South Africa won the 2019 Rugby World Cup, beating England 32-12”

Opinion is (typically) emotional and cannot be independently verified. Real news is more likely to be based on fact. Opinions should always be taken as such, and warrant further research

The difficulty with fake news is that it is typically presented as fact. It takes effort to debunk the lies.

Let’s take a trending example:

The video PLANDEMIC cites Judy Mikovits and plays on various fears around COVID-19, vaccinations and the domination of the middle class by the super rich.

With the sheer volume of content out there, I apply the following filters.

Does the content play to my emotions, particularly fear? 

If content feels like it is attempting to manipulate me emotionally, by playing to my fear, anger or sadness, this is a strong indicator that it may be false.

The Plandemic example definitely seems to play to fear – my fear that I am being manipulated and controlled by billionaires, the fear that my child may get autism, the fear and distrust of big business and big government.

Of course, some news is genuinely concerning, so in its own right this is insufficient to write something off immediately. 

This warrants further investigation.

Can I cross check the content?

The Internet has made it really easy to cross check content.

I start by searching for “plandemic”.

In this case i see a huge number of posts digging into the video – I can go through these and make a more informed decision as to its accuracy.

In each case, I need to ask myself the same questions about each of these sources.

If I had been doing this a week or to ago, I may have wanted to research the source. In this case the video is produced by Elevate – a production company that seems to focus on conspiracy theories. 

Typically real news would be reported by more than one source at about the same time.

Can we check the credential of the “expert” cited? Who is Judy Mitovics? 

Again, research appears to suggest that Mitovics’ scientific credentials and expertise are poor.

Finally, I can fact check each of the assertions made. Again, overwhelming these appear to be fallacies presented as fact.

Of course, it is possible to do all the research and still to choose to believe the original content.

The important part is to check the facts.

What’s the harm of fake news?

Every day, business and political leaders have to make tough decisions – decisions that have a real impact on us.

They are faced with the same deluge of information that we are.

In fact, it is fair to assume that many decision makers are presented with far more data, analyses and opinions than we are. They too need to draw the distinction between fact and fiction

When we fall for fake news we may feel, for a moment that we are taking back control – sticking it to the man!

If we don’t do our research we could, unwittingly be serving the agenda of our oppressors.

Fake news typically has an agenda – most commonly motivated by money or power. For example, we can look at how the Brexit campaign used fake news to drive the out vote to entrench certain interests.

With respect to COVID-19, fake news messages are mostly acting against the public health and could lead to many unnecessary deaths, increase the length of the lockdown, and deepen the economic crisis. This serves the interests of those that would like to maintain their control over all of us.

Truthiness is what you want the facts to be, as opposed to what the facts are. What feels like the right answer, as opposed to what reality will support.” – Stephen Colbert

The basis of democracy is that we, the people, question the excesses of government. When we do so, we should endeavour to do so on the basis of fact.