Happy April Fool’s Day, everybody.
We’re two months into the administration of President Donald J. Trump, and already it’s clear that the president and his chief spokesperson have no qualms about uttering bald-faced lies on easily verifiable things to satisfy their perverted need for political victory on petty issues.
The so-called mainstream media is waking up to this and calling out the government on its falsehoods. But that hasn’t stopped or even slowed down the proliferation of incorrect information through mainstream, alternative and social media.
And it’s not just Trump supporters pushing fake news. This hyper-partisan mistaken belief that you’re right and it’s the other side that’s trying to manipulate you is the main driver of this phenomenon, and it’s the first thing that needs to stop.
Living in Quebec, my social network skews left. But more importantly my social network also skews toward journalists. And it’s upsetting when people who consider themselves critical thinkers pass along poorly sourced garbage just because it agrees with their world view and sounds like it could probably be true. Often it’s things that don’t really matter — inspirational quotes falsely attributed to famous historical figures, too-good-to-be-true news stories about stupid people or that feature an ironic twist, or wildly exaggerated stories of government incompetence or corporate evil. But often it’s things that, if enough people believed them, could lead to society making poor decisions.
It’s not up to the media to fix this. Journalists have already lost the war of credibility to the hyper-partisans. And much of the way people get news bypasses journalists anyway. You’re the ones shaping the opinions of your friends through social media, which is now how more and more people get their news.
If fake news is going to be brought under control, if facts are going to matter again, it’s up to you to do something about it.
Here are some of those things you can do:
1. Fact check social media and your friends, especially those you agree with
It’s easy to call out fake news and point out inconsistencies when it’s your political opponent making the claims. But people live in ideological bubbles these days, and have taught themselves to dismiss all criticism of those they disagree with. It’s up to each side to call out their friends when false information is being spread, even if they may agree with the conclusion those made-up facts might lead to. You might agree that Donald Trump is not going to advance LGBT rights as much as Hillary Clinton would, but the LGBT page being “deleted” from the White House website doesn’t mean anything more than the State of the Union page being deleted. It’s a new administration, and it gets a new website, which it hasn’t put much on yet. That’s all.
If you’re sharing stories about the White House Photoshopping Donald Trump’s hands, or Trump being remote diagnosed with a mental illness, or any of these stories, you need to understand that you’re part of the problem. Fake news isn’t just an alt-right thing, it’s a problem facing the political left as well.
If you see some viral unsourced story, do a Google search. You’ll probably find a page about it on Snopes.com, or another fact-check somewhere else. If you discover that it’s fake or misleading, reply with a link to it.
2. Share original sources
It’s frustrating to see how often videos are stolen on Facebook, downloaded and reposted with some stupid caption to a “viral” page designed to profit off other people’s work. The original creator gets no revenue and not even credit or recognition for what they created. But because we’re too lazy to find out where the video comes from, we just like and share.
This has implications for fake news. The number of sources out there has exploded, and the rush to compete for clicks has meant many of those sources copying, citing or “aggregating” others’ reporting in order to steal away traffic. It’s not unusual to find a news article online about an interesting story that cites another source, which in turn cites another source, which in turn cites another. It can take several minutes to find out whoever originally reported something, and learn that through this game of broken telephone, facts have been exaggerated, assumed or selectively chosen to make a story more sensational than it is.
Instead of sharing the churned-out sensationalizing of a possibly misinterpreted fact from a news story, share the original news story. Give credit (and ad revenue) to the person who did the actual journalism, and who has a real interest in getting the facts right.
3. Ask questions
Sometimes, the most important question you can ask as a journalist is “how do you know that?” If someone says something that sounds like an outrageous fact, ask for their sources. Often you’ll get a vague answer about reading something online. Often it’ll be “Facebook”. We mock Trump for repeating stuff he heard from partisans on Facebook, but many of us are just as guilty as he is.
If you’re getting your news from your friends, you should be critical of them. If you read something that makes assumptions, ask about those assumptions. If there seems to be a perfectly reasonable explanation for something outrageous, ask if that was considered and why it was dismissed.
4. Learn before speaking
It’s infuriating when your read comments on Facebook posts that make it clear the person has not read the story being linked to. Don’t be that person. Don’t assume you know what a story is because you read the headline. If you don’t have time to read it, don’t comment.
Similarly, don’t pretend to be an expert on something you know nothing about. If you want to opine about something, read up on it first from an objective source, or preferably multiple sources, and cite those sources so people can check your facts.
5. Care when you get stuff wrong
If you share a story and someone responds with a Snopes.com or other link proving it’s false, don’t reply with “I don’t care” or “it doesn’t matter” or “but that’s not the point” or “lol whatever”. Apologize and delete it. It’s not okay just because it sounds like it could probably be true, or because it makes you feel good to believe comforting lies about your political opponent, or because you’re sure similar things have happened that are true, or because it’s an interesting fictional story.
6. Resist the urge to dismiss a big story because of a minor issue
Journalism should be all true. Not mostly true, not truthy, but true. Errors, no matter how minor, should be corrected. But a minor error does not make a story false. Don’t think that nitpicking is a proper way to discredit something you disagree with.
7. Stop listening to hyper-partisans driven by hate
There are those in every political camp who cater to the “red meat” base, those who are loyal beyond question, who care more about winning than they do about advancing society in any way. These people never admit they’re wrong, they never consider the other side of the argument, they always exaggerate arguments in their favour and ignore those that work against them. Stop being an audience for these people.
If someone is sharing news from a partisan source like “The Other 99%” or “Occupy Democrats” or The Rebel, be very skeptical. Check what other news sources not driven by agendas are reporting about it, or even what their political opponents say. Read original source material whenever possible. And consider sharing less biased sources that offer up the facts and let their audience draw their own conclusions.
If you get your information from a source that never corrects its errors, stop using that source.
8. Stop dehumanizing political opponents
Your hate for Donald Trump is driven mainly by his sexism and misogyny? Then why are you making degrading sexist comments about Melania Trump? You don’t like him because he’s vulgar? Then why are you using vulgar terms to describe him? You don’t like him because he’s superficial and rates women by their appearance? Then why are you making fun of his skin and hair?
Donald Trump is a grown man with lots of privilege and is now the most powerful person in the world (insert Vladimir Putin joke here). You don’t have to go easy on him. But if you’re going to criticize him, do it on issues that matter. The same goes for anyone you disagree with.
There are very few people in the world who are pure evil. Most people who do bad things believe they’re doing good. But there are far too many people who have let hate and frustration drive them, who believe the ends justify the means, who ignore that the person they disagree with is a human being with emotions and life experiences and morals.
Forgetting that people are human leads to the belief in a lot of insane stories. Be skeptical of any story that would require someone or a group of people to be pure evil for it to be true.
9. Don’t trust your memory
Remember that woman who won millions of dollars in a lawsuit against McDonald’s because she spilled coffee in her lap while driving? Yeah, that didn’t happen that way. Remember that 90s movie where Sinbad plays a genie? Didn’t exist.
Memory is unreliable, especially about things that happened long ago. Conventional wisdom about past events, or even current ones, is often wrong or exaggerated by people pushing agendas. Facts are often remembered based on what emotional impact they had, and this can skew people’s impressions of what really happened. Check your facts.
10. Don’t get emotional
Someone disagreed with you on Twitter? Block them! Someone dislikes political correctness on Facebook? Unfriend them! Someone questions the factual basis for something you said or wrote? Mercilessly mock and insult them!
Or you could not. Try breaking your bubble instead of reinforcing it. Read stories that make you uncomfortable. Listen to opinions that are different from yours. Open your mind to the idea that you, and the people you generally agree with, might be wrong about something. Don’t feed the trolls with your hate. Don’t make yourself feel better by bringing your opponents down.
Michelle Obama said “When they go low, we go high.” Consider actually following that advice rather than repeating it as a way of belittling your opponents.
11. Be the better person
Changes in the balance of power in politics usually result in dramatic reversals of position in terms of what’s acceptable behaviour. Questioning or disrespecting a sitting president is only unacceptable when it’s your guy in the office. Filibusters are obstructionist when it’s your policies they’re blocking, but a necessary check on abuse of power when it’s the other guy’s. Refusal to accept election results is shameful when they lose, but a moral duty when we do.
Two wrongs don’t make a right. And “they started it” is the argument of a five-year-old. Show by example that you’re better than that.
The ends justify the means is never an acceptable reason for spreading lies.
Even the most partisan hardliner will use facts from mainstream media, even if they don’t agree with their conclusions.
12. Stop treating “mainstream media” as if it’s a monolith with an agenda
There are legitimate criticisms to be made about newspapers, television stations, radio stations and online media, whether they’re corporately owned or independent. There are legitimate criticisms of individual columnists or journalists. There are real biases to point out across the industry (the bias that causes interesting outliers to get much more attention than the boring majority, for example).
But when you start dismissing the “mainstream media” as garbage because of a few stories you didn’t like, or when you call a newspaper “fake news” because you disagreed with a columnist, you’re part of the problem. So-called “mainstream media” is more likely to be professional, more likely to have a reputation to uphold, more likely to be accountable.
And when the president of the United States watches Fox News and his administration gives Breitbart preferential treatment in press briefings, well congratulations you’re mainstream now.
I’m not asking you to bite your tongue and avoid criticism. But rather, be specific. If you think a story is one-sided, call it out. If you think a journalist is biased, call that out (but expect to be asked to produce a lot of supporting material). And stop throwing “fake news” at things unless you’re sure that what their producing is something they know is wrong.
It won’t be easy, but together we can help fight back the wave of misinformation. If we can keep our hypocrisies at bay, and value knowledge over anger, we might begin to make some headway.