How to Avoid Misinformation

A 7-step guide to avoiding fake news //

Misinformation isn’t new. People have always tried to convince one another of their opinions and, in that process, focus on the arguments that corroborate them. It’s no different with the authors behind biased news. Most ‘fake news’ out there isn’t really fake, it’s cherry picking the truth – a hand selection of facts and perspectives that support the point being made, and a disregard for the ones that could convince you otherwise. The reasons behind media bias vary, with some being intentional and some just bad journalism (see Why Newspapers Lie). But in all the cases they tend to follow similar patterns.

Choosing a reliable source to read isn’t enough, as even the best outlets can sometimes write poor content (and conversely bad outlets can sometimes write good articles).  Luckily, there is a roadmap to spot this type of news without having to extensively research everything you read.

By asking yourself the seven questions below, you will be much less likely to fall victim of misinformation. These are also some of the key questions that guide our daily assessments of thousands of new stories published by the top UK and international newspapers on the Beehive News app – which means that, when you see any rating in there, these filters have already been applied.

1. Does the article make you feel strong emotions?  

Throughout human history, emotion has always been a tool of mass control. If you can make people engage with something emotionally, you can almost certainly guarantee they will behave a certain way (see Polarisation and the myth of political positioning). Emotions can be used, for example, to make you click, read and share more articles, which benefits publishers financially. Some emotions make you act less rationally than others: If an article makes you feel a lot of anger, hatred, fear or sadness, for example, there is a high chance it is intentionally leveraging your emotions to make you think or act a certain way.

2. Does it give you sources for the alleged facts?

Facts are statements that can be verified, measured and proved (I can for example prove that Putin signed an agreement, but I can’t prove how handsome he is – this is an opinion). When a good newspaper gives you a fact, it needs to demonstrate that it is indeed a fact with the name of (and hopefully the link to) the public or scientific body who verified it, and how it was verified. This source should be at least appropriate (a fishing institute in Europe, for example, has probably little authority to talk about agriculture in South America). A fact that is not demonstrated is merely an opinion, and should be treated as such (see how to differentiate fact from opinion). Be wary of alleged facts that appear only tangentially, away from the focus of attention of a story, almost as if they were obvious and natural truths beyond challenge (see the devil in the details).

3. Does it give you facts within a context?

Imagine you read a headline saying that a “Country X immigrant pushed an old lady into a freezing river”. That would probably make you feel angry, and potentially make you revisit your views on immigration from Country X. What if you were told that the immigrant was actually saving the old lady from an out-of-control truck that would otherwise have surely killed her? Context is key, and a bad journalist might often give you a limited contextual understanding by selecting only the facts they want you to know in order to influence your opinion. It’s hard to know if context is limited without further research, but there are two important clues. First, check if the article covers all conditions leading and resulting from the matter covered. If it’s about an event, for example, if it covers what happened, when it happened, how it happened, who was involved and, more importantly why they did it or why it happened. Second, check whether the article shows opposing perspectives and gives voice to all the people involved – in our example, it should try to understand what was said by the old lady and the immigrant after the event.

4. Does it give you numbers within a context?

Numbers are probably the most deceiving element in a biased article. This is because they can make an article feel reliable, especially when followed by trustworthy sources, and lead you to agree with the opinions in it when in fact it is trying to manipulate your views. If I tell you, for example, that a given company fired 5,000 people, this might seem like a lot and make you feel a bit angry. If I tell you that they fired 0.5% of their workforce, this might on other hand feel low and reasonable – especially when the economy is struggling. And yet both of those things could be true (5,000 people could represent 0.5% of that company’s workforce). Whenever a number is given, ask yourself if the number is given within context. Rather than just being told by the author whether it’s high or low, the author should give you the elements you need to come to your own assessment. For that to be true, it should give you the number in relation to a universe, or a ratio – a share of a total population, for example. And it should also offer comparisons. How does that number compare to similar cases (for example, how many people similar companies made redundant)? In what position within the total universe does it sit? What are the closest three or four cases? Only by giving you that can you build an appropriate understanding of the matter.

“Misinformation isn’t new. People have always tried to convince one another of their opinions and, in that process, focus on the arguments that corroborate them. It’s no different with the authors behind biased news.”

5. Does it properly demonstrate causality?

Perhaps the most notorious tricks in misleading news is the false sense of causality. When causality is not demonstrated, but rather implied. An article could tell you for example that violence rose during someone’s government, and that will make you assume that the leader of that government might be directly responsible for it (when, in fact, they could have dedicated their entire mandate to fighting the external factors behind it). Whenever an article tells you the cause of something, pause and analyse whether it is appropriately explaining the series of logical events that connect the alleged cause to the result. Don’t be fooled by explanations that seem too simple and don’t really demonstrate the connection or the magnitude of the cause. Even if the article mentions that the government leader has for instance defunded the police, it may fail to explain how exactly that happened. They could have done so by firing corrupt officers but simultaneously investing more in preventive control technology. Equally, be wary of news that extrapolate minor causes. In our example, it may as well be that the government’s minor cost cutting indeed had some negative effect on the police and shares part of the blame, but that a different party managed to pass legislation which made it much harder for the police to arrest criminals – and the article could be trying to take your attention away from this fact. If you are not convinced, investigate more. 

6. Does it approach all points of view?

It’s natural for a journalist to have an opinion and, in fact, almost impossible for them not to. Some might even argue that it is their role to digest the facts and help readers come to a conclusion. But their opinion should only come on top of a fair and complete coverage of events, and not from intentional sifting of facts – empowering the reader to build their own opinions and occasionally disagree with the author. When reading the news, pay attention at whether the article includes the cons of the idea it favours (or any negative elements connected to the people who defend that cause or idea), and the pros of the ideas it disfavours (alongside the any positives linked to the people behind them). If it doesn’t really seem to support one or another person or idea but rather suggests a better alternative, even better. Truth is rarely black and white – if one side seems to have all the glory and the other all the blame, this is probably not a great article.

7. Do you agree or disagree entirely with the article?

Finally, outlets depend on a reading audience to survive, and sometimes they write to please. By pleasing their target audience, they often upset the ones that differ from it. They may seem balanced, in that they do bring pros and cons, but the cons can be very minor (and often just the very evident, hard-to-ignore ones), making their conclusion seem obvious and almost natural. If an article seems to be confirming everything you believe in, or conversely only expose views entirely different from yours, then you should probably also raise a red flag.

These questions will certainly help you identify any misleading information out there, but they won’t entirely save you from biased opinions – including your own. The opinions you already have and the many external factors driving them, like your beliefs, the people who you admire and the social groups you belong to, can also contribute to you being a victim of misinformation. See “How to avoid biased opinions?” for a humbling self-awareness exercise that will help you identify the irrationality in your own opinions and polish them.

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