Fake News Guide: Your Armor Against the Media Cesspool
By: Daniel Wagner
There is a battle currently raging in the media world.
It’s a battle over who is making “fake news” and who is publishing “real news,” and every various shade between. This battle is raging between the legacy media giants and the new up-and-comers in the media world; the alternative news, the independent outlets, and the new media.
This puts the consumers of that news in a bad position.
The question then becomes, what are the most reliable news sources? How do I know if something is true (the ultimate epistemological question)?
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as one single reliable unbiased and totally trustworthy news outlet. But that’s ok.
This guide is specifically designed to help you sort through all the confusing information and find the signal through the noise.
There are many news organizations out there that pride themselves on delivering you the most well-researched and honest-to-goodness facts. This guide will help you find them. (note: there will be no specific shout-outs for or against certain news organizations in this guide. You need to make those determinations for yourself)
The following guide is a complete comprehensive methodology for identifying bullsh*t to help you distinguish truth from falsehood; to separate reality from the lies and propaganda.
You will not find a better, more thought-out guide anywhere on the web.
FINE PRINT: If you do, let me know who it is so I can violently discredit them and attempt to ruin their reputation ;)
Thinking is hard work.
The tips/advice provided in this guide don’t mean that no bullsh*t will make it through the filter. However, it can serve as a means to filter out 90% of it.
Don’t worry! Once you get comfortable with some of the basic red flags and green lights, you won’t have to put every single story/source through the ringer of truth vs falsehood vs half-truth.
PREREQUISITE SKILLS NEEDED
So, before you start putting the screws to your news sources, it’s important to take stock of your current skillset. There are a few skills that you need to have in order to be as objective as possible. Consider these skills your protective gear and your guidance systems as you venture off into the wilderness of fake news.
In short, critical thinking is the ability to understand the logical connections between ideas. It’s a skill that takes time to develop.
The problem is, this skill is sorely lacking in most people.
Neil deGrasse Tyson said it best on an episode of the Joe Rogan Experience. He said, “Nowhere and at no time are we trained how to turn a fact into knowledge, knowledge into wisdom, and wisdom into insight. I think that full sequence needs to be part of the academic system; without it, you’re just this vessel of facts.”
If your exposure to critical thinking came from public school, be cautioned. Public schools are not in the business of teaching kids how to think; only what to think; taught only what is on an upcoming test, then forgotten.
Critical thinking is like any other muscle. It needs to be worked or it will atrophy.
The most self-destructive thing a government institution can do is teach people to think critically. Governments count on public schools to produce dumbed-down populations. Dumb and ignorant people are easier to control through fear tactics and propaganda.
A Balance of Skepticism and Acceptance
There is a value in a healthy amount of skepticism. Without it, you will be gullible and likely to believe anything. It’s the ability to suspend judgment after reading the latest hot-off-the-presses headline and immediately post to Facebook, ranting to all your friends about the injustices of the world. It’s the ability not to immediately accept something as true or false; especially if it confirms a bias you might already possess.
It’s a method of doubt, but a systematic one.
However, there’s a danger to having too much skepticism. Foolish would be the man who doubts every single piece of information that came his way. It would be completely unreasonable and inefficient. Too much skepticism can lead you to remain in a constant fog of doubt and fear; never to commit to anything as “true.”
I think Michael Shermer from Skeptic.com said it best during an interview with Stefan Molyneux. He said, “my philosophy has always been to promote science and reason and critical thinking and let the chips fall where they may on all beliefs.”
Openness to Opposing Viewpoints
Examining issues from as many sides as possible is a great way to get a better grip on the subject overall. “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” - F. Scott Fitzgerald
This is one of the biggest problems in today’s political climate. It’s a total lack of empathy; the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes and see from their perspective.
There are too many times I encounter people who lack this skill. As a result, they feel like they are literally being attacked by someone who is offering a different or opposing perspective.
It often turns downright feral.
In a recent study, MRI scans were performed on people with strong liberal political views. They watched their brain activity as counter-arguments to their political positions were presented. An article featured on the CBS News website said:
“The MRIs showed that the parts of the brain that were triggered control deep, emotional thoughts about personal identity.
“When people activate these emotional structures of the brain more, when they’re being challenged, they’re less likely to change their minds,” the professor explained.”
This is not to say that this is just a liberal viewpoint phenomena (studies on conservatives are still to come according to the researchers). My point is that it’s easy to shut your mind off too quickly to opposing viewpoints if you are unaware of this biological defense mechanism.
So, are you willing (or even able) to consider all sides of a topic or opposing viewpoints from your own?
An Ability or Willingness to Change Your Mind in Light of New Evidence
You will often hear this type of person referred to in a derogatory manner as a “flip-flopper” or “wishy-washy.” In politics, you’ll hear of someone “flip-flopping” on policy stances. Sometimes, it’s legit. Most times, it’s for political gain and influence. However, it’s the manipulation behind it that makes it a bad thing, not the simple fact that they might have changed their minds.
What do you do when you encounter new evidence that is counter to your current beliefs?
Hopefully, you have developed the skepticism and ability to entertain opposing viewpoints we talked about earlier, so next step would be to investigate further. But what happens when you do your due diligence and you find the new evidence indisputable?
This is where a willingness to change your mind in light of new evidence becomes hugely important. It is a key skill that must be developed in order to properly defend yourself against “fake news.” If you do not have the willingness to change your mind, then what’s the point of digging deeper in the first place except to attempt to confirm your own biases.
Which leads us to the last crucial skill:
Understanding the Dangers of “Confirmation Bias”
As a young man (late teens - early 20’s), I remember thinking that I knew everything. I knew in my heart and soul what was right and wrong. If you agreed with me, you were a genius. However, if you disagreed… well, let’s just say I didn’t view you very highly.
Turns out, I was (and likely still am) an idiot.
My world was driven by confirmation bias. The ideas, principles, and philosophies I was exposed to as a child were the only possible truth. Everything else was dismissed at the wave of a hand.
The most succinct description I could find was written by Shahram Heshmat, Ph.D. in a Psychology Today article. He said, “When people would like a certain idea/concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true.”
It’s easy to read an article that confirms a bias you already have and just assume it’s true without any further work. It requires no actual thinking.
That’s a young man’s game. It was my young man’s game.
Imagine going to a war zone and making the decision to shoot down a group of men with guns and RPG’s, only to discover it was just some civilians, a couple kids, and two journalists from Reuters. (Warning, video disturbing)
It’s important to have a strong awareness of your own biases and where those biases originate? Having this awareness will help guide you toward truth and reality.
GOOD THINGS TO LOOK FOR
So now that we’ve handled the key ingredients that must go into a “fake news” spotter, here are some attributes you’ll need to look for in the news source you plan on using. These details do not make something “true” or “false,” but will offer a great way to verify and validate the news you consume.
Sites that Cite
When I come across a new news source, there are a couple key questions I ask:
1. Do they cite their sources?
2. Are they going to allow me to “see for myself” where they are getting their information from?
This is one of the most important aspects to figuring out if a site is publishing real news or propaganda and spin. If I can’t “see for myself” when a website makes a claim or assertion, I automatically ignore the information. No questions asked.
Citations are a good indicator that you might be getting more reliable news. However, be careful because citing sources is necessary but not sufficient to be considered real news/information. Be sure to follow through and take some time following those links and checking for yourself the validity of those sources.
It might be the most true information in the world, but if I can’t check their sources, how am I supposed to know?
Retractions and Admissions of Mistakes
Even the most trustworthy news sources can (and hopefully will) mess up from time to time. After all, we’re all human and are bound to mess up from time to time. The true test is how they handle these mistakes.
There are way too many sites out there that will make clear mistakes in their reporting and will either act as though they never made the mistake or they will publish a correction hidden deep where it will most likely never be viewed.
Publications that are forthcoming about mistakes and have a willingness to retract bad information puts them in a great position to develop trust with their customers.
So, when mistakes are made, are statements retracted in an obscure location or are they much more public? Is the organization willing to admit fault openly?
Track Record of Consistency and Accuracy
Often, pundits and subject-matter experts will make predictions about the future; effects of new policies, events which might transpire, etc. Obviously, this does not by itself make something true/false. However, if the news source has a track record of being right, it might hold more value in terms of truth-hood.
RED FLAGS TO WATCH FOR
Weasel words are words or phrases used in an ambiguous manner in order to make a point. They are designed to make the appearance of presenting facts without actually committing to a stance. These words/phrases do not by themselves mean that a story is automatically fake, but they can be indicators, especially if the author is heavily leaning on them to illicit an emotional response from their readers.
Look for words meant to fog you out:
Many argue that
Intensifying Adjectives (i.e. obviously, substantially, very)
Appeals to Emotion
Also look out for strong appeals to emotion. This is an incredibly common logical fallacy. If the source of information is leaning heavily on manipulating an emotional response from you to avoid making a compelling argument, the content itself might be questionable. This does not necessarily make it “fake news,” but it should set off some red flags for you and you will then know that more research is required.
When news agencies use these tactics, they are most often trying to appeal to your sense of fear or sympathy; and sometimes both.
Be aware of strong imagery designed to illicit strong emotions. In this video, How to Hate Trump with Photos, notice how news agencies will use psychology and negative/positive associations to further enhance their narrative.
You will most often see this kind of behavior when the mainstream media is trying to push an agenda. They will play on your sympathies for "the poor women and children," or your fears with constant "boogie-man-is-coming" scenarios, and similar tactics.
Disabled Comments Section
There seems to be a huge debate about the value of the comments section.
Some organizations feel like it takes away from the content, others feel like it’s a huge enhancement to encourage public discourse.
It’s been my experience that I can learn a ton of the finer details behind a story; facts that weren’t mentioned (or were intentionally missed), ideas I hadn’t considered, or perspectives that weren’t represented.
All the articles I read that promote disabling the comments section came from people who seem to be afraid of having their ideas challenged.
That’s the problem. It’s the comments section where those who are ‘on the fence’ about an issue might be prompted to pick a side. A comments section scares those who are more interested in controlling the narrative than they are in letting people think for themselves.
Is the comments section disabled or heavily monitored? This might be a good indicator that you are being lied to.
Questionable Funding Sources and Ownership
The old model of funding used to be “if it bleeds it leads.” Meaning, we need to deliver as many eyes to advertisers as we can, so we need to find the most atrocious elements of human society and print and publish as much of that as possible.
In order to have a basic understanding of what your chosen news source’s goals and biases are, you need to determine their funding model.
Look for the “how” and the “who.”
How news outlets make money and who is paying the bills for them are two of the greatest indicators of what you can expect from them.
If the main source of funding is advertiser dollars, you can bet that the content will be tailored to ensure a pleasant relationship between the advertiser and the news source. You don’t want to offend the source of your income. The headlines will be overly ‘click-baity’ and sensationalist. They are making money from the amount of eyes they can deliver to advertisers.
Conflicts of interest are also a big thing to watch for.
One clear example of a conflict of interest is the purchase of the Washington Post by Amazon CEO, Jeff bezos for $250 million. The conflict shows up in the fact that Amazon Web Services receives huge amounts of funding from the CIA ($600 million). It would be unreasonable to consider this source to be unbiased.
This does not necessarily make the Washington Post “fake news.” However, it is an important detail to be aware of as you consume their articles.
Sites that Claim to be “Unbiased”
There is no such thing as an unbiased news organization/outlet. Any publication that claims they are completely unbiased is lying to you (or they’re not smart enough to understand this is impossible).
A news source can be cognizant of their biases and make every effort possible to minimize how it shows up in their content; but that doesn’t mean those biases do not have an effect.
Another thing to watch for is sites that post their own list of “fake news” sites. It’s unreasonable to think that anyone can give you a complete and unbiased list of fake news sites. There is always going to be a motive and incentive for the creator of that list to build up their site over others. The idea that “Ours is real, theirs is fake,” doesn’t stand the test of truthhood vs falsehood.
The following items do not necessarily make a news source unreliable or “fake,” but are rather some elements I personally do not like in my news sources.
Identity Politics: An overuse of identity politics signals a huge need for virtue signalling. More often than not, there is no real substance to the content.
Political Correctness: The constant need to be politically correct signals a fear of standing up for something. In today’s tumultuous environment, telling the truth about something can be devastating for organizations.
Overwhelming Ads and Popups: This signals a heavy dependence on ad revenue, which means they are likely to lean on click-bait headlines and over-sensationalized subject matter.
Quotes Taken Out of Context: This one really burns me up. I can’t stand it when people use a quote out of context. The quote might be reported on accurately, but the story weaves a narrative around it with the goal of painting a very different picture. This is deceitful and dishonest.
Omissions: Omissions are a tricky one. It’s possible to be 100% accurate in your reporting and still fail to tell the whole story. Fact checkers might be able to objectively look at a story and find no fault, but what’s missing is usually the part they don’t want you to know about (most often driven by their chosen narrative).
Like the music business, you are seeing the media industry gatekeepers losing power. As a result, media empires are collapsing under the weight of their own ego.
The outright lies and attacks you see from the legacy media is nothing more than the death throes of a dying beast trying to maintain their relevancy; the violent twitching of a body not quite finished dying. As new media sources rush in to fill the void, it’s going to be more important than ever for you to be armed with the knowledge necessary to separate truth from falsehood. This is why it’s vitally important to have a working knowledge and methodology for determining trustworthy news sources.
You are your own best defense when it comes to the spread of misinformation.
When it comes to getting a well-rounded, balanced perspective of the details on any given news story, it’s important to keep your wits about you. Be aware that even sources that publish half-truths, omissions, misinformation can provide some valuable insight or perspectives.
So strap on your skeptic’s hat and see if you can identify the best news sources for you.
They very well may not be the ones you’ve been following all along.
(Companion piece: In this interview, I speak with A.J. Norton from the Psychological Warfare Podcast about this guide)