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Narrative Counter-Intelligence: Distinguishing Fake News from Real

September 28, 2023Gregg Newby

Every good joke is funny because it contains a kernel of truth. The same could be said of fake news. We believe it because it's built around a truth of some kind. But just as jokes don't actually embody objective reality, neither does fake news. The only difference is that the latter causes actual harm.

This is why we need to become better equipped at distinguishing fact from fiction, fake news from real. But, of course, easier said than done. When falsehoods are crafted out of actual facts, they often appear plausible and unassailable.

So how are we to separate the bogus from the bona fide? Is there really anything we can do? And who's the best equipped to take on the fake news industry? Well, actually, you are. Yes, you. Simply by learning to spot fake news and refusing to share it, you potentially deprive the publisher of thousands upon thousands of views. That translates to lost revenue. Gradually, the flood of fake news could become a trickle, provided enough of us band together.

With that in mind, here's a brief primer to get you started.

Start with Yourself

First, recognize that we all have pre-existing biases we bring to everything we encounter. Whether you realize it or not, you have these biases too. They might be the product of political beliefs, religious upbringing, cultural affiliation, economic circumstances, or some other identifier.

There's nothing wrong with having biases, provided they aren't extremist. They keep us oriented in a chaotic world. They're a natural aspect of human nature, and it's doubtful we could function without them.

But it's important to understand how our biases affect how we interpret the content we consume. Stories that confirm our pre-existing beliefs tend to meet with easy acceptance, while those that don't generally get a poor reception. A news item we come across on social media, for instance, generally haven't been shared because it's necessarily true, but because the person sharing it wants it to be true. There's a difference.

This is why it's important to gauge your own response to something prior to clicking that share button. Before passing on something that might be malicious disinformation, it might be helpful to ask yourself a few basic questions.

  • Why do I want to share this?
  • Am I acting out of emotion or is this something people need to know?
  • Could I be sharing this simply because it seems to confirm what I already believe?
  • What might be the consequences of sharing this if it turns out to be false?

In short, managing your biases means developing a sense of fair-mindedness. Be open to consuming news that doesn't necessarily agree with your viewpoints and assumptions. Focus more on the facts of a story and less on interpretations, which are always open to debate.

Consider the Claims

Not all fake news is easy to spot, but some certainly is. Generally speaking, the more outrageous or egregious the claim, the more likely it is to be false. Stories that accuse public figures of treason, human trafficking, theft, or murder should be taken with extreme caution.

Oftentimes, though, it's harder to tell, which is the case for most fake news. When stories appear more nuanced, you'll have to put on your critical thinking cap again. You might consider asking yourself

  • Is solid evidence being presented here, or is this just empty speculation?
  • If there is any evidence, does it really "prove" what is being claimed?
  • Does this content seem aimed at harming someone's reputation
  • Who stands to benefit from its acceptance?
  • Are other news outlets reporting this story, as well? (If not, that's a red flag)
  • Is the headline more sensational than the article itself?

This last question is a critical one. Online publications often use exaggerated headlines to drive traffic, which, in turn, generates revenue. It's a dead giveaway, however, when the article itself doesn't really reflect the claim in the headline. The problem, though, is that most readers only remember the sensationalist phrasing at the top if the page. The rest of the article is entirely forgotten, a fact that malign actors fully understand.

Consider the Source

Not all news outlets are the same. Some strive for fairness and objectivity, reporting only what they can actually verify. Others are just in the business of eliciting emotional responses that generate clicks. It's actually pretty easy to tell the difference once you start paying attention.

You also want to be cautious of news coming from obviously biased sources. They're in the business of making particular groups or individuals look either loathsome or praiseworthy. That's not the same as reporting the news. Their coverage may be sprinkled with facts, but these facts are typically given a spin that reflects a particular viewpoint.

And be especially wary of news sites that are dismissive of the so-called 'mainstream media.' Yes, there are plenty of outlets that boast about publishing stories the regular media won't touch. But if the regular media won't touch these stories, there's a very good reason why. They're either not true or can't be verified, and anything that can't be verified should be treated as untrue.

Additionally, recent studies have shown that a rapidly growing number of Americans are getting their news straight from social media feeds. This is a dangerous scenario, too, given that algorithms only show us what they think we want to see, instead of what we need to know to make informed decisions.

The solution is to click away from social media for your news. Compare and evaluate as many sources as you need to find a reliable outlet that works for you. Make verifiable truth the gold standard of your news consumption and you'll never go wrong.

Ultimately, you'll need to do your own research when evaluating news sources. Remember, it's perfectly fine to consume news that aligns with your viewpoint as long as you remain open to other perspectives and opinions. Just make sure the sources you choose are giving you facts and not simple hyperbole

Finally, be very sparing in what you like or share. Should there be any doubts or reservations, simply click away. Ditto if you find yourself getting angry or upset. After all, an emotional response is usually a clear sign of manipulation. Always set your standards high and never waver. Because just as fighting fake news begins with you, it ends with you as well.

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