It is a sad state of affairs that we live in an age where propagandist media can affect our ability to make sound judgments about the current world affairs. We are bombarded with information on a daily basis, whether it be from a website we believe reputable, or from a friend quoting statistics he found from a Facebook article.
“Fake news” has become quite the buzzword lately and for good reason: With the fight for ad revenue promoting a culture of clickbait articles, jumping-the-gun journalism, and over-sensationalism, websites are becoming more and more about getting the traffic any way they can, the quality of content be damned.
Our culture of looking to be the next thing to go viral so we can score the big paycheck has some of us doing unwholesome activities.
The truth is, however, propaganda, misinformation, and deliberately faking information to get a rise and attention has been around for ages. With the growth of the internet, the growth of this kind of media has also flourished.
The good news is, that access to great information is also at our fingertips. With the bombardment of info it is up to us to build our critical thinking to counter all of the drivel.
2 Powerful Reasons Critical Thinking Will Change Your Life (Numbers 1 and 2 Will Obliterate You!)
In a clever and cheeky display of the power of a title, NPR posted this article on April 1, 2014 titled “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?”
If you follow the link you will see that there is no article (not one of any substance anyway), just an April Fools Day prank. However, the real trick comes from sharing the article on Facebook. You see, there are a good amount of people who don’t even go further than the headline on news articles or “studies.”
These people are easily fooled by a headline that already aligns with their suspicions. They will take the headline as fact because it fits with their perspective of the world and not because of any information within the article.
Research conducted by the Media Insight Project, an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, showed that the number of people who skip over the details is nearly 6 in 10.
Overall, 41 percent of Americans report that they watched, read, or heard any in-depth news stories, beyond the headlines, in the last week. Slightly more people, 49 percent, report that they invested additional time to delve deeper and follow up on the last breaking news story they followed.
When it comes to taking in information, the last thing we want to do is gloss over the details, but many of us do just that. In fact, many guides for blog-writing plan for this, and recommend presenting information in a way that matches a desire from the reader to “skim” through to the main points.
Articles written like this tend to be viewed more favorably, for good reasons:
- They “cut to the chase” and draw attention to the important points.
- They present complex information in simple, easy to understand concepts.
- They allow for quick reading for someone with a busy schedule who just wants to Google something and be done with it.
However, this can also cause some big issues:
- Oversimplification of issues.
- Misrepresentation of data to fit views of article.
- Overabundance of “arm-chair wisdom” which gets highlighted because it sounds clever.
These issues plague anyone trying to write well and many problems are not caused by malicious intent, but from trying to churn out article after article (I’ve found myself guilty of this as well) to keep up with what one hopes to be a possible career.
The Virtues of a Fake News Combatant
Fake news is the intentional publishing of misinformation in order to profit in some way, whether through ad revenue or political swaying. This is different than an opinion piece presenting an argument or someone accidentally misinterpreting the facts and coming to a wrong conclusion. Fake news is deliberate and harmful.
The good news is that some of the same critical thinking skills we apply to everyday living can help us out here, namely, (1) Withholding Judgment, (2) Awareness of Confirmation Bias, and (3) Mental Vigilance.
Over-sensationalized fake news is meant to get you riled up. Even regular news does so. Part of the overall problem journalism faces is making issues seem worse than they are in order to speak to the fear of the everyday citizen. If you can make a problem seem like it’s on the doorstep of every person, they will believe they need to take action.
Withholding judgment is the age old tactic of holding off on forming an opinion about the matter until further information can be obtained. That means not letting an emotional headline tug on your heartstrings or fear mongering getting you cowering in the corner.
There are so many instances of our initial perception being wrong, why would we treat the news or studies we read on a daily basis any different?
Awareness of Confirmation Bias
Confirmation Bias is the act of interpreting incoming information in such a way as to confirm beliefs you already hold.
NPR’s little prank put this mental error on full display.
Those who found themselves tricked took the headline as fact, a fact that they already believed to be true, and did no further investigating into the matter. Since they already took the headline to be true, whatever information it contained meant little, no matter how strong or weak the evidence might have been.
We all selectively choose to pay attention to information that already aligns with our current beliefs. We tend to group up with people who have similar beliefs and brush off anything that challenges them.
To question our own ideas about the state of things is tiring, frustrating, and may isolate us from a group of friends or family. However, it is important to consider that if the article or news you are reading leaves you with a warm feeling about the beliefs you currently hold, maybe you should question the legitimacy of the facts presented.
Mental vigilance is the act of keeping an eye out for possible rational pitfalls or dangers we may fall into. It’s keeping your bullshit detector up to date.
This includes both internal and external dangers, anything that may trip us up in our lofty goal of attaining wholesome, accurate knowledge about the world.
When it comes to external dangers, our detector should be lighting up at articles that exhibit these qualities:
- Sensational or exaggerated headline
- When you click on a source for a fact it leads you to another blog instead of the source itself.
- When the information doesn’t support the conclusion the author wants it to.
And for internal dangers:
- The headline tells us “something we already know.”
- Sources are those we know we already agree with.
- We ignore the facts presented because we already agree with the conclusion.
These are just a few of the examples where we can go wrong. The important thing is to keep at it with each thing we read, lest we accept something only because our Uncle Tim posted it on Facebook and he’s a smart guy!
It’s frustrating to know that legitimate sources of information are lost in a sea of garbage produced by those only wanting to make a quick buck or sway voters, but this is just a fact of the internet, where anybody can say anything.
It is up to you to make sense of the information that gets presented to you or to take control of what information gets presented in the first place. In any case, it is helpful to build up certain habits when coming across news headlines which will protect you against believing harmful or incorrect information.
These habits are good to have for life generally, but when it comes to huge amount of information we gather on a daily basis (knowingly or unknowingly) it is extremely helpful to have a shield up to block the wrongdoers.
Fake news may have been recently popularized, but it’s been around since the dawn of communication. The media may change, but the intent has not. It is the work of a stalwart mind to not spread the misinformation by lacking in mental fortitude.