Teenagers in Macedonia rake in the big bucks by writing fake pro-Trump news stories that may have helped sway the American election. Macedonian parents and government are pleased; the teenagers are making money, they aren’t breaking any of the country’s laws, and besides, their earnings are taxable. Win-win, right?

After a fake news story states that the Israeli Ministry of Defense is menacing Pakistan with a nuclear attack, Pakistan’s Minister of Defence, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, who believes the fake news, posts the following veiled threat on Twitter: “Israeli def min threatens nuclear retaliation presuming pak role in Syria against Daesh. Israel forgets Pakistan is a Nuclear state too.” Thankfully the Israeli Ministry of Defense quickly tweeted this response:

A response to a fake news story from Pakistan’s Minister of Defence, Khawaja Muhammad Asif

Below is a screenshot of phoney results from the 2016 American election. Like many fake news posts the language is insulting– among the many hallmarks of fake news.

A fake news story after the 2016 US general election

Deplorable? Yes. Dangerous? Absolutely. Abnormal? Not at all.

According to David Livingston Smith, a professor of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology at the University of New England, lying is so natural a human behaviour that we often don’t even know when we’re doing it.  “Deceit is so necessary in human relations that we lie as easily as we breathe,” he asserts. “We deceive ourselves as well as others, evolution having embedded mendacity deep in our unconscious”. (Quoted from Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, by David Livingston Smith).

So lying comes naturally to Homo sapiens. Fair enough. Surely you’ve lied to avoid giving a long explanation or to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. But history shows that political ambitions can take lying to a whole new level, leading to intentional, deliberate efforts to deceive as many people as possible in order to gain power. This  makes protecting ourselves from deception more urgent than ever, especially today.

The term “fake news” generally refers to the deliberate publishing or broadcasting of false information as if it were true. Ironically the worst perpetrators of fake news seem to be the ones most ready to sling the accusation at their political or ideological opponents. Regardless of who’s to blame, fake news is clearly a threat to world peace because it incites violence and erodes the knowledge base so essential to the progress of social justice. The motivations behind it range from seeking solidarity with the herd to grasping at profits to undermining public confidence in democracy.

Be very careful what you share in your work, on social media, or even in your daily conversations. A false rumour in a small sewing circle can quickly ignite a firestorm.

In recent years fake news has contributed to a growing political instability the world over, swaying election results, boosting the clout of populist extremists, and heightening existing conflicts. Fake news has created a profound drop in confidence of the public for news media and hence in the power of democracy itself.

If you listen to the mudslingers, it’s always their opponents who are culpable, if not of producing fake news, then at least of producing news with a distinct bias – bias being another all-too-human and common a phenomenon.

Bias: Deception lite

Bias is not directly deceitful but it often gives the wrong impression by careful selecting what to report – and what to not report. Reporting bias would be involved, for example, if you reported at length on your favourite political candidate’s charitable work while ignoring her history of accepting bribes. Bias would also be at work if you nail her opponent for taxing the middle class but avoid mentioning her successful job creation initiative.

But despite widespread allegations that the media as a whole leans to the left, a recent study shows the opposite: A recent meta-analysis shows that reporting biased in favour of the left is balanced by reporting that leans to the right. “The net effect is zero,” reports David D’Alessio, who teaches communications sciences at the University of Connecticut at Stamford.

Having said that, we must acknowledge that bias does exist, and the more polarised a society is the more it will exhibit bias. Awareness goes a long way, and it helps to know in advance if a site or publication is biased so far in one direction that it forgets to be accurate and fair.

Milo Yiannopoulos’s claims that feminism hurts both men and women must be taken with a grain of salt when we consider not only Milo’s rampantly misogynistic speech but also the fact that he’s being interviewed by Breitbart News, an outlet known for openly and proudly manifesting the most malicious views from the far right, not to mention for publishing many pro-Trump claims that the facts don’t support.

History has shown that political ambitions can take lying to a whole new level, leading to intentional, deliberate efforts to deceive as many people as possible in order to gain power.

Fake news is nothing new. In the late 19th century media barons Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst competed fiercely with each other over their shares of the newspaper market. Both profited from providing false information to the public regarding the Cuban revolution, exaggerating and even lying about Spain’s oppression while romanticising the revolutionaries. Their fake news stories may have been instrumental in provoking the Spanish-American War of 1898. And they didn’t even have the Internet.

The reasons for the proliferation of fake news in the last few years are manifold, but we can simplify by referring to the four main ones, all of which are related in some way to the web:

1). The ease and speed by which the Internet spreads information (fake news providers don’t even have to do all the work themselves; they can easily depend on users to spread their false stories like wildfire)

2). Information technology’s tardiness in keeping pace with itself well enough to police the proliferation of false information

3). The declining of resources available to traditional media outlets, which tend to have the highest level of accountability

4). The large profits available to news providers based simply on the number of clicks they receive

Information consumers can always hope that the problem will right itself in time. Social networking sites are at least making an effort to use technology to cure itself, but in the meanwhile we conscientious citizens must arm ourselves, and arm ourselves well. Here are eight weapons we hope will help.

1. Know your enemy

Learn to recognise fake news as quickly as possible. What do most fake news stories like the ones mentioned at the start of this article have in common?

  1. Evidence of a bias strong enough to create exaggeration and deception
  2. Sloppy grammar, spelling, and writing style
  3. Very positive or very negative statements that are also very vague
  4. An absence of solid verification of stated “facts”
  5. Bombastic, overly dramatic language
  6. An unprofessional appearance, noisy graphics, and obviously photoshopped images
  7. Plagiarism (if you think a site might be fake, try copying and pasting a segment of the news story into your browser and see if it comes up whole somewhere else)

2. Good rep or bad?

The first question we need to ask is whether a news source is reputable. Have they built a reputation for nonpartisan reporting? If they clearly lie on one side of the political divide, do they nonetheless put their best efforts into avoiding exaggerating or even fabricating the foibles of those on the other side?

3. Don’t pass it on

Be very careful what you share in your work, on social media, or even in your daily conversations. A false rumour in a small sewing circle can quickly ignite a firestorm.

4. Get the deep news habit

Fake news gets our attention with headlines, tweets, and brief statements within public speeches (remember Donald Trump’s reference to something that was supposed to have happened in Sweden?). We can educate ourselves and protect ourselves from misinformation by regularly tuning in to intelligent analyses of current events by expert commentators. This not only arms us against the perils of fake news, it helps us put things in perspective and grants greater tranquility.

5. Get educated

In the rush to enter lucrative careers we’ve come to underestimate the value of a liberal education, that is, a general sense of the history, culture, and ideas on which Western democracies were founded. Developing this knowledge base and practicing critical thinking may not be your ticket to big bucks, but at the very least, you’ll know when a politician is lying to you.

For instance, if you understand the basics of a free market economy you’ll know that when politicians promise both deregulation and jobs at home they’re lying about one or the other. Why? Because free market means deregulation, and deregulation means removing obstacles that reduce profits for businesses. In other words, “Government – hands off!”.

No matter how loudly citizens clamour for environmental protection, fair hiring practices, and work safety, within a free market economy the government must avoid imposing any restrictions on a corporation’s power to increase profits for its shareholders. This includes demanding that businesses hire workers from within their own borders.

Fake News Checker catalogues hundreds of known fake news sites

It’s never too late to educate yourself! Courses available online or at your local academic institutions lay out the basics of democracy, capitalism, and the history of your country, just some of the topics you’ll need to know something about before you can make sense of the news. You can also check out your local library and talk to the smart people you know. If you still lack time, you can go a long way toward getting informed just by brandishing weapon number four!

6. Stand up for truthful journalists

When the Nazis were on the rise there was a newspaper called The Munich Post that never relented in its open criticism of the cruelties of the Hitler’s regime. Had the public had the courage to support this newspaper its reporters and owners may not have met with their untimely demise (the office was closed, some of the reporters were sent to a concentration camp, and others simply disappeared) and the office would be open to this day, no doubt bringing to light dangerous trends in current European politics. There will always be journalists with the courage to bring unsavoury truths to light, and it’s their stories we need to be sharing on our social media.

7. Quit the herd

You may have found yourself in the awkward position of holding an opinion in opposition to the views of your friends, family, community, or society. You felt compelled to keep it to yourself or even to give lip service to opinions you didn’t honestly share just to retain solidarity with the group.  You may even have fallen into the error of actively promoting a set of beliefs that you weren’t entirely sure you accepted.

Don’t beat yourself up about this, because it’s all part of the learning curve. Groupthink, a term coined by William H. Whyte, Jr., happens when the herd believes it knows more than you do and has the right to compel you to think the same way they do. Be conscious of the tendency of groups to preclude individual freedom of thought – something without which a just society can never thrive.

If someone within your tribe is talking pro-choice and you think the topic is more complex than the speaker is allowing for, don’t think you have to openly agree or disagree. Be polite, but don’t be afraid to ask questions that challenge them to examine the rationality and fairness of their beliefs.

And be wary when the “in-crowd” looks especially happy together. As Yale psychologist Irving Janis points out,  “The more amiability and esprit de corps there is among the members of a policy-making in-group, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanising actions directed against out-groups”.

8. Put it all under a microscope

Cultivate a healthy skepticism. Ask yourself, especially in light of social media posts of uncertain origin, “Might this be false? And if it is true, what kind of reaction is appropriate?”

When you hear others repeating things you know can’t be true, gently and politely pose questions that encourage them to verify the truth of statements. If you’re still not convinced, suspend judgment.

When you know something is false, call comment, or do whatever you can to call a spade a spade. Don’t trust people to find it out for themselves, because they may not have time. Cite your evidence. If we all hold media accountable and refuse to patronise or accept their news when they try to fool us, they’ll have no choice but to buckle down and start earning an honest living doing what they should have been doing all along: finding the truth and setting it free.

If you suspect a news source may be misleading you may be able to find it listed here. The News Literacy Project is also a great resource for separating the wheat from the chaff.

The very fact that you’ve read this article means you’ve obviously got one key feature not mentioned above, and that is the intention to seek truth. Bravo! You’re on the right road. As the Quran says, “All of humanity is lost except for those who pursue truth and perseverance.” To paraphrase, it is the patient, persistent truth seekers who are on the right road.

Don’t let anybody tell you different.

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