Five ways to filter out fake news

Sunday , August 13, 2017 - 5:00 AM3 comments

E. KENT WINWARD, special to the Standard-Examiner

People love to read lists. Lists get more clicks online because people will read lists. I typed in “5 Ways” in a Google search, and here's what popped up:

  • 5 Ways to Simplify Your Life
  • 5 Ways ‘Game of Thrones’ Has Changed for the Worse
  • 5 Ways to Read More Books
  • 5 Ways to Simplify Today
  • 5 Ways to Get Better Sleep Without Sleeping More Hours

Five links, each with five easy answers.

So you picked up your Sunday newspaper or clicked on a link, and now you're reading the news. How can you tell what’s real and what isn’t?

Here’s my list of five ways to filter out fake news:

1. Check your confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is a very human trait. "Confirmation bias" means we see only what we want to see. Are you a Democrat? President Trump’s tweets prove Western civilization is about to crumble. Are you a Republican? The soaring stock market is proof that putting a businessman in the White House was the right move. Those with rigid ideologies are the most prone to confirmation bias. Simply follow Facebook feeds and you'll learn soon enough who has confirmation bias. If a news article tells you exactly what you want to hear, there’s a chance it’s fake, or at the very least, inaccurate in some way. Well-reported and balanced news, by its very nature, will always contain contradictions or conflicts. This means they are examining both sides, equally. Very few things in life are clear-cut.

2. Feelings aren’t facts.

Are you emotionally moved by the news article? The more emotion and feeling the news generates in you, the more careful you need to be. Fake news relies on creating strong emotional responses. Our biological makeup causes us to pay close attention to sensationalism, rather than the more common stories that are real. Fake news relies on manipulating our feelings, i.e. “Child Sex Ring in Washington D.C. Pizza Parlor” is a much scarier headline than “Congress Debating Intricacies of Health Care,” but one is fake and the other is real and potentially dangerous.

3. Keep your theories away from conspiracies.

Does the article you are reading suggest a select few are controlling the masses? Is the CIA involved? The Illuminati? Could the news story have been written by Dan Brown or John Grisham? This isn’t saying that conspiracies don’t happen or that the CIA hasn’t done some messed-up things. We want our news media to expose collusion and conspiracies, but fake news relies on conspiracy theories that are immune from attack. For instance, if you ask for proof of a conspiracy, don’t accept “The lack of evidence is solid proof of just how deep the conspiracy goes!” That’s an indication you've strayed into Tinfoil-hat Land.

4. Numbers can be deceptive.

"Five ways to filter out fake news." See how easy that was? If I had simply written a column about how to parse real news from fake news, the task would have seemed difficult to impossible. Or, you might not have even read this far because of No. 1 ("I don't have confirmation bias. I know I'm right"). But stick a number on it, and suddenly, it seems very easy to check off each item. Numbered lists make the complex seem simple.

When a story or article pulls out statistical data that "proves" a point, and suddenly everything makes sense, then it's possible the information is misleading. Always look at the source of data and check the math. For example, a headline that reads: “Suicide Rates 98 Percent Higher than Combat-Related Deaths in Soldiers,” sounds like a crisis, until you ask if any of the troops are even in active combat.

5. Watch out for "experts" and their predictions.

The thing about predictions and prophecies? They are often wrong. Part of the human condition is we don't know what tomorrow will bring.However, if we predict the sun will rise tomorrow, we'd probably be right. The laws of physics give us a pretty good indication that tomorrow our car will get us to work as long as we filled the gas tank.

We can thank experts for their insight, but this doesn’t bestow on them the title of "prophet" or the ability to predict things outside their narrow expertise.

As a licensed and experienced bankruptcy attorney, if I have all the facts, I’m extremely good at predicting what will happen in a bankruptcy case. If a dermatologist tells you the rash on your arm is an allergic reaction, he's probably correct most of the time. However, ask either of us about the economic ramifications of health care reform, and the letters after our names, along with our expertise, mean little. The issue is too complex. If the news has an expert making predictions outside his or her narrow area of expertise, you might be reading fake news.

So, here's my disclaimer: Applying my list may not completely rid you of your belief in fake news, but it certainly won’t hurt.

Kent Winward is an Ogden attorney. Twitter: @KentWinward.

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