As the Nov. 6 federal midterm elections approach, expect more of the summer and fall of 2016. There will be propaganda targeted at voters, including some completely fabricated news stories that are pushed forward by suspicious social media accounts and also by ordinary human beings.
You may see people arguing over events that never happened. It’s possible you could get into such an argument. Don’t think it can’t happen. Everyone falls for bad information sometimes. For educated people, the threat of misinformation grows just when we decide we’re immune.
Colin Doty, who has a doctorate in information studies and teaches communication in the Bachelor’s Degree for Professionals program, argues that the task of telling real from fake news is harder than people imagine. Consider the advice we always hear: Check sources, check out writers’ credentials, be mindful of bias and alert to irony, check dates of articles, follow links to look at supporting sources, and consult experts and fact-checkers.
Helpful, yes. But will this unfool all of the people, all of the time?
“When you think about it,” Doty says, “we don’t verify everything, nor could we. And if that’s the best advice – check everything you read! – then there’s just too much to check. So, what do we check?”
According to Doty, who’s writing a book about misinformation, readers heed the call to be skeptical mainly when they find that something doesn’t fit within their existing beliefs. This has nothing to do with being conservative or progressive in politics, he adds, and a lot to do with human psychology.
Checking is one thing, but in practice, different people give different amounts of credence to experts and to various moral, religious and scientific sources of authority. If the fact-checkers at Snopes.com and elsewhere challenge those authorities, some people will conclude “that the fact-check is the thing that’s incorrect, not the original information that I already believed.”
In short, misinformation is a vexing problem that can’t be solved simply by spreading true information.
The dawn of the internet and online social media didn’t initiate this problem, of course, but have added kinks to it. “I have friends who get all their news from Facebook,” Doty said, “and that’s just not a way to get a diverse diet of news, because of the algorithm and lots of other things.”
Doty expects to see more attempts by companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google to use both human and artificial intelligence “to create algorithms that can warn us about misinformation, or fact-check it, or eliminate it completely.
“Those solutions will get a lot of coverage, and they won’t work very well,” he predicted. “It is very hard for an algorithm to determine what is true, and even then, it will be hard to convince a partisan believer that something they believe is wrong.”
So what to do? As individuals, we have control at least over where we begin to look for news and analysis. Instead of starting out the day on social media, you might kick off your reading with the printed or digital edition of a newspaper you trust. Subscribe to one if you don’t already, because journalism needs the support. And beware of confusing “the people you trust” with “the people on your side.” Doty advises reading deeply in news sources that present views contrary to one’s own, provided that they work diligently to verify facts and to correct the record.
A next step would be to set aside time to curate your news across a range of sources. One good way to do this is with an RSS reader such as Feedly. This technology – whose initials stand for “rich site summary” or “really simple syndication” – allows you to select newspapers, magazines, blogs and other outlets to read, often within narrow topics of interest you select. The more you use the RSS reader to add sources that matter to you, the richer the experience.
Finally: “The other thing the internet does: It enables verification in a way that nothing else ever has,” Doty says. “It’s much easier to check on something, if you are so inclined.” —Kevin Matthews