I saw on BBC Breakfast this morning a piece on teching children how to spot fake news. There was an academic saying how important it was for the kids to learn to challenge what they hear, to do their own research, etc. which sounds great. Then they had a child being interviewed about what they had learned. They said that the main thing was to look for the brand and to go for big companies. This immediately raised my hackles so I felt I had to write my own thoughts on media and fake news.
There are many factors to consider with regard to news. Firstly, the media organisation:
- Who owns or controls (e.g. through governance) the media organisation?
- What are the vested interests of the owners/controllers?
- How is the organisation funded?
- Who benefits from the audience believing the overall perspective taken by the organisation?
- What is the route to promotion within the organisation? In other words how do you get to be a news editor, for example? (Does the organisation encourage indpendent journalism or ‘toeing the line’?
- What is the stated aim of the organisation (e.g. to make money, to spread the ‘truth’, to promulgate a religious view, etc.).
Secondly, the news item itself:
- Is it based on evidence and is that evidence sourced or linked to?
- What weight would you put on the credibility of the sources? Note that this answer is always a probability that the information is correct. Even the most reliable source can be wrong. It is also worth giving a source the benefit of the doubt.
- Is the same story being reported elsewhere? It is worth checking that the different reports are not all reposts or re-edits of an original article.
- Does the story invoke a strongly emotional ‘anti’ or ‘pro’ feeling accompanied by a subtle emotional pressure that if you don’t agree with the story then you are stupid, naive, bigoted, prejudiced, evil, selfish, outdated, etc.
- Who benefits from the audience believing the story?
Dangers to be aware of:
- Powerful techniques of persuasion have been developed over many years. They are based on proven psychological principles and are routinely used in sales and marketing as well as propaganda. Edward Bernays, the founder of PR, and Josef Goebells, the Nazi propaganda minister, are historical figures worth investigating – but this science has progressed significantly since then.
- The number of people who believe something is not necessarily and indicator of validity. Huge numbers of people can be wrong, for example, belief that the Earth is flat. Most people go with the flow and do not look into information themselves or are simply not well educated.
- State intelligence organisations influence large media organisations. Obvious examples are the propaganda films and newsreels produced during the second world war by all sides. I think most people would be very happy to believe this of the Russians but there is strong evidence that the CIA continues voertly to influence media organisations (see this article, to which you might want to apply the principles outlined here for its validity https://www.globalresearch.ca/the-cia-and-the-media-50-facts-the-world-needs-to-know/5471956).
- Assuming that what you take to be ‘given’ is true. It is always a good idea to keep an open mind and be prepared to change engrained beliefs.
- Fully accepting or rejecting anything. Black and white thinking blinds you to the truth. It put you into a position where you feel you have to defend your position and leads to self-filtering of information, i.e. you only read something that supports your existing view. Truth and falsehood are never absolute, particularly when it comes to the media. It is a good idea to have an internal ‘probability of truth’ rating for everything you think you know. This will automatically alow you to be open to change that view. This is similar to a civil court case where you hold a baance of probability in your mind based on the available evidence.
- Rejecting an opinion because you don’t want to be like the people who hold that opinion. For example holding an opinion that questions Israel’s actions against Palestinians is painted as anti-semitic and you don’t want to be seen as anti-semitic or questioning man-made climate change is seen as wanting to destroy the planet and people don’t want to be put into that ‘evil’ category so they don’t question man-made climate change.
- Believing something that someone says because you believe other things they say. Everyone makes mistakes and some peole can be right about one thing and wrong about another. This goes for media organisations as well as individuals.
- Rejecting an article or an organisation in its entirety because it contains one or more factual errors. Obviously this will flag up a warning indicator but it does not mean that the whole article is wrong. Indeed the error may be inconsequential and some peope will use this to reject the whole premise of an article.
- Rejecting an article or media organisation because someone else has told you that they are
- Having blind faith in any organisation or person whether it be the BBC, the Church of England, your political party, The Guardian, etc. Trust in your own critical, open-minded, rational judgement.
As I reach the end I think to myself that those who need to know about and practice what I have written are those people who will never look at a post like this and those who do bother to read it already know. Still, at least I feel better for writing it!