The Truth Is Out There was the tagline for the X-Files TV series that initially ran from 1993 to 2002. Scully and Mulder’s efforts to investigate aliens and extraterrestrial life were thwarted by secrecy imposed by government agents. Aliens are not a big issue today (at least not the type of alien that concerned them) but we face an even bigger challenge than Scully and Mulder when it comes to getting at the truth.
Checking the Validity of “News”
I recently attended an excellent presentation on this subject by Dr. Wendy Weinhold, a Journalism Professor at Coastal Carolina University. She outlined factors to be considered when evaluating the validity of “news,” including:
- Is there a by-line identifying the author?
- Are sources for the story provided?
- Are the facts checkable?
- Can the same story be found in other sources?
- Is the source identified as .com.co? (which is almost certain to be fake news)
Dr. Weinhold stressed that if you have any doubts about the authenticity of a source you should not share it. This is important for several reasons, including the fact that fake news travels faster through cyberspace than real news. This should not surprise us given that Mark Twain allegedly remarked that “a lie can travel half way around the world while truth is still putting on its shoes” (although giving him credit for this saying, ironically, may be fake news). A recent study from MIT found that false claims were 70% more likely to be shared on Twitter than the truth and that it took true stories six times as long to reach the same number of people (1,500 people was the sample used in the MIT study).
The researchers found that false claims were considered more novel than true ones (not surprising since they were made up), and that they generated feelings of surprise and disgust. Apparently true news inspired more anticipation, sadness, and joy (depending on the story involved) – although why those emotions should be less effective in encouraging the sharing of information is unclear.
Don’t Get Trapped in a Bubble of Your Biases
When you share false news you don’t just accelerate its distribution. You also help to create an Internet profile of your apparent values and beliefs which can, in turn, shape the sources of information that you find in your Internet searches. We have all seen examples of how the Internet anticipates our possible interests. If you search once for cruises in the Caribbean or train travel in Europe, you will find information on such matters popping up on your screen on subsequent visits to your computer.
This may seem helpful in some respects, but it also has a sinister side. If you hold views that are, for example, left-leaning or right-leaning (to use some admittedly imprecise terms), you are likely to share/pass along items that you find that support those views. The more your presence on the Internet is associated with left-leaning or right-leaning points of view, the more you are automatically directed to similar information when you use a search engine (which for most of us is Google). In one experiment, a liberal, a conservative, and a moderate were all asked to use the same search term on the Internet. When they entered that term in Google, all three were taken to different sources of information that reflected their perceived biases. The result, over time, is that we end up in a self-perpetuating bubble of our biases.
Broaden Your Search – and Your Mind
If follows that the healthiest thing we can do, besides not sharing information that we suspect may be false, is to visit a variety of websites that represent contrasting world views. This diversity in our search pattern helps to keep our options open when we initiate searches on particular topics. It can also help to keep our minds open as we find ourselves dealing with points of view we had not previously considered. Improved insight and understanding are the likely result, along with an enhanced ability to detect and reject fake news.