Critical Thinking and Fake News

See also: Assessing Internet Information

Since the 2016 US presidential election, the phrase ‘fake news’ has become standard currency. But what does the term actually mean, and how can you distinguish fake from ‘real’ news?

The bad news is that ‘fake news’ is often very believable, and it is extremely easy to get caught out.

This page explains how you can apply critical thinking techniques to news stories to reduce the chances of believing fake news, or at least starting to understand that ‘not everything you read is true’.

What is ‘Fake News’?

‘Fake news’ is news stories that are either completely untrue, or do not contain all the truth, with a view to deliberately misleading readers.

Fake news became prominent during the US election, with supporters of both sides tweeting false information in the hope of influencing voters. But it is nothing new.

“The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

In May 1897, Mark Twain, the American author, was in London. Rumours reached the US that he was very ill and, later, that he had died. In a letter to Frank Marshall White, a journalist who inquired after his health as a result, Mark Twain suggested that the rumours had started because his cousin, who shared his surname, had been ill a few weeks before. He noted dryly to White,

“The report of my death was an exaggeration”.

It had, nonetheless, been widely reported in the US, with one newspaper even printing an obituary.

Fake news is not:

  • Articles on satirical or humorous websites, or related publications, that make a comment on the news by satirising them, because this is intended to inform and amuse, not misinform;

  • Anything obvious that ‘everyone already knows’ (often described using the caption ‘that’s not news’; or

  • An article whose content you disagree with.

The deliberate intention of fake news to mislead is crucial.

Why is Fake News a Problem?

If fake news has been around for so long, why is it suddenly a problem?

The answer is that social media means that credible fake news stories can spread very quickly.

In the worst cases, they can have major effects. There are suggestions that fake news influenced the 2016 US election. In another case, a gunman opened fire at a pizzeria that had been falsely but widely reported as being the centre of a paedophile ring involving prominent politicians. In less critical cases, fake news reports can result in distress or reputational damage for the people or organisations mentioned in the articles.

It is, therefore, important to be alert to the potential for reports to be fake, and to ensure that you are not party to their spread.

Spotting fake news

Unfortunately, it is not always easy to spot false news.

Sometimes, a story may be obviously false – for example, it may contain typos or spelling mistakes, or formatting errors. Like phishing emails, however, some fake news stories are a lot more subtle than that.

Facebook famously issued a guide to spotting fake news in May 2017. Its advice ranges from the obvious to the much less intuitive. Useful tips include:

  • Investigate the source

    Be wary of stories written by unknown sources, and check their website for more information. Stories from reliable news sources, such as national newspapers or broadcasters, are more likely to have been checked and verified. It is also worth looking at the URL, to make sure it is a genuine news organisation.

  • Dig deeper

    Look at the evidence on which the article bases its claims, and check whether they seem credible. If there are no sources given, or the source is an unknown ‘expert’ or ‘friend’ of someone concerned, be sceptical.

  • Check whether other, reliable news sources are carrying the story

    Sometimes, even otherwise reliable news sources get carried away and forget to do all the necessary checks. But one very good check is to ask whether other reliable sources are also carrying the story. If yes, it is likely to be correct. If not, you should at least be doubtful.

Facebook’s advice boils down to reading news stories critically.

That does not mean looking for their flaws, or criticising them, although this can be part of critical reading and thinking. Instead, it means applying logic and reason to your thinking and reading, so that you make a sensible judgement about what you are reading.

In practice, this means being alert to why the article has been written, and what the author wants you to feel, think or even do as a result of reading it. Even accurate stories may have been written in a way that is designed to steer you towards a particular point of view or action.

For more about this see our pages on Critical Thinking and Critical Reading.

A word about bias

It is worth remembering that everyone has their opinions, and therefore sources of potential bias in what they write. These may be conscious or unconscious. News organisations tend to have an organisational ‘view’ or political slant. For example, the UK’s Guardian is broadly left-wing, and most of the UK tabloids are right-wing in their views, and this affects both what they report and how they report it.

As a reader, you also have biases, both conscious and unconscious, and these affect the stories you choose to read, and the sources you use. It is therefore possible to self-select only stories that confirm your own view of the world, and social media is very good at helping with this.

To overcome this, it is important to use more than one source of information, and try to ensure that they have at least small differences in their political views.

A final thought

Fake news spreads so fast because we all like the idea of telling people something that they did not already know, something exclusive, and because we want to share our view of the world. It’s a bit like gossip.

But like false gossip, fake news can harm. Next time, before you click on ‘share’ or ‘retweet’, just take a moment to think about whether the story that you are spreading is likely to be true or not. Even if you think it is true, consider the possible effect of spreading it. Is it going to hurt anyone if it turns out to be false?

If so, don’t go there, think before you share.