Don’t throw up your Hands!
If you have thought to yourself, “You just can’t tell what the truth is any more,” it’s understandable. Facebook posts, Tweets and even news headlines send us a torrent of often conflicting statements. And when a personal conversation turns to public figures, political statements, or questions of scientific fact, it is tempting to think everything is a just a matter of opinion and that the truth can’t be found.
Well don’t throw up your hands. I believe I have an antidote for what feels like media gone mad: “Rod’s 5 Step Cure for the Fake New Blues.” I call them Rod’s steps, but you probably already know them intuitively. I am just here to remind you of them.
Number 1: Listen for Bias
This is Listening 101. To discover the facts, we need impartiality—the exact opposite of bias. The reason it is hard to listen with impartiality is that we are all biased. As a result, when you hear someone with the same bias as yours, you feel good, and when you hear someone with an opposite bias, you feel upset. Such feelings usually don’t help us judge the facts.
How about this: listen for slanted language. When a news reporter, a politician or a friend says “that guy” instead of “Mr.”, or speaks with a judgmental tone, or uses name calling, practice consciously recognizing the slant in their words. We can all recognize slanted language if we listen for it. When we hear slanted language, our mind should be registering, “Definite bias here—maybe not so much fact.” If you pay attention, you will easily spot bias in many Twitter and Facebook posts.
Number 2: Use Your Fibbing Child Radar
When children do something they weren’t supposed to, they weave stories with astonishing skill. “Johnny did it” or “Sally did it” or “I had to…” is followed by a creative litany of blame and rationalization. When we adults listen, we detect their fakery with little effort. Maybe it’s our intuition or maybe we see through the fibs because we once did the same thing.
Strangely enough, when an adult delivers a similar spiel, we seem to turn off the radar—perhaps because we think adults are always more trustworthy than children. Unfortunately, some adults can lie as naturally and as often as fibbing kids. When they do, why should we give them any more credence than we would give a fibbing child?
Number 3: Bold or Ambiguous Statements Often telegraph Lack of Knowledge.
We love to believe that there are simple solutions to complex problems. The reality? There almost never are. A loud “That’s just wrong—wrong—wrong!” might mean the speaker hasn’t even explained to themselves why this something is wrong. And ambiguous statements or statements that aren’t even sentences can be interpreted in many ways. They might merely be a cover for the speaker’s ignorance on the subject. Bold and ambiguous statements may tell you how the speaker feels, but they are empty of meaning.
Number 4: Who is saying it and what has he or she said in the past?
We all know people who have exaggerated or lied in the past. Some people just have a habit of feeding you a line. In my farm-boy past we called them bull-shitters. (Whoops! Showing my bias with a little name-calling!) I don’t know why they do this. Maybe they have some kind of unmet psychological need. Surprisingly, such a people may be talented and even rich. They may have even convinced other people that what they say is true. But if they have a history of being dishonest, why believe them?
Number 5: Is there anything to back it up?
I just realized that my first four steps sound pretty negative! Oh well—being skeptical isn’t a bad place to start when you are looking for the truth. But now, let’s turn to the positive. There are plenty of ways to confirm statements. If you are wondering about the veracity of a Tweet or a Facebook post, the first thing to do is click it to learn more about the source. If the source looks partisan, you will probably want more verification.
For efficient and more thorough confirmation of social media posts as well as other kinds of media coverage, go to a good fact checking site. Politifact, Snopes, Washington Post Fact Checker, and factcheck.org are all good. The most reliable fact checkers offer a lot of detail to explain their judgments, and they aren’t afraid to cover opposing sides of issues.
Of course, if you are a serious truth seeker, you will want to go farther than fact checkers (and perhaps you already do). Don’t shun established media. Major newspapers and magazines, and to some extent TV news programs—get too little attention in the internet age. If you think they are one big conspiracy to fool us, you don’t know how fiercely competitive they are. They are very willing to blow the whistle on bad reporting by their competitors. If you want to verify a scientific claim, look for coverage in a peer-reviewed journal, or at least a serious science magazine. Google search is mighty handy to find these—or of course to find all kinds of relevant information.
There you have it, my five step cure, all five of which are really pretty much common sense. Common sense, although not entirely painless. That’s because the biggest obstacles in sorting fact from fiction are often our own deeply held beliefs, our biases against certain people, and our desire for easy answers. But if we are willing to see our own attitudes honestly and to expend a little effort, we have a good shot at curing the fake news blues.Share: by