Detecting Fake News

After the spate of fake news in circulation over the last year or so numerous guides have been published to help you spot fake news. Unfortunately, few of them are effective.

The reason for this - which you can spot for yourself as you look at them - is that they tend to focus on whether or not the source is authoritative. But to spot fake news, you need to focus on whether the news is authoritative.

The reason for this - and again, you can verify this for yourself - is that the authorities lie. Whether they're an old school newspaper, or just an old school, these days they all have a vested interest. They want you to believe them.

So how do you cope? That's what this article is about.

First rule: Trust no one.

Start with this. Don't believe anything just because someone says so. It doesn't matter who they are. Don't even trust me. Read this article sceptically.

It's not that there's nobody to trust. The problem is, you don't know who they are, and you don't know how far to trust them. Trust is something that has to be earned.

You can't trust someone simply because they have a degree or a collar or a title. You can't trust them simply because they own a newspaper or a corporation.

It's not that they're all untrustworthy. Many people - maybe even most people - are upstanding citizens and will tell the truth most of the time. But some won't. And the problem is, you don't know which is which. Not at first.

Second rule: Look for the evidence.

Much of what you are presented can be discounted based on this one rule alone. If the author or the teller does not present you with a reason to believe, you shouldn't believe it.

What counts as a reason to believe? Quite a few things, happily. There isn't a simple list. Different things will carry different weight. Here are some examples:

- verification. This means you can see your yourself that something is the case. If I say the house burned down last night, you can verify this by going to the house and looking for yourself. In the first three paragraphs of this article you can see two examples - I'm inviting you to verify something for yourself.

- replication. A lot of things can't be directly verified, or can only be verified after it's too late. But they're the sort of things that can be tested, and the test comes out the same way. Science works on this principle. If someone says they have produced cold fusion, they should be able to produce cold fusion again.

- confirmation. If something is true, then something else should be true. If it rains, the sidewalk gets wet. That's how you know rain is made of water. You can confirm this by looking out the window and predicting that the sidewalk will be wet. Successful predictions count as confirmation, and give you a reason to believe 'rain is made of water' is true.

- falsification. What makes confirmation work is that the predictions must be falsifiable. If the sidewalk bubbled and melted when it rained, then you would know the rain wasn't made of water. Acid, maybe. So something is confirmed only if it can be falsified. If there is no way a prediction could be wrong, then the prediction proves nothing.

These are all forms of direct evidence. The advantage is that they're solid. Do them right, and you have good reasons to believe. But the disadvantage is that they require personal involvement. You can't go to Syria to check things out for yourself. Prediction and falsification give you some reach, but they still depend on direct evidence at some point.

Plus, these four principles are hard to get right. There are numerous ways to get them wrong. Thus, you need to add another rule.

Third rule: Avoid error.

Avoiding error is partially a matter of knowledge and skill, and partially a matter of ordinary prudence and caution. There are numerous errors you can make - I list many of them in my Guide to the Logical Fallacies - but you don't have to be an expert to avoid common sense errors.

Here are some of the major sources of error:

- prediction. We make predictions using logic and mathematics. Logic and mathematics are skills that can be learned (and verified directly for accuracy). You can't fake this; you have to do the work. Deduction, induction, calculation, probability - get them right and you've eliminated a huge percentage of the errors other people make.

- precision. Being precise is a virtue. If you are predicting something and then measuring the result, you need to be sure you're measuring the same thing you are predicting. Vague terms (like 'knowledge', 'value', etc) are difficult to evaluate. Non-standard units of measurement ('serving', 'car length') cannot be measured. If there are sources, are the sources named?

- relevance. It's easy to become distracted from the subject at hand. It's important to focus on the message, not the messenger. It's important to focus on whether something is true or false, not why you want it to be true or not true.

- perspective. We are fooled by our senses. We think we see the whole truth when we only see part of it. We live within a world view that shapes our perceptions and affects our judgement. Did we see a tiger in the bush, or just black and orange stripes? It's easy to jump to conclusions through bias and prejudice.

Take your time. Don't jump to conclusions; evaluate the evidence. Even if you are not an expert in reasoning or perspective, be aware that these are sources of error. Practice making your own inferences and predictions.

Fourth rule: Take names.

You are finally in a position where you can begin to trust others. After all, the proposition that someone is trustworthy is just another fact about the world you can learn for yourself.

Use the four mechanisms above to assess the trustworthiness of people:

- trust. How do they reach their beliefs? Do they carefully observe and weigh the evidence, or do they tend to believe rumours and innuendo? Are they swayed by certain people or do they make up their own mind?

- evidence. Do they provide you with reasons to believe? Do they describe what they're seen for themselves clearly? Have you caught them lying or misrepresenting the truth? Is it the sort of thing you could have seen, had you been there? Do they have a track record of making good predictions (that could have been wrong)?

- errors. Do they avoid errors? To the best of your ability, can you determine whether they reason correctly, whether they use language clearly and directly, whether they stay on topic and talk about ideas, not people? Can they separate their own interests from the facts, and keep perspective?

- trust. Do they themselves have a network of people they can trust? Are they trusted by other people you can trust?

Final rule: Diversify.

No matter how careful you are, you can still be misled. It happens all the time - people make honest mistakes, they overlook factors they should have considered, or something may be hidden from view.

Never depend on just one source - not even your own eyes.The first thing you should do is to ask someone else, "do you see this too?"

This is what good newspapers do. They get the same information from multiple sources, and don't publish it unless they have multiple sources. When the reporter says an interviewee said something to them, they have an editor call the person back and confirm that they actually did say this. At least -  they used to do these things.

In a conflict, learn from both sides. That doesn't mean both sides are equally trustworthy - but without learning from both sides, you'd never be in a position to evaluate this. Get multiple points of view, if you can.

Remember - the truth isn't "in the middle". Don't treat all sides equally if they're not all trustworthy.

That's it! Yes, we could explore each of these subjects in more depth, and as someone serious about detecting fake news, you should. There are no shortcuts - you need to study and practice.


  1. There are websites that start out OK but degenerate to propaganda. This happened to sites I read during the Iraq debacle and the Ukranian disaster. You have to keep checking.

    It is easy to be impressed with a bunch of hits on Google. If they are all a repetition of a single post, be very afraid.

  2. Fantastic! A clear list useful in so many contexts! Thanks Stephen!

  3. This Fake News blog post could be used to make predictions about our coming dark age with the move to the political right.

    Right now, in some political circles, climate scientists are like public enemies, universities are suspect, and journalists under threat.

    The appetite for Brietbart type news fueled a successful presidential campaign and a gunman raiding a Washington pizzeria to liberate the children held in a child sex slave ring operated out of the pizzeria's basement by Hillary and Bill.

    Reason, verification,disproof even make no difference, save for the kill the messenger message targeting reporters and news sources trying to publish 'real' news.

    We teeter now at the cusp of cultural change. Now the principles outlined here are at risk so support quality, local journalism. Remember all but a few newspapers (one of which is owned by the son in law of the president elect) endorsed Clinton and condemned the mockery of truth Trump represrnts. Brietbart was Trump's largest news source for tweets in his campaign. Let's keep the flame butning during this dark time by supporting reputable news sources with subscriptions.

    Real news costs money to produce. If we loose our real news, we loose a powerful check on our political class.

  4. All good moves for dealing with maters of fact but what about matters of opinion? What are good standards for moral reasoning (ought, should, etc.)? Many folks are simply unable to tell the difference between an assertion of fact and a statement of opinion. They also have great difficulty discerning the difference between honesty (absence of deception) and veracity (absence or error).
    Productive public discussion of policy issues requires that we correctly discern the relevant facts and with that, reason our way toward what ought to be and how we should go about effecting those ends.


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