We Americans have heard a great deal about “fake news” in the last two years, but the concept is far from new. Orson Welles’ sonorous broadcast of a fictitious “War of the Worlds” panicked many Americans in 1938, and there are still people looking for space aliens in Roswell, New Mexico.
Decades ago, my mother and I had a running joke about who scored the “fakest” news perused in tabloids while waiting in the grocery store checkout line. You know the type. Headlines scream about a woman in some unpronounceable – and perhaps nonexistent – foreign place who gave birth to a giraffe and the infant who was swallowed by a snake and emerged laughing at the other end. Sometimes we tried to outdo each other by making up our own fake news.
Our creative behavior seems to have become more prevalent these days, as people from President Trump on down author their own versions of news, facts be darned. Stories like those my mother and I enjoyed are easy to spot, but fake news has become more sophisticated. What all fake news has in common – whether it is in tabloids, on television, on social media or an internet website – is that it is fabricated with the intent to amuse, deceive, manipulate, damage or do all of the above.
Fake news has been documented in ancient Egypt and continues to this minute. Earlier fake news came with various motives from innocent to nefarious, just as ours does today. Current fake news is often overlaid with a profit motive as well – the more outrageous or salacious the story, the more clicks on it and the more money made. The goal may be deceit, but it may also be plain old greed.
Even the definition of fake news has become squashier. Instead of an outright lie, it might be satire a la “Saturday Night Live,” “The Daily Show” and the “Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” It is fair to say the subtlety – and I use that word with great respect – escapes some people who mistake satire for fact. Oh, well!
So how do well-meaning and serious news consumers inoculate ourselves from fake news? How do we filter the reasonable-sounding though bogus from the nutty but true? We probably cannot do so completely, but there are some defenses we can try.
If there are more !!! than simple …, more CAPITALS than lowercase letters, if it says, “THIS IS NOT A HOAX,” if it asks you to forward to all your friends (or those who are not), chances or better than not that it is bogus!
Tried and true advice always works, so consider the source. Have you ever heard of it? Is it credible? Is it really a source, or did someone just make it up? Not everything in print is true, nor is everything on the internet or TV. If you do not know the source and cannot find out anything about it, be very careful. This holds true whether the source is an organization or a person. If credentials look real, investigate a little more. If the author purports to have been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, which would give him or her credibility, double-check at the Pulitzer website. If a research center says it is associated with Princeton University – again a credibility enhancer – check with Princeton to confirm.
Don’t just read or listen to the headline. Even real news stories cannot convey all the information in a headline. It may be factual, it may be a satirical piece, or it may be fake, but the devil is in the details. The more you read and hear, the better your sense of real versus fake will become.
And finally, be aware of your points of view and, yes, your own biases. Are you seeking out stories and other information that merely preach to your private choir? Are you predisposed to stories about Barack Obama’s Kenyan birth or Donald Trump’s rocky relationship with facts? Do you challenge yourself to understand stories you are uncomfortable with or with which you disagree? If you are a Fox News devotee, do you ever switch to see what is being said on MSNBC and vice versa? Both are news outlets with distinctive points of view that dance around facts they may not like.
The bottom line here is that we Americans are truly blessed to have a constitutional right to our own opinions, no matter how wacky they may be.
What we are not entitled to is our own set of personal facts.