Questions and Concepts that Uncover Fake News and Bias
Questions and Concepts that Uncover Fake News and Bias
As teens approach the end of their high school years and prepare to make their way into the wide world, it’s important that they have the tools they need to navigate the flood of information that we all deal with. Parents can do a great service for their kids by helping them learn how to distinguish the good from the bad in the world of information, news and social media, starting with some key concepts, and libraries can be their partner in creating a new generation of informed, engaged young adults.
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Librarians see finding the best possible information on a topic as their duty, after all. While many nowadays are satisfied with the first answer found on a topic, librarians work to find the best one — and people know it. According to a Pew survey, 78% of American adults think the public library helps them “find information that is trustworthy and reliable,” with the millennial generation outperforming even that number at 87%.
While libraries do their best to develop literacy in their communities, there are many kinds of “literacies” out there. Information literacy, as defined by the American Library Association, is the ability to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.” Teaching information literacy is a key duty for libraries, and that means educating the public on where to go to get reliable answers, as well as how to tell good from bad — and as we all know, there’s plenty of bad to be found, both online and off.
Education begins at home, however! Here are a few important concepts to discuss with your kids (and if needed, brush up on yourself!):
Citizens in a participatory democracy have to stay informed about what’s going on, and there are plenty of news sources out there to choose from. Many sources are staffed by professional journalists who try to keep the public informed in a responsible way, and do their best to keep their opinions out of the story. Others have an agenda of their own, though, and actively try to get us to see the world the way they want us to, selecting stories that are convenient for that worldview and ignoring those that aren’t. Still others give misleading or fearmongering headlines to get clicks, or just flat-out make stuff up.
How, then, do we sift the good from the bad? Ask lots of questions!
- Who wrote it? Do they know what they’re talking about? Are they trustworthy? Who do they work for?
- Why did they write it? To prove a point? To inform people? To advance an agenda? To make money by getting you to click?
- How old is it? Is it outdated? In the case of breaking news, are they just guessing because nothing definite is known yet? (This happens a lot in the early stages of a breaking story)
- What site/source is it on? Who backs that source? On websites, you can usually find an “About” section to get more information.
- Is it trying to present facts or opinions pretending to be facts? Does it cite reputable sources?
Vanessa Otero, an attorney and researcher, put together a very thoughtful chart categorizing a number of media sources based on perceived bias and editorial slant to each:
She discusses her reasoning and the structure behind this chart in great detail on her blog, and while a chart like this should not be accepted uncritically (as she herself says), it does make for a solid jumping-off point when considering bias and trustworthiness.
When in doubt, fact-check! There are lots of great resources out there. First and foremost, you can do research for yourself on a topic and gain a better understanding of the issues — the library is always available to help you with that! There are also many good fact-checking resources out there — try Snopes.com, Politifact or FactCheck.org, which do a very good job of analyzing claims and determining how true they are based on available evidence.
When evaluating sources, though, there are several other things to watch for. Our brains are wired to think along certain lines, and the downside about learning more about how the brain works is that it becomes much easier for people to manipulate our worst instincts…
A long time ago, our species was primarily concerned with surviving, and that meant sticking together as a tribe. Our brains never really lost that way of thinking, and while we all like to think of ourselves nowadays as rugged individualistic types, we still unconsciously tend to go along with what our group thinks, rather than risk being kicked out of it (even if we know we’re right). This can lead to all sorts of bad things — groupthink stifles creativity, to start with, but it can also lead to people getting swept up in a mob, demonizing people or groups that are different, and trying to explain away the bad behavior of someone because they’re on “our team.”
We as people don’t like things that make us feel like we (or our “team,” as we’ve seen) might be wrong. We all have biases and strongly-held opinions, and while we love to read or hear about things that confirm those opinions, we tend to automatically ignore or explain away evidence that shows we might be wrong. Confirmation bias leads us to wrap ourselves in “bubbles” of news and websites that we agree with, partially because that’s what we’re already inclined to do, and partially because advertisers notice our preferences and push websites that cater to them.
Both sides are not always equal in an argument. If a neighbor swears that peppermint oil cures cancer and the American Medical Association disagrees, both sides do not have equally valid points. There is no reasonable compromise to be found between “killing 100 people” and “killing nobody.” While the media, fearful of appearing biased, may bring people on espousing ridiculous views for the sake of “balance,” that doesn’t mean both sides are necessarily valid.
A popular thing to do when faced with a difficult question is to change the subject in a way that puts the questioner on the defensive. For instance, when asked about their positive steroid test, an athlete might say “Well, what about the time you smoked pot in college?” This response keeps the athlete from having to answer the question and tries to make the questioner look like a hypocrite for bringing it up.
These are terms used to refer to shady practices in social media. Sockpuppets are fake accounts online, created for any number of reasons — to help businesses give themselves artificially good reviews on Amazon or Yelp, to let organizations pretend to be “everyday people” supporting their business practices online, to enable governments to spread rumors and disinformation, or for other shady reasons. Many of these accounts are “bots,” or programs scripted to act human online. Astroturfing uses large numbers of these fake accounts to make it look as though something has massive popular support — the name refers to an artificially-created “grassroots” movement. Part of the danger of astroturfing lies in the fact that real people seeing large numbers behind a fake movement or news story can get swept up in it — just because a lot of people believe something doesn’t mean it’s true, after all!
Our brains fail us in predictable ways, called “cognitive biases” — and even the best of us buy into bad arguments and indulge our biases more than we’d like. Learning about these failures and questioning the information we find can help us catch ourselves and try to do better, though. Libraries will continue to do their part to help patrons find the best possible information and work to develop critical thinking skills in the community — librarians are here to support parents as they raise a new, information-savvy generation of leaders!