In March of 2018 a group of MIT data scientists published a study which found that that humans and bots share fake news on Twitter at about the same rate, but the robots aren’t necessarily outsmarting us – we’re just playing along. The study, among other findings, showed that false news spread up to six times more quickly than real news and that it spread to more people: the top 1% of fake news reached 1,000 to 100,000 people, while real news rarely went above 1,000.
If you want to keep your social media profile credible, though, there are some steps you can take to double-check your news.
What is fake news?
“Fake news” has become a heavily politicized term, but the common-sense definition still applies: “any news that contains intentionally misleading information.” It often spreads quickly because it appears more interesting than real news, and it often provokes a quick reaction by appealing to our negative, defensive emotions, like fear and disgust. Ideally, you would be able to tell real from fake at a glance, but some of it can look quite believable, and it’s hard to have your shields up all the time.
So what can you use to detect it?
1. Your lizard-brain
Fake news is designed to trip the switches that control your instinctual “fight-or-flight” responses. If you read a headline or article that is clearly trying to elicit a strong reaction from you, especially if it’s slanted heavily towards one side of a debate, it’s probably fake. For example:
- Fake: Social media is destroying truth: MIT scientists find evidence of humans and robots sharing so many lies that you can’t believe anything you read on Twitter! Lizard-people are now the only safe source of news.
- Real: “On Twitter, fake news spreads faster than truth, an MIT study says.” – Hanna Kozlowska, Quartz
2. Practice your fake news identification skills
Your brain is your first line of defense, so if you can get some practice identifying fake news, you’ll be better able to identify it on your own. The best way to learn is to do, and short of starting your own fake news site, these games are the closest you’ll get.
Factitious: a game that presents you with articles that are either real or fake and asks you to choose. It doesn’t take long and gives you good insights into what to look for.
Bad News: a game that puts you in charge of a fake news publication. You will learn about what goes into successful bad news and how people manipulate it for their benefit. It takes ten or fifteen minutes and might leave you wanting to play it again.
Fake It to Make It: This game takes significantly longer than the games above (1+ hours), but it puts you right into the mindset of someone who is manipulating social media purely for profit.
3. BS Detector
This browser extension works on Chrome, Opera, Firefox, Safari, and Edge, and gives you warnings when you are on a page that contains possible fake news. It analyzes the links to check for unreliable sources, then tells you why a particular site was flagged.
This Chrome extension is powered by the MediaBiasFactCheck database, and it not only alerts you when you are browsing a fake news site but will clue you into the political biases of legitimate sites as well. Accurate facts do not guarantee truth, after all; different presentations can leave you with very different ideas.
5. Fake News Detector AI
This Chrome extension is actually built on a neural network, using machine learning to predict whether the website you are visiting is spreading fake news or not. It only runs when you ask it to, which some users may appreciate. Not a Chrome user? You can visit the AI’s portal website and manually enter the web address you want to check. It’s last on the list because it’s not all that accurate, though: in my testing it reported RealClearPolitics and The Intercept as fake news — both sites that definitely have some bias, but are not at all fake.
Conclusion: Big tech and truth on the Internet
While ultimately it is up to the user to assess the news they read and make choices about it, some of the larger companies that control your news diet are making efforts to clean things up as well. Facebook, Google, and other tech/media companies are experimenting with ways to de-prioritize or flag possibly untrue content, though none of them has yet implemented such a system.
Algorithm tweaks and other solutions may have had some success, but no matter what the big tech companies do, fake news can never really go away without severely limiting the ability of users to freely express themselves. For the foreseeable future, then, the best strategy is just to rely on your own assessments and research. You don’t need to be a journalist to recognize falsehood – just make sure you look for overly-dramatic language, fact-check articles you aren’t sure about, and if you’re still not sure, just “be sweet, don’t retweet.”
Image credit: Thomas Schultz via Wikimedia
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