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Op-Ed: Reading and challenging fake news

Fake news is common on social media. We offer advice on how to think critically and to spot fake news.

Developers have also made virtual idols, AI news anchors and even China's first virtual university student from XiaoIce. — © AFP
Developers have also made virtual idols, AI news anchors and even China's first virtual university student from XiaoIce. — © AFP

The 2016 election was infamous for the widespread prevalence of ‘fake news’, and perhaps the first time that false or exaggerated news stories were propagated by politicians (and the subsequent U.S. government administration). Fake news stories have proliferated via social media. One aspect of the digital era is that articles can be easily and quickly shared online.

Fake news is not satirical news, or something marked up as an opinion piece (as might be penned by a columnist). Fake news is about ‘news stories’ that are completely untrue, or they do not contain all of the truth, with the content presented in such a way as to deliberately misleading the reader.

Some aspects of fake news have become very sophisticated, and this requires a degree of critical thinking on the part of the reader. While there are reputable news and media sites (CNN, BBC, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Digital Journal to name a few) the cacophony of digital media makes the assessment challenging for the general public.

To interpret the veracity of news online, a level of critical thinking can be useful. Critical thinking refers to the ability to think clearly and rationally and to understand the connection between ideas. 

This can include interpreting evidence, data patterns, understanding arguments (or different points of view),or at least why a person might be making a particular argument and upon what basis is that argument made?

Useful pointers when reading a news story include:

  • Who said it? Was it someone in a position of authority or power? Why might they say what they have said?
  • What did they say? Was what was said backed up by facts or opinions?
  • Where did they say it? Was what was said spoken in public or is what is presented another person’s opinion about a private conversation?
  • When did they say it? Was the quote made before, during or after an important event? In some cases, the timing is important.
  • Why did they say it? Is the context of the expressed opinion important? Was the objective to make someone else look good or bad?

For readers, this means becoming an ‘active’ reader rather than a passive recipient of information.

This entails the following good practices:

  • Investigating the source. Generally, data and facts in news stories should have sources and the sources should be credible. It is good practice to click on a URL to verify the source.
  • Dig deeper. If an article grips you, it is useful to examine the evidence on which the article bases its claims.
  • Check whether other, reliable news sources are carrying the story. It is often a very good check is to see whether other reliable sources are also carrying the story.

Understanding what is ‘fake news’ and challenging it has become a central component of democracy. It is time to push back on news that conveys or incorporates false, fabricated, or deliberately misleading information,

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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