Information Authority: How to Spot Fake News

Hey everyone, Cody here again continuing my Research 101 series. My last post, Google Like a Pro, discussed how to properly perform searches and also discussed some search tips. Today I will share advice about what I call Information Authority, what it commonly referred to as fake news. As I mentioned in my previous post, this series centres around information literacy, which is the ability to find, evaluate, organize, use, and communicate information. We’ve already covered how to find info, now we’re on the second step, evaluation.

We’ll start this post with a discussion of the two types of fake news, learning how to spot it, understanding how your brain works with regards to information, and tips for dealing with fake news and bias. We’ll conclude this post with a few examples and questions for you to ponder.

Disclaimer before we start: no one source is always going to be correct and truth is usually difficult to discern.

Misinformation vs. Disinformation

Misinformation: False information unintentionally presented as true.

Disinformation: False information deliberately presented as true.

It is important to know the difference between these two, and if the source of your information is dealing out misinformation or disinformation. An easy example is a friend telling you that a certain politician used campaign funds for luxury diners. When you ask your friend where they heard about this, they tell you that they read it in an article someone shared on Facebook. You look up the article and it turns out it was written by a publication that opposes the politician. You look into it further and discover there was no misuse of campaign funds. Your friend shared misinformation simply because they took what they read at face value, but the article shared disinformation because what they published was not factual.

Disinformation is everywhere, take this video of former President Barak Obama that was altered by what is known as “Deep Fake” software.

As you can see, advances in technology make it easier to present false information as real. But then there’s always plain old using reputable data improperly to make people believe what you want them to believe, the following article is a great and timely example:

This article, based on a published study from the CDC, correctly states that most people who are testing positive for COVID-19 said they always wear a mask in public, but omits information about masks being mandatory in most public settings and also does not state where these people are catching COVID. The study, in fact, does not prove that masks are ineffective at protecting people from the virus. Interestingly though, much of the information in the article actually represents the facts of the CDC study, but the title of the article does not.

Learning to Spot Fake News

Always be weary of an article taking a hard stance in one direction, often the author is pushing an agenda. This article is a great example of what are referred to as Advertorials (advertisement and editorial combined):

The article claims that public-private partnerships in Manitoba schools are a benefit to all, but there are some red flags. At the top of the page it says “Sponsor Content” (in relatively small lettering) and in place of where the author’s name should be, it says “This content was produced by The Globe and Mail’s Globe Edge Content Studio, in consultation with an advertiser. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.” These two pieces of information tell us that this is an advertisement masquerading as an editorial. A great tip is to look into the author, sometimes you’ll find they have an obvious bias or a vested interest in what they are writing about.

How Our Brains Work

Cognitive Bias:

Humans have a tendency to believe or look for information that:

  1. confirms the beliefs they already believe
  2. makes them feel good about themselves
  3. makes people they care about look good

Humans have a tendency to discount information that:

  1. questions things they already believe
  2. makes them feel bad about themselves
  3. makes people they care about look or feel bad
What does this mean?

We can believe things without evidence

AND

We can believe things in spite of evidence

Just understanding that cognitive bias exists is the main hurdle. Once you can recognize it, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to notice it in yourself.

How to Deal with Disinformation and Bias

1) Look at the context:

Think Critically!

Take a look at similar sources, if you’re reading a book, look at some reviews, if it’s an academic article look to see who has cited it (you can do this by finding it on Google Scholar), maybe there are opposing viewpoints.

2) Distinguish between opinion and evidence:

Most articles are trying to make a point or argue a side, having an opinion is not problematic if it is supported by good evidence in order to be credible.

*Opinion is not enough*

3) Check yourself before you wreck yourself:

Try and find information that disproves your theory or opinion, think of any possible counter arguments, remember we all have biases.

Examples

The following are a news article, an academic article, and an email I received while working (I’m a librarian at the U of M).

Plastic bag bans are actually terrible for the environment and make us sicker

Think about the subject matter, does it make sense? Also does the author’s appeal to an authority (the studies the author mentions) make sense? Why doesn’t the author name the studies?


The MMR vaccine and autism: Sensation, refutation, retraction, and fraud

This article is meant to be an overview of how the original academic research paper that started the vaccines cause autism craze started. Feel free to use the links at the bottom to read more.


Email from Student

Good afternoon Cody,
My class notes state that the UN has 193 members, but a 2016 peer-reviewed article I just read said it has 197 member states and parties. Yet in multiple searches, it would appear there are only 195 members, including the observer states. I’m confused. The article is “The Last Holdout” by Martha Middleton.
How does one know which source is more accurate?
Thanks for any help you can offer.

How would you figure out how many countries the UN has? Which source seems more authoritative to you?


I hope this has been illuminating and that you’re armed with more tools to detect fact-based information and dismiss the fake stuff.

Cody


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