A Philosopher's Blog

Fake News I: Critical Thinking

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 2, 2016

While fake news presumably dates to the origin of news, the 2016 United States presidential election saw a huge surge in the volume of fakery. While some of it arose from partisan maneuvering, the majority seems to have been driven by the profit motive: fake news drives revenue generating clicks. While the motive might have been money, there has been serious speculation that the fake news (especially on Facebook) helped Trump win the election. While those who backed Trump would presumably be pleased by this outcome, the plague of fake news should be worrisome to anyone who values the truth, regardless of their political ideology. After all, fake news could presumably be just as helpful to the left as the right. In any case, fake news is clearly damaging in regards to the truth and is worth combating.

While it is often claimed that most people simply do not have the time to be informed about the world, if someone has the time to read fake news, then they have the time to think critically about it. This critical thinking should, of course, go beyond just fake news and should extend to all important information. Fortunately, thinking critically about claims is surprisingly quick and easy.

I have been teaching students to be critical about claims in general and the news in particular for over two decades and what follows is based on what I teach in class (drawn, in part, from the text I have used: Critical Thinking by Moore & Parker). I would recommend this book for general readers if it was not, like most text books, absurdly expensive. But, to the critical thinking process that should be applied to claims in general and news in particular.

While many claims are not worth the bother of checking, others are important enough to subject to scrutiny. When applying critical thinking to a claim, the goal is to determine whether you should rationally accept it as true, reject it as false or suspend judgment. There can be varying degrees of acceptance and rejection, so it is also worth considering how confident you should be in your judgment.

The first step in assessing a claim is to match it against your own observations, should you have relevant observations. While observations are not infallible, if a claim goes against what you have directly observed, then that is a strike against accepting the claim. This standard is not commonly used in the case of fake news because most of what is reported is not something that would be observed directly by the typical person. That said, sometimes this does apply. For example, if a news story claims that a major riot occurred near where you live and you saw nothing happen there, then that would indicate the story is in error.

The second step in assessment is to judge the claim against your background information—this is all your relevant beliefs and knowledge about the matter. The application is fairly straightforward and just involves asking yourself if the claim seems plausible when you give it some thought. For example, if a news story claims that Hillary Clinton plans to start an armed rebellion against Trump, then this should be regarded as wildly implausible by anyone with true background knowledge about Clinton.

There are, of course, some obvious problems with using background information as a test. One is that the quality of background information varies greatly and depends on the person’s experiences and education (this is not limited to formal education). Roughly put, being a good judge of claims requires already having a great deal of accurate information stored away in your mind. All of us have many beliefs that are false; the problem is that we generally do not know they are false. If we did, then we would no longer believe them.

A second point of concern is the influence of wishful thinking. This is a fallacy (an error in reasoning) in which a person concludes that a claim is true because they really want it to be true. Alternatively, a person can fallaciously infer that a claim is false because they really want it to be false. This is poor reasoning because wanting a claim to be true or false does not make it so. Psychologically, people tend to disengage their critical faculties when they really want something to be true (or false).

For example, someone who really hates Hillary Clinton would want to believe that negative claims about her are true, so they would tend to accept them. As another example, someone who really likes Hillary would want positive claims about her to be true, so they would accept them.

The defense against wishful thinking of this sort is to be on guard against yourself by being aware of your biases. If you really want something to be true (or false), ask yourself if you have any reason to believe it beyond just wanting it to be true (or false). For example, I am not a fan of Trump and thus would tend to want negative claims about him to be true—so I must consider that when assessing such claims.

A third point of concern is related to wishful thinking and could be called the fallacy of fearful/hateful thinking. While people tend to believe what they want to believe, they also tend to believe claims that match their hates and fears. That is, they believe what they do not want to believe. Fear and hate impact people in a very predictable way: they make people stupid when it comes to assessing claims.

For example, there are Americans who hate the idea of Sharia law and are terrified it will be imposed on America. While they would presumably wish that claims about it being imposed were false, they will often believe such claims because it corresponds with their hate and fear. Ironically, their great desire that it not be true motivates them to feel that it is true, even when it is not.

The defense against this is to consider how a claim makes you feel—if you feel hatred or fear, you should be very careful in assessing the claim. If a news claims seems tailored to push your buttons, then there is a decent chance that it is fake news. This is not to say that it must be fake, just that it is important to be extra vigilant about claims that are extremely appealing to your hates and fears. This is a very hard thing to do since it is easy to be ruled by hate and fear.

The third step involves assessing the source of the claim. While the source of a claim does not guarantee the claim is true (or false), reliable sources are obviously more likely to get things right than unreliable sources. When you believe a claim based on its source, you are making use of what philosophers call an argument from authority. The gist of this reasoning is that the claim being made is true because the source is a legitimate authority on the matter. While people tend to regard as credible sources those that match their own ideology, the rational way to assess a source involves considering the following factors.

First, the source needs to have sufficient expertise in the subject matter in question. One rather obvious challenge here is being able to judge that the specific author or news source has sufficient expertise. In general, the question is whether a person (or the organization in general) has the relevant qualities and these are assessed in terms of such factors as education, experience, reputation, accomplishments and positions. In general, professional news agencies have such experts. While people tend to dismiss Fox, CNN, and MSNBC depending on their own ideology, their actual news (as opposed to editorial pieces or opinion masquerading as news) tends to be factually accurate. Unknown sources tend to be lacking in these areas. It is also wise to be on guard against fake news sources pretending to be real sources—this can be countered by checking the site address against the official and confirmed address of professional news sources.

Second, the claim made needs to be within the source’s area(s) of expertise. While a person might be very capable in one area, expertise is not universal. So, for example, a businessman talking about her business would be an expert, but if she is regarded as a reliable source for political or scientific claims, then that would be an error (unless she also has expertise in these areas).

Third, the claim should be consistent with the views of the majority of qualified experts in the field. In the case of news, using this standard involves checking multiple reliable sources to confirm the claim. While people tend to pick their news sources based on their ideology, the basic facts of major and significant events would be quickly picked up and reported by all professional news agencies such as Fox News, NPR and CNN. If a seemingly major story does not show up in the professional news sources, there is a good chance it is fake news.

It is also useful to check with the fact checkers and debunkers, such as Politifact and Snopes. While no source is perfect, they do a good job assessing claims—something that does not make liars very happy. If a claim is flagged by these reliable sources, there is an excellent chance it is not true.

Fourth, the source must not be significantly biased. Bias can include such factors as having a very strong ideological slant (such as MSNBC and Fox News) as well as having a financial interest in the matter. Fake news is typically crafted to feed into ideological biases, so if an alleged news story seems to fit an ideology too well, there is a decent chance that it is fake. However, this is not a guarantee that a story is fake—reality sometimes matches ideological slants. This sort of bias can lead real news sources to present fake news; you should be critical even of professional sources-especially when they match your ideology.

While these methods are not flawless, they are very useful in sorting out the fake from the true. While I have said this before, it is worth repeating that we should be even more critical of news that matches our views—this is because when we want to believe, we tend to do so too easily.

 

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16 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 2, 2016 at 9:03 am

    The media/government is also tying the “fake news” to “Russian propaganda”. Ben Norton & Glenn Greenwald recently wrote a very good article about this subject: WashPost shamefully promotes a McCarthyite blacklist from a new and very shady group https://interc.pt/2gKlwtu

    • ronster12012 said, on December 2, 2016 at 10:21 am

      AJ

      I looked on the actual list and I already had most of them bookmarked lol. Even Paul Craig Roberts, former assistant treasury secretary was on it as a ‘Russian’ agent(whether wittingly or unwittingly. I think that the elites are losing control of the multiple narratives they have spun, and know it…what we are seeing is a desperate attempt to shore up some sort of credibility. It may also be a preparation (though just early days yet) of some sort of control of the net and free speech. First single out ‘fake news’, then when that is accepted move on to pushing the ‘damage’ that fake news does, then later still the need to control it etc etc…in a few years they could be slinging people in jail for thoughtcrime like they do in Europe today for anyone who publicly questions the holohoax or mass moslem invasion or any other government pushed nonsense.

      • ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 2, 2016 at 11:00 am

        In short, anyone who doesn’t parrot NATO’s narrative about the world is proffering “Russian propaganda”.

  2. ronster12012 said, on December 2, 2016 at 10:05 am

    Michael

    I see no reason to accept at face value anything the MSM in particular( or anyone else in general). The MSM has shown itself to be corrupt many times in the past and needs to earn its credibility back, though that may take decades. They even give each other Pulitzer Prizes ffs.. Pulitzer was just another yellow journalist so what does that say about the ‘profession’?

    In addition to the points you raise above I would add systemic bias…media has to accommodate the tastes and expectations of the audience, and the audience expect to be entertained. Also, the media is used for propaganda purposes, to spin stories that various interests want spun. Most journalists are gutless and will soon enough go along to get along. Not a real criticism as most of us do that, but they pretend to themselves that they are different.

    Another factor I use in assessing news items, particularly ones that get pushed relentlessly, is “why is it so important for someone that I believe this?”. Case in point was the global warming scam of a few years ago. Every day it seemed there was someone on the TV or radio going on about it till I just wanted them to STFU.
    It just had that propagandistic quality of using ‘prominent'(at least in their own minds) people to impress all the little people and get them to fall in line.

    …………………………………………………………………………………..
    “Third, the claim should be consistent with the views of the majority of qualified experts in the field.”
    …………………………………………………………………………………..

    Publicly, most experts will merely parrot what they think the consensus story is. They aren’t going to go too far out on a limb. No one wants to look stupid so most will hedge their bets. Self interest. Many so-called experts have hidden agendas or hidden relationships.

    …………………………………………………………………………………….
    “For example, there are Americans who hate the idea of Sharia law and are terrified it will be imposed on America. ”
    …………………………………………………………………………………….

    IMO a reasonable long term fear. Not this week but in 50 years say, quite possible.More possible for Europe with higher moslem populations and their relatively higher birthrates. It isn’t rocket science merely demographics…and I would call anyone who suggested it was mere fearmongering a mere propagandist.

    The other thing about critical thinking is that one doesn’t actually need to make up their mind about anything this minute.Things can just sit there without being believed or disbelieved. I personally nearly always have the feeling that I only have part of the story.

    One other thing and that is the term ‘fake news’ itself. It is only of recent origin and is being circulated I suspect because the term ‘conspiracy theory’ is getting tired and a new term is required to herd the people and direct their thinking.

  3. wtp said, on December 2, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    And AGAIN…was not the George Zimmerman case, and by extension the BLM movement that sprung from it including “hands up, don’t shoot” etc., fake news perpetrated by the MSM and much of academia? The numerous fake rape cases supporting the “rape culture” such as reported in Rolling Stone, etc? The numerously proven faked hate crimes, not to mention those where the perps are mysteriously never caught but the stories breathlessly repeated and added to the “statistics” ? You perpetuate fake news yourself, Mike. And Mike teaches ethics…SMH…

  4. ronster12012 said, on December 3, 2016 at 1:37 am

    And speaking of fake news, Newsweek has joined(or perhaps never left?) the ranks of the fakers.

    http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2016-12-01/fake-news-newsweek-admits-they-didnt-write-or-even-read-madam-president-issue

  5. DH said, on December 3, 2016 at 3:10 pm

    I agree with Ronster – that there is no reason to accept at face value anything the MSM in particular( or anyone else in general). We live in an era of a 24/7 onslaught of opinionated, partisan, and more significantly, profit-motivated and populist “news”. This onslaught is not limited to the MSM – it trickles down into blogs like yours, facebook posts, twitter posts, web pages and more.

    I think your post is generally spot on, at least in concept. In the midst of this onslaught, it is incumbent upon each of us as individuals to think critically about information we receive; to evaluate it within several contexts before accepting it as truth, and (perhaps the most difficult of all) to be open to having our beliefs altered in the face of new and contrary evidence.

    (Incidentally, I’m writing this right after having read an opinion in the Wall Street Journal by Roger Pielke, Jr; a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Pielke described how, as a result of research he published that contradicted “conventional wisdom” on the effect of Global Climate Change on current weather conditions, he became blacklisted by many publications, targeted by the White House, and placed on reporters’ unofficial “Do Not Call” lists. His research was later accepted as valid and accurate by the IPCC, but he remains a pariah.)

    I am not sure that this article can be accessed without a subscription, but here is a link nonetheless:

    http://www.wsj.com/articles/my-unhappy-life-as-a-climate-heretic-1480723518

    Where I think your article falls short is in your obvious bias against the right – as evidenced by the picture at the header and the examples you cite. (If I were to accept the statistic represented on the signage in the picture as fact, I would only alter it to read, “Lies ONLY 70% of the time”, which may be a good reason that Trump defeated Hillary).

    It is amazing to me how gullible people are – not just in politics but in every walk of life. It’s embarrassing to see how so many people accept the wildest claims and rumors as true because they read an article on the internet and did not bother to fact check or, as you suggest, even think critically about what they are believing and re-posting on Facebook and other sites.

    As on so many university campuses around the country, where one would expect critical thinking to be the norm, my students are in a panic about the upcoming administration. They are largely ignorant about the issues in general, let alone the actual stance of the administration on those issues. Despite the fact that Trump has completely dismissed the issue of LBGT marriage (he has said many times that, while he disagrees that it should have been a federal issue at all, the Supreme Court has ruled on it and it’s a done deal) they believe that Trump will singlehandedly undo all the social progress made by that community. Foreign students fear mass deportation, targeting by right-wing skinhead groups with the tacit approval of the administration, non-mainstream students fear their civil rights being stripped from them as a matter of policy.

    When asked to support their claims with any sort of fact beyond campaign rhetoric (either populist claims by the right or mudslinging on the left), they are of course unable to do so.

    You are also correct when you say that fake news is as old as the news itself – but I don’t buy that “the 2016 United States presidential election saw a huge surge in the volume of fakery.”. I would put this claim in the same category as the so-called surge in gun deaths. The fact of the gun narrative is that there has been a notable statistical decline in gun violence in this country, but it is reported far more – leaving the impression of a surge. In the case of the election, we have more people than ever expressing their beliefs (and, by extension, exposing their ignorance and gullibility), so as to give the appearance of this “huge surge”.

    The bottom line is no different than it ever has been. Think critically, read more than one news source. Through the magic of the Internet, we have instant access not only to a variety of points of view, but we can usually go directly to the source and read the actual words spoken by actual people.

    I, for one, dismiss the fake news phenomenon as irrelevant and a waste of time. I cannot control what people think or do, I can only aspire to increase my own understanding of the world.

    • ronster12012 said, on December 5, 2016 at 1:27 pm

      DH

      As regards Roger Pielke, it is truly instructive how he is treated. This shows that the media is not really interested in the truth, there is no other explanation. It also demonstrates the cowardliness of the media, their groupthink, and willingness to favour ideology over truth.

  6. nailheadtom said, on December 4, 2016 at 12:24 pm

    “For example, there are Americans who hate the idea of Sharia law and are terrified it will be imposed on America.”

    An example of newspeak. “Hate” and “terrified” are two emotions far from the center of the emotional scale. Placed on such a scale, hate would be far past “unconcern”, “disgust” and “detestation”. Hate requires an emotional investment to which few people are willing to commit on a subject as remote as sharia law and one of which they have only a rudimentary knowledge. Westerners actually live in countries with sharia law. Do they “hate” these places? Perhaps some do but live there nonetheless. Are they “terrified” by it? It seems unlikely they’d continue to reside in a place where they were actually terrified, as most people would define the term.

    The use of the term “hatred”, in particular in the socio-political arena, has been an Alinksyist technique to redefine attitudes that could more nearly be described as disgust or repulsion. People that are opposed to gay marriage, for instance, visualize with disgust two men engaging in amorous activity. They’re repelled by the idea of homosexual relations. That’s not the same as “hating” it. But the progressives feel that the connotation of disgust just isn’t as effective as that of hatred. So that’s the choice of words.

    • nailheadtom said, on December 4, 2016 at 1:01 pm

      Additionally, Islam and sharia law shouldn’t inspire any more hatred and terror than the democratic/republic. The word “Islam” is translated as “submission”. Such is also the requirement of the democratic/republic. A confrontation at even the lowest governmental level requires submission at some point or the outcome is death. A homeowner that refuses to shovel the snow off of his sidewalk or pay for others to do so will, in the end, be put to death for refusing to submit. Not according to the tenets of Mohammed but to those of the “founding fathers” and their elected and appointed descendants is this required.

      • wtp said, on December 4, 2016 at 2:28 pm

        A homeowner that refuses to shovel the snow off of his sidewalk or pay for others to do so will, in the end, be put to death for refusing to submit.

        Oh no, you di’nt…

        Meds, they’re not just for breakfast, you know.

        • TJB said, on December 5, 2016 at 11:26 am

          Even my obnoxious homeowner’s association wouldn’t go that far.

        • nailheadtom said, on December 5, 2016 at 1:22 pm

          Here’s an example: http://therightscoop.com/absurd-minnesota-man-arrested-jailed-for-home-siding-code-violation/

          If the homeowner refuses to submit to arrest he’s subject to having small metal pellets driven through his body by the rapid expansion of a combination of chemicals. Of course, not every jurisdiction is this draconian initially. The city might have arranged to have the siding finished and added the bill to the owner’s taxes. If he refuses to pay the taxes he will lose title to the property. If he refuses to vacate, he will be forcibly removed. If he resists, he’ll be killed. See the Branch Davidians.

          • WTP said, on December 5, 2016 at 3:15 pm

            FFS, you could say the same about any system of government and more so regarding an absence of government, i.e. anarchy. Substantially you effectively have said nothing.
            Answer the question I posed the other day, what is it you believe? Throwing stones at reality is a game anyone can play. Hell, it’s not even a game.

      • ronster12012 said, on December 5, 2016 at 1:43 pm

        Tom

        That is getting rather silly. For a start, women may have something to fear from Sharia law given that they can be whipped as punishment for being raped. Faggots can be killed under sharia law, along with adulterers.

        What I find interesting is the almost complete lack of interest either of those two groups show in keeping sharia laww out of western societies. It is almost as if they are bitching because white en have been so pussified of late. feminists will whine on and on and on about misogyny, but only to white men…..they turn into weak little scared girls when confronting moslems about their obvious misogyny. That is why I don’t pay any attention to them or their little whines about misogyny or ‘rape culture’ or or ‘inequality’ or other shit……….

    • ronster12012 said, on December 5, 2016 at 1:32 pm

      Tom

      Not sure about redefining disgust as hatred, rather redefining any criticism of any alleged ‘social progress’ as hatred. It is just to shut people up.


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