Tuesday, December 6, 2016

How To Spot Fake News

The Omnivore suspects that most of us (a) think they can spot fake news pretty easily and (b) think they know "what fake news is." The Omnivore suspects that a lot of people are wrong. Fortunately you have The Omnivore here to tell you how wrong you are--and how to be more right! The Omnivore is cool that way. Also, humble.

What Is Fake News?

Fake News is a bunch of shit ranging from parody-news to real, factually correct news that people with damaged ideological outlooks decry as "fake" because they don't like it.

On a scale it looks like this:

  1. Parody - Totally Fake. Meant to deliver a message or punchline. Basic tell: The source (The Onion, Andy Borowitz). Example: Chris Christie appointed to Supreme Food Court.
  2. Hysterical Propaganda - Totally Fake. This is a fake story meant to gin you up and be shared. It's usually outrageous or apocalyptic and presented as fact even though it's a pack of lies. Basic tell: too-good-to-be-true.
  3. Misleading Headline - Somewhat True. In this case the headline is totally misleading but the article has some germ of fact that heads in the general direction. Example: Obama Tramples Constitution (where Obama has done something which some expert says might be unconstitutional). Basic tell: read the article.
  4. Heavily Biased News - Mostly True. In this case you are seeing news with a strong political bias although the story's facts are pretty much correct. There may be major omissions or intentional misrepresentations. Basic tell: the source.
  5. Biased News - True. In this case the news source has a strong bias but all the facts are presented and nothing is misrepresented. This is usually the case for, like, the Huffington Post. Basic tell: the editorial page.
  6. News - True. In this case the news source has no strong bias / mission statement. The news is reported as per best practices. Examples: Mainstream media. Basic tell: source.

So How Do You Know?

The first real question is: Why do you get fooled. It happens to everyone--even The Omnivore--but it happens less to The Omnivore than it happens to most people. How does The Omnivore know? The Omnivore is psychic. Here are some heuristics you can use to spot fake news.

The Orgy of Evidence Rule

In the Tom Cruise movie Minority Report, a character is told the crime scene is an "orgy of evidence." Everything they need to convict is right there, en mass. "You know how often we find those?" the detective asks? "Never."

If an article confirms your worst fears--chances are it's fake.

Triangulation Through Aggregators

If you see a story that looks awesome / horrifying, check Google News or Memorandum and see if the news is being discussed there. Big events get lots of discussion. If the Supreme Court ordering Obama's arrest isn't top line there (and isn't after 30 minutes) that's a good chance it's fake. Same for FBI raids on Hillary's campaign or Obama telling people to vote multiple times or whatever.

You should make a good aggregator your first stop for news every morning.

Know Your Bias--and Balance It

Regular news is biased. Most sources are a little left. Some are right. You will gravitate towards whichever sources best agree with you. This is dangerous. Fox News is not "more truthful" because they have a right-wing bias any more than MSNBC is more truthful because they have a left-wing bias. If you know your bias, watch news that is more centrist than you are. ABC, CNN, and CBS are all good. Try to go 50-50 your source vs. theirs. 

Reject Conspiracy Theory

Conspiratorial thinking is a disease. It degrades your ability to analyze events and make decisions. It fills blank spaces in your knowledge with lies. Reject all conspiracy theory as a first-explanation. Here are some things you should believe:
  1. The Mainstream Media is not holding a news black-out on a story for ideological reasons. 
  2. The Mainstream Media is not refusing to report something that makes them ideologically unhappy.
  3. Fact-Checking sites (the big ones, including Snopes) are right far, far more often than they are wrong. 
  4. Political maneuvers are almost always entirely blunt. Obamacare is not a secret plan to get us single-payer health care. 
  5. There are no false-flag attacks.
If you think "Hey--but what about--" [ CIA Operation, Case where Fact-checkers got it wrong, Mainstream Media misbehavior ] that's how they get you. Reject that thinking and wait for proof of specific, individual events. Yes--things happen--but conspiracy thinking suggests they are always happening. They're not.

Reject Facebook

If you have to get your news from social media, get it from Twitter. Facebook is slightly easier to bubble yourself in and that, plus every-human-on-the-planet having a Facebook account makes it a primary vector for clickbait. Clickbait is, first and foremost, designed to make you click (hence the ridiculous headline). Another advantage to Twitter is that real reporters hang out on it. Follow some from major outlets. See what they're talking about. Better yet, don't get your news from social media at all. 

Understand White-Space Analysis

A really underrated dimension in any analysis is "what's not there?" For example, if your news outlet of choice reports on The Knock Out Game (where black youths assault white people to knock them out with one punch) and you notice that's not being covered on ABC or CBS, you ought to ask why? If you (correctly) reject conspiracy theory thinking then you are left with two basic options:
  1. The attacks did not happen (probably false if they are reported from real local news sources)
  2. The attacks are not news.
The second is, in fact, true: physical assaults are generally not news regardless of the stated reasons. If your news source is reporting a lot of these that probably isn't because these attacks really are news and mainstream outlets are covering it up for ideological reasons but the reverse: your news source knows that selling you black-on-white crime will get them clicks. It says something bad about them--and bad about you.

Fake News You Were Fooled By

So you're now ready to determine if you are good at spotting fake news. Here's a bunch of fake news stories / ideas. Which ones were / are you fooled by?
  1. Democrats are planning anything to try to take away guns in some wholesale fashion.
  2. Obamacare is working well!
  3. Obamacare is failing horribly!
  4. Trump won the national vote.
  5. Trump won the electoral college.
  6. Hands Up, Don't Shoot!
Democrats and Guns - The conditions under which Democrats or anyone else will effectively repeal the 2nd Amendment are the conditions under which it will have overwhelming popular support. If you don't see something like 87% of the population calling for the government to take your guns away, it won't happen.

Obamacare - Obamacare ensured a whole lot of people and got rid of stuff the average voter really doesn't like (pre-existing conditions, kicking kids off their parents insurance). Yay! Obamacare risk pools were way too small so premiums will skyrocket! Boo! Obamacare was rammed down our throats - true. The Republicans have no current actionable answer to health care problems and didn't then either - true. Obama did not negotiate - false: he took the Public Option off the table immediately. Republicans withheld 2.5bn in funding for risk pools, helping cause this crisis - true.

And so on. Obamacare is complicated. If you buy wholesale into any specific narrative about it, you're being played.

Trump Won - The voter-fraud stories are provably false. How does The Omnivore know? Easy: 36 states have Republican governors and therefore republican heads of election. Republicans constantly challenge voter-fraud cases in the courts but have never come up with any large scale voter fraud proof. 

Okay--but they have no way to prove it, right?

Nope--they can prove it where it happens. Those "cases of voter fraud" were all investigated and found to be false. Oh, you didn't hear that? Not on Fox, you didn't.

Also: Trump didn't win the popular vote. Lotta people think he did. That's just not true--he lost it by a relatively big margin.

Trump, as of this writing has not won the electoral vote--they haven't voted yet. Yes, that was tricksy--but it makes a point.

Hands Up, Don't Shoot - The rallying cry of #BlackLivesMatter is both (a) probably not what happened in the case of Michael Brown where it originated from and (b) speaks emotional truth to a people who just watched a cop get a mistrial when he shot a fleeing, unarmed black guy in the back (if he'd been willing to run, he could've used his taser) and then loped over and dropped a taser on the ground to fake having been assaulted.

Hands Up, Don't Shoot is both an inaccurate portrayal of how Brown was killed and an accurate portrayal of how blacks respond to encounters with the police (the idea being that even if they comply they may be hurt or killed). If you think this is still bogus, consider that the odds of a black person being killed by police, even if fully compliant, in a traffic stop are far, far, far higher than the odds of anyone taking your guns away--and you're totally scared shitless of that. Right?

How'd you do?


  1. 7 / 6. 'Cos I'm a physicist, too.

    Wait a minute... psychic? Darn Darn Darn Darny-DARN!

    "Adjective trouble."

    -- Ω (whose Truthiness™ app deflects all clickbait)

  2. 5/6. You're technically correct about Trump and the EV, and that's the best kind of correct.