Disinformation, misinformation and ‘fake news’. How can you tell what content to trust? If you’re in doubt try ask yourself these six questions about the content you’re reading.
- Does the content generate negative emotion?
In an attention based economy, negative emotions are a great way to drive up engagement and get more shares, for more profit. The people that create this content, ‘fake news entrepreneurs’, don’t care at all about the validity of the content, or what people might do, or not do, after reading it. All they care about is more profit. So anger, outrage, disgust and fear are emotions to watch out for in ourselves as we might be giving them what they want.
- Does it make you feel special?
The kinds of content that seem to be written just for you and you alone. Like “only 1% of people can do this” might not be immediately harmful, but they can be used by sites to lure in the kinds of people that they can then sell more harmful narratives to. This kind of content is also used to add followers and therefore credibility to accounts which will then be used for more harmful purposes.
- Is the content promoting its own quality, or attacking the quality of others?
Good quality articles make points and backs those points up with evidence from other sources. The more an article links to other sources which support its claims the more credibility it has. Conversely, if an article spends more time attacking the validity of other arguments, instead of backing up its own, that’s a good sign it’s not reliable. If it isn’t linking to any other sources there’s a good chance there aren’t any. If it does link to other sources, great, but check those links to reputable organisations actually link through to real pages that agree with the points.
- Is it one sided?
Depending on where you’re reading the content this might be more or less helpful but very few arguments are clear cut. Very few difficult problems have 100% simple answers. If the content you’re reading appears to have all the answers, without any of the doubt or complications other points of view appear to have, then there’s a good chance that the author is choosing to leave out those other points of view in order to be more convincing. A good quality article will highlight those other points of view in order to overcome them.
- Does it look right?
Someone who cares about the quality of their content will spend the time to make sure it reads well, it’s spell checked, it looks nice on the page. If someone is using 8 different fonts in 4 different colours and you can barely make it through the content because of typos, that’s not a sign they’re real and can be trusted, it’s a sign they don’t care about what they’re making you read. Be especially careful of glaringly obvious typos in headlines for example, that’s almost certainly clickbait.
- What’s the bias?
We’ve been well conditioned over the years to try and detect bias in our news sources, we know the bias of certain news organisations and of politicians and celebrities and we naturally take these things into account when see content from them. But if you’re looking at a page you’ve never seen before, from a site which doesn’t make clear it’s ownership or interests, then they’ve purposefully made it harder for you to understand their bias. However, there’s one really easy bias to spot and that’s profit. If you’re on a site that is trying to sell you products, or get your “donations for the cause” – then you have a clear understanding that the goal of this site might be to make money rather than inform you accurately.