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The BA in BS: How to Spot Fake News

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Politicians lie. The media distorts. People create fake websites masquerading as real news outlets. We live in an era of “fake news”, “alternative facts”, and “post-truth”. Naturally, people are a little concerned about how to tell fake news from real journalism. Of course, my answer is simple—get a Classics degree. The Bachelor’s degree in Bullshit forces you to constantly analyze information and test veracity, look for bias, recognize the limits of the available evidence, and draw rational, fact-based conclusions. The more in-depth answer I’ve already written; reread my “History for Dummies” article for a fuller breakdown.

Classics looks at pretty much whatever we can find. Time isn’t very kind to history or historians; most artifacts are gone or still buried. We try to reconstruct societies by looking at ruins. Classics research comes from a basis of incomplete information, which is why it’s so useful for detecting fake news. We can draw reasonable conclusions from the evidence we do have. From day 1 as a Classicist you learn about the limits of your evidence. You learn to take a critical eye to the text and not simply believe everything written. Of course, other fields require critical thinking, but what makes Classics perhaps a bit better for this era of propaganda is we know our information occasionally lies. Information in the sciences cannot lie—scientists might interpret the information incorrectly, but the information itself is always truthful. Chemicals can’t fake a reaction. Classicists work in a field where our main—and almost only—written source for the Persian Wars is written by a man some called the “Father of lies”. Classicists are therefore best positioned to separate fact from fiction. It’s quite literally our job. Enough sales pitch.

Above all else, sheer patience seems to be the easiest trait to learn in fighting fake news. As I mentioned not too long ago, every 1 year spent digging an archaeological site can take up to 10 years to categorize, study, and publish all the findings. Fortunately, we’ve got the time. It is not like the Romans can get any deader. The key that pushes fake news (and separates it from the real) is a quick turnaround time. Every day there is a different source of insanity, and fake news stories have a very short lifespan. That’s intentional. Fake news is designed to give you information and sensory overload, just like a casino. They push enough crap for you to lose the ability to think critically about everything. The task just becomes too big. It doesn’t need to be immediate though. We can take our time and do it correctly. Step 1 is therefore giving all news stories a 24 hour waiting period. Fake news simply doesn’t survive much longer than a day, because further investigation reveals the fakeness, whereas investigation for real things reveals new details. This is why Russia is here to stay, and “Pizzagate” seems like ages ago.

Step 2: Check the basics of the website, article, and author. Basic source and author criticism. Fake news and satire sites will usually have a disclaimer, or painfully obvious blurb about being fake. Likewise, if the author is an amateur writer who usually writes about lizard people, their article on State Department secrets is highly unlikely to be accurate. Finally, check the fucking date of the article. Facebook feeds and other news feed algorithms are pretty terrible; many times an article from as far back as 2011 pop up, and people will still get upset over it.

Step 3: More in depth source criticism. What is a “source”? CNN is not a source. Breitbart, Fox, and any given author are not sources either. They will cite their sources, usually anonymously (there is a valid source protection aspect to reporting). Be skeptical of stories that merely say “a source in the White House”, or “someone close to the incident” without further elaboration. You don’t know if the source is one of the president’s close advisors or the friggin gardener. Source criticism is about testing the integrity and credibility of the source itself, and part of that is finding out what information the source has access to. The White House gardener does not have access to blow open a scandal deep inside the President’s inner circle. Even eyewitnesses are limited in how much information they can access. Likewise, videos and pictures posted are not in themselves “sources”. Be skeptical of what the author or commentator is telling you about where these pictures and videos are from and what they are showing. Double check them yourself. There was a video circulating for a while supposedly showing Muslims rioting and demanding Sharia law—the video actually depicted a protest over an incident of police brutality. It’s easy to fool the masses, because the video itself doesn’t “lie”. A small, “alt” news site that consistently writes polemic pieces, or a mainstream contributor doing the same is to be generally avoided. They’re there for the click-bait, not the journalism.

Step 4: Verify the facts, ignore the opinions. Ignore all the crap telling you what to think or feel. All those articles telling you this will “enrage” or “delight” you, all the subjective opinions, like “massive” or “small”, should set off alarms in your head. Ask yourself what makes one riot “large-scale” and another “small-scale”. That exposes the subjective, biased nature of the reporting. Facts are concrete, and they can be double checked. Whether it is how many Persians were in the invasion force against Greece or Trump’s electoral win, fake news and propaganda will emphasize scale and feeling over concrete, verifiable facts and dispassionate analysis.

Step 5: Read multiple sources. There’s a tendency for independent sources, even sources hostile to each other, to report on the same or similar incidents, while disagreeing on minor details or motivations. Caesar declared he crossed the Rubicon in his own defense against Senate hostility, and the Senate declared Caesar marched on Rome to make himself a king. The two sources are hostile to each other, but both agree that Caesar marched on Rome, which means the event itself can be considered “proved”. Multiple attestation is a really useful tool for checking fake news, because even across multiple outlets, the same facts will be repeated.

Step 6: If all else fails, use scientific consensus or professional fact-checking organizations as guidelines. Snopes it. Fact-checking sites make their money through the reputation they build on being accurate, so it’s in their best interest to be accurate. They aren’t perfect, but in a pinch, they will guide you well. Comedy sites like Cracked.com also have made plenty of money pointing out BS news stories. Again, the comedy only works if the thing being satirized is real and accurate. Jokes don’t work if the premise is wrong. This is why Aristophanes makes such a wonderful historical source. Scientific consensus is another great tool in the box. Contrary to conspiracy theorists, the real money is in overturning that consensus, not maintaining it, so when it’s reported that 97% of scientists accept global warming, evolution, the effectiveness of vaccines, and the color of the sky being blue, it’s because 97% of the scientists ran studies that confirmed the phenomenon—despite their best efforts to disprove it. Experts are experts for a reason. You can rely on the positions taken by the majority of them.

And there you have it. A short, sweet little checklist for when you scour Facebook feeds and news articles. Never be afraid to simply admit “I don’t know” if you still can’t tell.

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