While Donald Trump’s successful election campaign popularised (and demonised) the term ‘fake news’, in reality the concept of providing misinformation for political or economic gain has a long and often sordid history.
There is little doubt there is a direct correlation between rise of social media and the explosion of misinformation. Sometimes it is done for comic effect – only last week I came across this suggestive advertisement for Kansas City in one of my professional Facebook groups (turns out the original photo had been doctored). But as the Cambridge Analytica scandal shows, the outcomes can be far more sinister when sophisticated players with questionable intent seek to manipulate these tools.
As people increasingly gain their news from social media as opposed to traditional reputable sources, the veracity of this information is harder to ascertain. Then there is the echo chamber effect, where people’s views are reinforced and legitimised when they encounter only viewpoints consistent with the beliefs they already hold.
But even before we had Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, people were deliberately spreading misinformation for their own ends:
- Marc Antony committed suicide after hearing false reports that his wife Cleopatra had taken her own life (rumours spread by Cleopatra herself).
- The Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda under Joseph Goebbels in Nazi Germany controlled the media and other cultural institutions to consolidate Hitler’s grip on power.
- Orson Welles’ radio drama adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds was presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, generating widespread outrage that the format was deliberately deceptive (but doing Welles’ career prospects no harm).
The result is that people have become more sceptical of all forms of media, and less likely to accept information presented to them, no matter how credible.
It’s therefore more important than ever to practise ‘critical reading’, something we may have first learnt about in school. If that seems too long ago, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions has developed a snappy infographic to jog your memory. The main points are:
- Consider the source (to understand its mission and purpose).
- Read beyond the headline (to understand the whole story).
- Check the authors (to see if they are real and credible).
- Assess the supporting sources (to ensure they support the claims).
- Check the date of publication (to see if the story is relevant and up to date).
- Ask if it is a joke (to determine if it is meant to be satire).
- Review your own biases (to see if they are affecting your judgement).
- Ask experts (to get confirmation from independent people with knowledge).