Intellectual Hygiene: Six Rules to Battle Fake News and Propaganda
Today I woke up to a message from my mom. In a very panicky tone, she said that the government has gone completely nuts and is going to pass a bill that qualifies everyone without a degree as a “commoner.” And, on top of that, those “commoners” will be prohibited from leaving the country.
I wrote her back saying that she should not believe every post on social media and everything that she had told me was a bunch of bull. But again, my mom is still afraid of computers and sometimes calls me to ask questions like “how can I go to the next line when writing a text?”
This text is not about my mom, of course. This instance once again made me think about the importance of intellectual hygiene. In the world of “post-truth,” “alternative facts,” and informational warfare between autocracies and democracies, keeping your mind clear is almost as important as keeping your hands clean.
The crypto-world is not a thing of its own, you know. It is a part of a bigger world, and its laws and principles apply to it as well. There are lots of fakes in crypto. Maybe not as many as in international politics but still. We come across such fakes pretty often but, as a media, we have a bit more fact-checking options than a regular user.
What is important, though, is that we are also regular users. So in this piece, I will tell you some simple techniques and concepts that hopefully can help you tell the wheat from the chaff, detect fakes, and eventually treat them accordingly.
So, without further ado, here I go.
1. If something is too funny, too ironic, too scary, too stupid, too fantastic, too good, too bad, or simply too much to be true, then it’s very likely that it’s not true. This alone is a rock-solid justification for starting to check things. In real life, irony, horror, or goodness manifest themselves in a very different way than in fake news. So rule number one is: if it seems too much, checking it is a must.
2. Unfortunately, some journalists are not very thorough in their job. Some of them don’t do proper fact-checking, which results in the appearance of grade A bullshit on the media. Here’s an example: parody news outlet World News Daily Report issued an article saying that Belgium outlaws gang bang because of the coronavirus. Numerous other media outlets rewrote that piece thus creating a wave of disinformation. While the original news is obviously a joke, it was enough for tabloids around the world to start disseminating it. So rule number two is: if the questionable news pops up in tabloids, it does not prove it whatsoever. You should have more trust to news outlets that actually care about their reputation, like BBC or Time.
3. Groups in social media are not a trustworthy source either. I recall seeing a post saying that the Israeli health minister who claimed the coronavirus was God’s punishment for homosexuality actually contracted the virus. The post’s author even called it a divine outing. Still, too ironic, isn’t it? In five minutes I knew that the minister never said such thing. There was a rabbi who said that the coronavirus is God’s punishment for gay pride, though. But he wasn’t the minister in any way. So rule three is: sensational posts on social media are not to be trusted unless proven.
4. Any fake news is created to go viral. It’s so stupid or shocking that people start reposting it like crazy. That is why it appeals not to facts but to emotions. As long as we’re on the viral wave, let’s compare two different titles for an article: I made up both of them for the sake of making an example, and they don’t refer to any real-life situation.
The first is a title that looks like one from a responsible media: “Thirteen people die of coronavirus in the town of X, the ministry says.” Note that it just states the fact and even gives an official source of the statement.
The second is a ridiculous tabloid piece of crap that strives to appeal to different negative feelings of a person. “The monstrous Wuhan plague claims more than a dozen lives in X.” Instead of informing you, this title alone sows fear and xenophobia.
Fake news often works in a similar fashion. Such news distorts the truth instead of telling outright lies. Techniques like that are inherent in tabloids, low-quality outlets, and propagandist features. So rule four is: if you feel your emotions are being manipulated, it’s either fake news or propaganda or even both, so don’t fall for either.
5. If someone sends you a screenshot of the news, don’t hesitate to go check it on the original website. Retouching a screenshot takes about five minutes, even I can do that, and I’m no graphic designer. A pro would do it even faster, I assume. So rule five is: don’t trust screenshots even if they’re goddamn notarized. Always check the original.
6. Not all search engines are equally useful. If you try looking for the same thing in a few different engines, you’ll note that the results are usually different. In order to make sure if something has really happened, you may have to cross-check it. Some news is designed to be easier to parse for Google than, say, Rambler. So rule six is: when still in doubt, try another search engine.
When the world is in turmoil, there are all kinds of actors surfing on its waves. Some of them disseminate panic and distribute lies. In order to keep yourself from falling into the abyss of artificial hysteria, you should always maintain intellectual hygiene. Just like you probably wear a mask on your face, you should have another one on your mind. There have always been many of those who wish to put some crap in there, and these days, their numbers have increased. So, as you value your life and reason, please keep away from the moor.
Written by Jenny Aysgarth, editor-in-chief at forklog.media
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