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How To Spot Fake News

23/03/2017 17:03 GMT | Updated 23/03/2017 17:03 GMT

Fake news is everywhere - or so we're told.

It's not always easy to spot since it looks pretty much like the real thing. And the real thing, well... that may not be as truthful as you might imagine.

First, you need to separate the stuff that is literally made up with no basis in fact from the rest. That's usually been created to affect your perceptions, views and actions. It's given credibility by the fact that it's shared by people you know and trust. And they've shared it because it's compelling in some way. We'll get to why in a minute but that helps it bypass the usual critical tests that we apply to anything anyone says to us.

Next, keep an eye out for stuff that is created to look like news. VIPs, celebrities and leaders will say things to get coverage. The timing of those utterances, the places that they are said, the form, the pictures, the key quotes and the supporting endorsements are all carefully choreographed to create coverage.

It's "real" but it has been created because they want to achieve something. They may want to get coverage to drive up sales, launch products, change opinion, raise their profile or any number of other things. For example, if you see revealing interviews with actors in the feature pages of newspapers, the chances are they're promoting a film.

You could include humorous material in here. Whilst it often parodies real events, it does so in a way that conveys truths, and which, for reasons below, we may be inclined to believe.

Finally, there's "the news", the content that fills our newspapers and news programmes. That looks real enough - and it is - but it too is shaped for our consumption. Events happen but they have to be processed, put into "stories" complete with pictures, quotes, background and commentary. This all needs to be squeezed into a product that doesn't exceed our attention span. Inevitably, there's a bit of simplification, editing and focusing taking place.

So how do you decide what's real and what's not? Here are some questions you should ask.

Do you want to believe it?

If you read something that you want to believe, it could be that it's been written in such a way as to take account of your biases or prejudices. We're more likely to believe something if it accords with our own views. That's called 'confirmation bias'.

So if you feel strong negative emotions - hate, anger, indignation - then be wary. Be honest with yourself and admit that you have strong biases and views about things. These may have become visible on your social media likes or content and it may have been mined and used to shape news directed at people like you.

Who is saying it and why?

The more credible a person or organisation is, the more they have to lose by being associated with fiction passed off as fact.

If the news in a mainstream channel such as the BBC, then it will have been sourced from reputable places. Some media outlets will insist on three independent sources to verify something before they publish. Major publications will engage fact-checkers just to be sure. Reputable organisations know that being caught with fake stuff will affect how their audiences view all of their coverage.

Look at who is driving a story. When someone goes to the trouble of creating a story - either by saying or doing something that is likely to grab attention - you can be pretty sure that they'll benefit in some way. Look at the motives of those who have either sourced the story or are quoted in it. What do they stand to gain? That will allow you to judge its authenticity and whether it has been shaped in some way to affect your attitudes or actions.

Why now?

In much of public life, timing is all. So if something is out there now, what else is going on? It could be that the news is there to "create a climate of opinion" or to soften up the audience for a more challenging piece of news. So whilst the news may be real it may be angled to change your perceptions. It could be a trail for something else, priming you so that you are more receptive to what's coming next.

Is someone trying to distract you?

Sometimes organisations will push out stories that soak up our attention just so they can sneak something else under the wire. Organisations have to manage uncomfortable news and will release it when we're busy looking at other stories. This "burying" technique allows them to say, when challenged later, that they told people about "it" ages ago, making it "old news" and therefore (hopefully) less interesting.

What do you feel like doing now?

If having read something, you're now spurred to action - you want to tell someone about it, share it via social media or rush out and do something - then re-read it. How has the writer (or those quoted) managed to change the way you feel? Look at the angle and question it. Try to see the story from another point of view. Be sceptical. Whilst it may be real, it may also have been written to trigger a change in your attitude or outlook.

Look at yourself

Our own content - the things we share on social media - is now scrutinised by algorithms which are able to read our personalities and propensities for different attitudes and actions. In Yuval Harari's latest book, Home Deus, he quotes research about Facebook algorithm's ability to predict our personalities. Apparently, it can outperform our work colleagues' ability to predict our personality within 10 likes, our friends in 70 likes, our family members in 150 likes and that of our spouses in 300 likes.

So if news feels very real to you, then there's got to be a good chance that it's not everything it seems to be.