Serving Conjecture: On 'Fake' News
The concept of 'Fake News' is far from a new idea in the annals of man. In fact, the tactic of twisting the truth to fit a narrative can be cast all the way back to the beginning of the written word at the very least. Probably farther.
According to Wikipedia, the oldest example of Fake news can be traced back to the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II, circa 1300 BC. Archaeologists have uncovered writings in his temples describing his great heroism in fighting the Hitites at the Battle of Kadesh. In reality, his fight was most likely a draw at best. And we thought Brian Anderson was the first . . .
Historians have also speculated that Vlad Tepes may just have run afoul of the shiny new German printing press in his time. Although I'm still sure he was the first vampire . . . The founding fathers of America had to contend with (and used to some extent) propoganda. Talk about a double edged sword.
By the 1890's it was referred to as 'Yellow Journalism'. The term seems to have been coined to describe two newspapers vying for readership with more and more sensational stories. Ironically, one of those 'journalists': Joseph Pulitzer. And you thought the award named after him was for honest journalism!
Now it's 'fake' news, an all encompassing phrase that has come to mean 'news that doesn't support my beliefs' in most people's minds. News that is false, or fictitious. News that should be ignored. It crops up in support of all political parties, and seemingly, from all directions. I have no doubt that someone, somewhere, will call this very post 'fake news'.
The aforementioned Wikipedia article breaks this category of news down into six distinct types, each with its own motivations and mechanisms. But in reality only one of these is truly fake news: Satire/Parody. These news sites make no pretense of truth; instead they spin wild tales to amuse. The Onion, Babylon Bee, or The Hard Times, are good examples of liberal, conservative, and gamer oriented satirical sites, respectively. This site performs much the same with it's Starfleet Watch segment.
This news is not to be taken seriously. Only the cerebrally lazy, or internet uninitiated would take it any other way. But to call the other types 'Fake News' is not just inaccurate; it is dangerous. It suggests a level of falsehood and pretense that makes reading such news seem a waste. What's the point if it's all fake?
But these sites do not actually publish fake news. They publish biased news. Sometimes they are extremely biased news. But that does not mean they provide no valuable data. And the fact that they are biased does not mean we shouldn't read them. Once you accept that these sites are biased you realize that it is important to follow sites that disagree in order to get all the information. An unbiased observer might provide all the data on an issue. A biased one will never provide any data that counters said bias.
Which begs a new question: how do you determine what to pay attention to on these biased sites? How do you determine just how biased a particular entry is? If you look online you'll find all sorts of 'guides' on how to recognize a biased view. But the sad truth is that, most of the time, those guides are playing into your biases (we all have them), not helping you see past them. Take the (again) aforementioned Wikipedia article. It states that you should: 1) Look at the content and social media engagements: in other words: its biased if it says things you don't like, or is from a publisher from the other side of the aisle. 2) Use n-gram encodings AKA Bag-of-words: Not only complicated, but easily subverted by a biased observer with a decently sized vocabulary. Remember, biased does not mean stupid. Well, overall anyways.
3) Visual Based Cues: In other words does the picture make the subject look bad? But the truth is that most times the picture has nothing to do with the data presented. We are interested in what data to pay attention to; the picture is irrelevant.
4) Utilizing so called 'Fact Checkers': The problem therein lies that if the 'Fact Checker's' biases line up with the story's they will never see it. I've seen far too many examples of 'Fact Checkers' judging virtually identical stories differently based upon party lines.
Other suggestions include: 1) Consider the source: As long as this is limited to making sure you're not reading a piece of satire then it is a good step.
2) Check the Author: This one's one of my pet peeves. It falls directly under the Ad-Hominem Logical fallacy. One should almost never judge the veracity of information based on the source. It is the data itself that matters, not who said it. Would you question the color of the sky if an idiot said it was blue on a clear day?
3) Check your bias: while a nice concept, most people are incapable of doing so. Their bias is the filter through which they see the world. Asking the average person to check their bias is like asking the homeless Caucasian man to check his privilege; I guarantee you they can't find it.
4) Read beyond: Don't stop at the headlines.
5) Supporting Sources: This one's important. Too many sites cite themselves as sources. Always click those links.
While some of these steps can be helpful, the truth is that finding out how biased a particular piece is can be summed up in one step; count the adjectives. (Remember, adjectives are describing words) Is it a 'brilliant' plan or an 'idiotic' plan? Is the subject a 'visionary' or a 'monster'? Is the act 'bold' or 'reckless'? All of these are adjectives, and all of them reveal a bias. The more adjectives you find, the more biased the article is. It's that simple.
That's not to say that you will ever find an article with no adjectives. Remember 'the red house at the end of the street' has two; neither reveals any bias. So, always expect a few. It's when you find adjectives line by line that you need to worry about the mental state of the writer.
Consider these two statements:
1) The POTUS stood on the green lawn and unveiled his plan to solve world hunger.
2) The Pontificator in Chief unveiled her latest list of asinine ideas to solve the complex political and economic problem that is world hunger.
Which seems biased to you?