The avalanche of “fake facts”

Being a blogger of long standing, I’m quite aware of where I fall in the news ecosystem. Since my site doesn’t exist to be a news aggregation site like some others I’m familiar with, I’m not the place for news – my niche is in the opinion genre. However, I do make occasional forays into first-person reporting when I go to events which create news or promote interests that I believe should be shared for the public’s good – not as many as I once did, say, ten to twelve years ago, but there have been a few over the last couple years.

However, in working for The Patriot Post (and later, writing Rise and Fall) I learned the value of checking and verifying sources. I found out that there are some writers on the Left who still practice the craft of reasonable journalism and some on the Right who are totally partisan rah-rah hacks that deal in rumor and innuendo that doesn’t pass the sniff test. Naturally, we could switch the political sides and find examples there, too – the point is that we shouldn’t go out and live in an information silo regardless of how tempting that might be.

(My advice to people like that: unplug social media for a week or two and bring your life back to balance. There’s this Good Book a lot of people have that is worth reading in the interim.)

As most of my readers know, I came across iVoterGuide several years ago and helped them evaluate Maryland candidates in 2018. We went through a lot of factual information in grading these hopefuls on their political philosophy, so they are a pretty good guide to what they called Five Ways to Spot Fake “Facts.” Alas, it was only an e-mail and not a link so you’ll have to trust me on this long blockquote. All emphasis is in original.

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As someone who seeks to be accurately informed, how can you protect yourself from believing and spreading false information? And how can you consistently spot the truth amidst an abundance of error?

At iVoterGuide, this is something we think about all the time. So I wanted to share with you five practical tools our team uses to spot fake “facts.” You can use these in evaluating the flood of information and misinformation flowing into your life every day:

  1. Recognize the difference between original sources vs. news or commentary. News reports, “fact checks”, editorials, and statements made by an individual are interpretations of an original source. For example, a certain law may be described as either “suppressing voting rights” or “protecting against voter fraud”. How are the words influencing your perspective?
  2. Check original sources, if possible. These are sources referenced by the news article, commentary, or individual. In the example above, reading the original source (the law itself) will tell you what the law actually accomplishes. And if you can’t conveniently get the original, just remember you are working off of someone’s interpretation.
  3. Check and compare multiple sources of information. Contrast an individual’s statement on social media to a news report on the same subject. Compare news sources with differing perspectives. Proverbs 18:17 says, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”
  4. Ask probing questions, even from sources you personally trust. For example: 
  • What makes this person/source an authority on the subject/issue?
  • What are their sources? Are they quoting eyewitness accounts, original source documents, or simply another news agency?
  • Does the evidence justify their statements? (This is very important when the author makes assumptions about a person’s motives or character.)
  • Are they accountable to anyone for their accuracy? (For example, a news reporter must comply with the journalistic standards of their news agency, in contrast to an independent blogger. However, it’s worth asking if the news agency is itself a reliable watchdog these days.)
  • Am I being presented with the whole picture/video/story? Has anything been edited out? Is a quote being taken out of context?
  • When was this written? Is the information up to date? Is it still too early to confidently know the details?
  1. Be mindful of your emotions. Even if the story or statement confirms your beliefs, it deserves an accuracy check before sharing. In opinion pieces, fundraising emails, or social media posts, both the Left and the Right can succumb to exaggerating facts in order to spur action. In addition, our fast-paced culture breeds impulsive decisions. Intentionally avoiding a reaction based in anger or fear, however, can greatly protect your integrity.

With a personal commitment to integrity and accountability to truth, you can avoid spreading falsehood and, most rewarding, discover the truth. In our present culture, those who know and spread truth are like welcome beacons of light to other truth seekers—and lighthouses to keep unwary citizens from dangerous rocks of deception.

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As I noted above, my little news niche comes from first-person reporting – generally in my “pictures and text” posts like my recent coverage of Patriots for Delaware or Mt. Hermon Plow Days. If there’s any gatekeeping, it comes from which photos I select or which quotes I use. Obviously I have a narrative I want to pass along in my reporting, although it’s generally dictated by the information I gather – unfortunately, sometimes I miss the best line in the remarks or the photo doesn’t come out.

But there are a lot of times that I’m the only one who bothered to cover the event, so unless you have some other first-person narrative you’re stuck with mine and it becomes the historical record, for whatever that’s worth. Still, I try to pass all the aspects of this five-part test above, and there’s a reason for that.

Many years ago, when I began this long excursion in writing, I told myself that I wasn’t going to write anything that would make me lose sleep over what I said. So I don’t get into gossip, and if that lost me a couple readers along the way, well, they probably weren’t going to stick around long anyhow. I just do the best I can with the talents I have, and I’m just thankful for all those thousands who have stopped by over the years.

Regardless, there’s some advice here to take to heart.

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