Fake's anatomy.

10 Commandments of Aware Media Consumption.

  1. Verify everything you can in minimum two sources.
  2. Treat sources with caution (critical analysis of the source is not only for historians).
  3. Remember: two journalists do not equal two sources.
  4. Media publish information, but they are not source of it (with exception of reporters witnessing some events and investigative journalism).
  5. Nobody is objective but everybody can be impartial. Respect such journalists, they are endangered species.
  6. Wikipedia is fast reference not encyclopaedia.
  7. Read, read, read. Only vast general knowledge can make you immune to manipulation.
  8. Respect great minds but think for yourself. A person you like, might be wrong. A person you disagree with, could be right.
  9. Politician does not always lie. But always gives own interpretation.
  10. Do not share opinions you disagree with. Retract false information shared in a hurry. Admityou can be wrong too.

How to fish for real news in the pool of fakes

Fake news are everywhere. And I do not mean only substance. I think also about the term itself. But giving it a while, we have to admit that fake news are not new and – indeed – no news at all. As they were created to mislead – they are not true. And since they are not based on facts – they are not news. What they are is a form of deception known to mankind for ages. Literally. The tools to deal with them are pretty old too.

New Label for Old Clothes 

One of the first and definitely best known examples of deception we might today call “fake news” was Trojan horse. Let’s briefly recall this after Encyclopaedia Britannica

The Greeks, pretending to desert the war, sailed to the nearby island of Tenedos, leaving behind Sinon, who persuaded the Trojans that the horse was an offering to Athena (goddess of war) that would make Troy impregnable. Despite the warnings of Laocoön and Cassandra, the horse was taken inside the city gates. That night Greek warriors emerged from it and opened the gates to let in the returned Greek army.

So the fake news of today would be: “Greeks fled the battlefield and conceded defeat leaving gift for victorious Trojans.” As there were no media then – we need to stick to the version told by Homer in Odyssey and later by Roman poet Virgil in Aeneid. It is not however “two-source story” it is in fact one hearsay told by Homer and then repeated by others and historians to date are not sure how exactly Troy fell.

If the game of manipulation and deception is so old, why we are suddenly so worried about fake news? For two main reasons: speed and range.

Autopsy of Pathology

What are the sources of misleading information? How fake news are created and disseminated so successfully?

Let’s start with another analogy from Antiquity – old Roman law phrase – “cui bono” (“who benefits”) – a principle that probable responsibility for an act or event lies with one having something to gain.

Sometimes fake news maybe created for fun. But most of the time there is more sinister motive behind it – political or mercantile. And this is what we hear now all the time: manipulation of public opinion and voters influencing democratic election process, smearing political opponents and business competitors, tampering with public tenders etc.

If the motive is well known for years, what has changed recently that we are now seem to be more aware of it and have dozens of debates how to deal with it?

Opportunity. Second partner of “the Motive” in every crime.

The game of false arguments and deception became so much easier in the era of social media. Before World War I and II manipulators had to spin web of deceit for years. It was not an easy task then to prepare nations to war. To make people believe in one cause or another.

In the era of mass media process became easier and faster. But social media made it a walk in the park presenting everyone with third ingredient of a crime: Means.

Now almost anyone can start successful smearing campaign. It still may be government, political party, company or crime syndicate like in the past. But it also can be any group of people or even individual with Machiavellian personality. It is cheap, fast and extremely efficient. By the time public opinion realizes that something is amiss – it may be too late to counteract.

Are we then doomed to fail? Not necessarily. As usual understanding is the best weapon against every deception. But for that we need to get armed. In knowledge. And in the tools used by historians and… journalists.

There are no shortcuts to fight it

Some people may claim to have “fake news radars” in their minds, but truth is deception is not easy to spot because of the very nature of it. It was after all created to mislead. And exactly as in conventional warfare – if we find the way to secure the lines against one threat – opponent will find other ways to penetrate them. That is why professional soldiers train all the time. And exactly for the same reason we should train our minds to immunize ourselves against the fake news. To help a bit with the task, I have created <strong>10 Commandments of Aware Media Consumption</strong> to which Polish readers of my blog suggested two amendments (thank you!)

1. Verify everything you can in minimum two sources.

It is old news agency/journalistic rule which is not always easy or possible but if we have one source news – we are at least automatically more vigilant.

2. Treat sources with caution (critical analysis of the source is not only for historians).

Every once in a while even the most trusted source can be wrong (not necessarily on purpose). Critical analysis is a vast topic (just have a look at the list of auxiliary sciences of history). For the sake of this post let’s agree that it means that every news generates questions and only satisfactory answers to those questions make it verified (as best as we could).

3. Remember: two journalists do not equal two sources.

Journalist can equal the source if she/he is a witness. Other than that they work with sources and sometimes two or more journalists can have the same news from the very same, only source.

4. Media publish information, but they are not source of it (with exception of reporters witnessing some events and investigative journalism).

Yes, journalists can be the source but not the media. By their very nature they serve as “the medium” passing on the news. Robert Socha under my Polish post on the topic mentioned investigative journalism as an exception. I would add another one, when reporter is eye witness to the event.

5. Nobody is objective but everybody can be impartial. Respect such journalists, they are endangered species.

Objectivity in media is harder to find than Bigfoot. Journalists are no scientists. But the best journalists can be impartial and are trying to stick to the facts as best as they could, leaving interpretation to the public.

6. Wikipedia is fast reference not encyclopaedia.

We all tend to rely on this source too much – especially younger people. Wikipedia authors are different and although most of them are doing whatever can be done to make sure entries are solid – mistakes still happen (sometimes because original sources of the entry were wrong – and we are back in point 2.)

7. Read, read, read. Only vast general knowledge can make you immune to manipulation.

This is the training for our minds which needs to be as regular as military exercise. The more we read, the more we know, the more chances we have to spot inaccurate or purposefully misleading information.

8. Respect great minds but think for yourself. A person you like might be wrong. A person you disagree with could be right.

Blind support for any cause usually is not right. Thought leadership eroded in recent decades and it is difficult to indicate people universally admired or trusted. In the world of politics we tend to lean towards people with similar views, often indifferent to the fact that they might be wrong. Just open your mind to possibility that public figure you do not like – might be right and the other way round. Your perspective will change and world will be easier to understand.

9. Politician does not always lie. But always gives own interpretation.

Something I have learnt from the BBC anchor Jeremy Paxman. Saying that politicians always lie – is a simplistic cliché. But surely they have no problem explaining facts in a way that supports their political agenda.

10. Do not share opinions you disagree with. Retract false information shared in a hurry. Admit you can be wrong too. 

Every once in a while despite all your efforts, you will get fooled by some fake news or misinformation. Retract and apologize. Do not disseminate it further. Another reader of my Polish blog proposed additional point, which I actually find an extension to 10th commandment. Krzysztof Burzyński proposed to add “admit you can be wrong too.” Happy to oblige!

No matter what label we use to describe lies and deception: purposely false information will be jumping at us all the time. No legislation can stop them just like no legislation alone stopped any other illegal activity. But we can impregnate ourselves against them.

Karol Poznanski – Business communicator. Former journalist. Hating bias in both roles. Fan of source checking, evidence based approach and good writing of any kind. Single favorite word from BBC World Service traineeship: impartiality. Opinions welcome. Facts most welcome.

Karol Poznański
An expert in PR, business & product communications, and Public Affairs with over three decades of professional experience earned working for media and international corporations operating in highly regulated industries (including a pharmaceutical company).
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