Accurate information is crucial to making good decision about everything ranging from business to health and politics, and many feel discerning truth from fiction is becoming impossible due to the proliferation of “fake news”.
It’s Nothing New
However, there is nothing new under the sun, including “fake news,” which includes the spreading of outright lies or facts that are twisted to promote a specific agenda. Actually, cutting through ignorance and falsehoods was much harder before newspapers and books were widespread. Even after new technologies put printed material in every home, communication was too slow for serious fact-checking. Sensationalist “yellow” journalism was one of the factors that pulled the US into the Spanish-American War of 1898. Even in the late 20th century, many relevant facts of national importance were hidden by a sympathetic press, including JFK’s extensive illnesses and Reagan’s possible onset of Alzheimer’s.
Drowning In Falsehood
While fake news has always been around, in the iPhone and social media era the challenge has flipped from not having accessible information to being drowned by it. Anyone with internet access now has unlimited real-time data available on every conceivable subject, plus access to millions of books. This abundance can prove overwhelming, and the new best way to misinform is by spewing so many irrelevant facts and half-truths that the overload masks the reality. The internet provides a voice to anyone, and even the craziest theories can quickly take hold if shouted shrilly and often enough. Keeping in touch with reality today requires filtering out all the noise and then weighing the remaining data carefully. Here are the critical points in that selection process.
Garbage in, Garbage out
Computer programmers often refer to a concept called “garbage in, garbage out” (GIGO). GIGO means you’ll never get a good-quality result if the data or material consists of garbage. When information sources are of low quality, it’s not surprising that they lead to an output of confusion. It’s important to consider the professionalism of the media source one is getting their information from to increase the chances of getting accurate and actionable insight. Most talk shows, unknown internet sources, and social media yenting are entertainment outlets at best and in many cases, actual informational garbage.
On the other hand, it’s rare that major national publications tell outright and purposeful falsehoods. Mostly credible information sources include government data, association research, and peer-reviewed journals. While mistakes and wrong conclusions may crop up in any publication, choosing those of the highest quality is the first step in getting “real news.”
Slanted information face-off
While top-notch books or news sources usually won’t lie purposefully, they often shamelessly slant the truth to promote their specific viewpoints and agendas. The best way to combat factual but biased reporting is by perusing various competing perspectives and averaging the results. For example, one can get a fuller picture of the pros and cons of a financial matter by pairing the left-leaning Economist’s reporting with the perspective of the right-leaning Wall Street Journal. With a bit of sleuthing for sound quality but opposing sources, overcoming slants is not as difficult as it may seem.
The expert shortcut
Finding mostly factual sources and pitting them against each other can be time-consuming, however. The shortcut to getting a balanced analysis from trustworthy places is piggybacking on a trusted expert’s work. As an unrelated example, when looking for a new dentist, rather than do my own research, I spoke to a relative’s friend who was a dental hygienist. She knew more about teeth than I ever would, and having worked in many offices, had the inside scoop on the best options. With a bit of luck and digging, it’s possible to cut through the hype with just one well-placed phone call. Using an expert to overcome fake news is another twist on the old saying “It’s not what you know but who you know.”