The term fake news has been popularized by the current U.S. president, but how good are we at distinguishing fact from fiction? The volume of information on the internet is truly astonishing. There’s quite a bit of good, but also a whole lot of crap. Sometimes it’s fairly easy to tell that a website is unreliable, but there’s a greater potential for problems when a site appears to be high quality but isn’t.
Opinions vs facts
One of my biggest internet pet peeves is the abundance of websites spouting unreliable information about medications. It’s important to distinguish between someone’s personal opinion/experience and information that is accurate on a broader scale.
If the author isn’t a qualified health professional or at least including a reference list to support the information provided, there’s no way to tell if the person got the information from a reliable source or they’re just pulling out of their butt (I would tend to suspect the latter).
If the author is sharing their personal opinions/experiences, that can absolutely be valuable, but it’s important to keep in perspective that it only represents one person’s experience. Someone might conclude something along the lines “venlafaxine is a garbage medication” because they experienced withdrawal effects from it. While their experience is completely valid, calling venlafaxine garbage in general is an opinion, not a fact, and it doesn’t capture the experiences of all the people that had a very different experience with the drug.
Broad claims that aren’t backed up
It’s also worth being skeptical about sites promoting natural/alternative remedies that make broad, highly generalized statements either denigrating conventional medicine or promoting their product of interest. A statement like “pharmaceuticals are toxic to your system” may sound like a convincing claim, but if the author can’t give any specifics to back up that kind of broad brush stroke, it’s entirely possible that they don’t actually know anything about how pharmaceuticals actually work.
Similarly, vague, broad statements may be made about the effectiveness of alternative remedies for just about everything under the sun. However, if these claims aren’t supported by any specifics about how that effect comes about, they’re probably not that reliable.
Even large, popular websites that are fairly reliable overall don’t always get things quite right. For example, WebMD has a page on types of bipolar disorder that inaccurately represent what the DSM-5 says about bipolar disorders.
Scapegoating can be problematic. Big Pharma is a frequent target of scapegoating, and the assumption is made that because of potential or actual corruption in the pharmaceutical industry it naturally follows that medications are bad.
However, most of the problems with Big Pharma are pretty easily explained by a fair market system in which their primary purpose is to generate revenue for its shareholders. Their purpose is not altruism; their purpose is profit. No conspiracy required. That being said, that business model doesn’t mean that pharmaceuticals are ineffective or unsafe.
President Trump seems to be very fond of trotting out the accusation of “fake news” any time he comes across a piece of reporting he doesn’t like, regardless of whether or not that reporting is factually accurate. His assertion that the media is the “enemy of the American people” is disturbing.
Wikiquote offers the following from Thomas Jefferson:
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
“Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”
“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”
Presenting situations in black and white can be one potential sign of media bias. Words like “always”, “never”, and “only” can be red flags. If multiple media outlets are reporting different takes on the same story, a good bet is that the more extreme version is going to be the least reliable.
It’s also worth keeping an eye out for reported vs. opinion pieces. Opinion pieces may be backed up with with plenty of references to support their stance, but they’re still someone’s opinion rather than a balanced presentation of facts. News outlets, whether they’re in print, on tv, or online, tend to have a mix of reported pieces and opinion pieces. These viewpoints may be complementary, but they are not the same.
Then there’s the issue of “alternative facts” and other such nonsense. Fact checkers search for objective information to prove or disprove particular statements, and it’s astonishing the amount of lying that’s going on. It’s the nature of the game that politicians will exaggerate, give one-sided answers, and dance around questions.
Fact checking focuses on the flat out lies that can be verified by available factual information. Donald Trump is a remarkable example of a politician who consistently makes verifiably inaccurate statements. Whether you agree with his policies or not, the extent of the outright lying is disturbing.
The downside to fact-checking is that it can end up reinforcing the original message through repetition and increased familiarity through what’s known as the illusory truth effect.
How we consume news
Increasingly, people are consuming news primarily via social media. If we’re going to talk about fake news, social media is one place we should be turning our attention to. The traditional news media at least hold themselves to some form of journalistic standards, whereas on social media the standards drop down to the lowest common denominator. And have you seen what the lowest common denominator is out there on social media? It’s not pretty.
What’s my point with this? Essentially, be skeptical. Have a BS filter. Recognize that just because someone’s talking about a topic doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about.
What are your thoughts on how to distinguish between accurate information and fake news?
The Science Corner has info on media and research literacy, fake news, conspiracies, public health, and a personal favourite, debunking pseudoscience.