Based on the action on my Twitter feed over the last few days, it appears some people are in desperate need of a refresher course in what is and is not #fakenews.
Let’s recap: #fakenews, a popular hashtag in this era of rising cynicism about media, is intended to indicate any purported “news” coverage that deliberately spreads misinformation with an intent to mislead its readers – often for political gain, financial gain or, in this era of digital prominence, simple page views (“clickbait,” for want of a better term – but don’t get me started on what is and is not clickbait).
Yes, there is a lot of actual #fakenews out there. But there’s also a lot of real, honest-to-goodness reporting that’s getting erroneously labelled as #fakenews (usually by someone who either has an axe to grind with the media outlet in question or who has something to gain by making people think the story is wrong). And it’s a hashtag that’s being blithely and mindlessly used by far too many people when they simply dislike what they’re reading and don’t want to read any more.
To help those who seem challenged by the concept, I offer up this quick handy-dandy reference guide to five times when it’s NOT fake news.
1. You don’t like someone’s point of view. THIS IS NOT FAKE NEWS.
You think someone’s a jackass for holding a particular opinion? Fair enough. There are a lot of jackasses out there, and heaven knows the advent of social media has given them all a platform to air their jackassery for all to see. But here’s the catch: Just because you don’t like their opinion doesn’t make it #fakenews.
Say you read the following on Twitter: “Justin Trudeau is a prettyboy airhead.”
This is an opinion. This is not #fakenews. This is not in fact any kind of news. This is simply an opinion. You may like it. You may dislike it. Doesn’t matter. It’s just an opinion.
Now, if the person who tweeted is using incorrect facts to substantiate their opinion, then that’s a different case.
Example: “Justin Trudeau is a prettyboy airhead. I mean, how could Canada elect a prime minister whose only credentials are the fact that he went to modelling school and that he failed out of university?”
See the problem here? This opinion is based on false information. (Trudeau has degrees from McGill and UBC and, as far as I’m aware, never went to modelling school, so Derek Zoolander’s job is probably still safe.) Which means that the whole post has become seriously suspect. Now you have a better case for calling the post #fakenews – but guess what? The person is still allowed to hold the opinion that Trudeau is a prettyboy airhead. You can still disagree. And you can give their opinion as little credence as you like, given that their opinion is apparently founded on nothing resembling fact. But that doesn’t make their opinion #fakenews.
2. You don’t agree with someone quoted in a newspaper article. THIS IS NOT FAKE NEWS.
So you’re reading a newspaper article and you start yelling at the paper, or the screen, about something. Let’s say it’s, oh, I dunno, an argument about whether a homeless shelter does or does not belong in a particular neighbourhood. And let’s say a reporter was covering a public hearing about this issue. Then let’s also say the reporter quoted some neighbours who held a point of view you disagree with – some neighbours who maybe said they don’t want a homeless shelter in their neighbourhood because homeless shelters attract drug users, or some such thing.
Guess what? This article still does not constitute #fakenews.
Unless the reporter was being very deliberate and manipulative in his or her efforts to quote only those people whom s/he agreed with, or to try to promote a particular agenda, then the act of quoting someone whose opinion offends you does not make the story #fakenews.
So when you see that quote that offends you, keep reading. If the story goes on to quote people who also hold other points of view, that’s a good clue that the reporter is just doing her job: reporting on a meeting and showing, as good news reporting attempts to do, that there are many opinions about this particular project. If the story also goes on to provide other facts (such as, for instance, the fact that the proposal will now be considered by city council at a meeting on such-and-such-a-date), this is also a good clue that this is, in fact, just a news story.
Again, not #fakenews.
3. A news story makes an honest mistake. THIS IS NOT FAKE NEWS.
Here’s the thing: Reporters are people. Reporters make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes stem from carelessness, sometimes from genuine misunderstanding, sometimes from a rapidly evolving breaking news situation that changes from minute to minute, sometimes because a reporter relied in good faith on a usually reliable source who turned out to be wrong. Therefore, unfortunately but inescapably, incorrect information does on occasion get presented in a news story.
That still does not, in and unto itself, make the story #fakenews.
When you see an incorrect fact (a misspelled name, an incorrect date, etc.) in a news story, don’t immediately shriek FAKE NEWS! FAKE NEWS!
Ask yourself how the mistake could have happened. Could it be just a typo? Could it be that someone just misinterpreted a complicated document? Could a reasonable human being have arrived at a particular conclusion using all the facts at hand? Alert the reporter or the media outlet to the mistake. If they immediately take steps to correct the error (and they almost always will, because I have yet to meet a reporter who enjoys having mistakes follow them around the internet), you can be pretty sure this was just an honest, if unfortunate, mistake.
Again, not #fakenews.
4. A story is satire. THIS IS NOT FAKE NEWS.
Yeah, we’ve all been caught starting to rant about one of these ones, but remember: Satire isn’t meant to be taken seriously. If it’s not intended to be read as fact, it’s not #fakenews. (Pro tip: If it was posted on The Beaverton, it’s not #fakenews. It’s satire.)
Yes, satire starts with the facts and then distorts them – with humour, with exaggeration, with mockery – to make a point about something. When it’s done well, it can often carry quite a punch and make quite a political statement. When it’s done poorly, it’s just kinda “meh.”
Either way? Not #fakenews.
5. The story makes you, or someone you support, look bad. THIS MAY OR MAY NOT BE FAKE NEWS.
We all know that infamous someone who blusters and roars about “fake news” every time a media outlet reports something unflattering about him. Whether the “someone” in question occupies the Oval Office or happens to serve in a somewhat less high-profile position, the fact remains: Just because the story makes you (or your favourite politician) look bad doesn’t automatically mean it’s #fakenews.
Just because you support a particular public figure or government leader, don’t just blindly assume he or she is always telling the truth. And just because a particular newspaper or media outlet’s perceived political leanings don’t happen to line up with yours, don’t just blindly assume that media outlet is perpetuating #fakenews.
This is where you need to do your homework to figure out where the truth lies.
Which brings me to part 2:
Five ways to ascertain whether something is, in fact, #fakenews:
These all fall under the broad heading of “engage your brain before opening your mouth,” but here are five points to consider.
1. Consider the source of the information: Is it a reputable media outlet? A personal blog? A political site? An instance of paid “sponsored content”? Does this source have something to gain by reporting or spreading this information?
2. Is this story up-to-date? Is it still relevant? (We’ve all seen those times where articles start making the rounds again on Facebook three years after publication.)
3. Consider your own perceptions and biases. Are you feeling strongly about this story because it triggers you for some reason? Are you allowing yourself to believe something because you want to believe it (or, conversely, to rationalize away something because you don't want to believe it)? Assess, honestly, why you’re tempted to shout #fakenews, and ask a few extra questions before you start to shout.
4. Verify it for yourself. Check with other sources. Read reports from other media outlets who are reporting on the same story. Ask friends who have more education and expertise in a particular subject area than you do. Or go all the way back to the report, meeting minutes or court judgment that led to the story in the first place and read that original source material for yourself. (Yes, that last one can be a bit of a slog. Might I suggest just getting your news from a trusted source in the first place? Then you won’t have to do that part as often.)
5. Read the whole damn story. This seems like it should go without saying, but the number of times people shriek #fakenews about something because they felt misled by a headline and didn’t bother reading past the first paragraph of the story to get more facts never ceases to amaze me. Read the whole story, from beginning to end, and see if it answers your concerns. If it does, it’s not #fakenews. If it still doesn’t? Then consider points 1 through 4 again.
Yes, #fakenews is a real thing. But it’s not by any means as widespread as most of the hashtag users on Twitter would have you believe.
But why take my word for it? Engage your brain. Do your homework. And please, only use #fakenews as your hashtag if it really, truly, honestly, actually is.