In My Words: Resolved — I won’t contribute to fake news

In this article distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Associate Professor Amanda Sturgill writes about her resolution to do what she can to stem the spread of fake news. The article was published by the Burlington Times-News and the Greensboro News & Record.

By Amanda Sturgill

I admit I won’t be sad to see 2020 slip away into the pages of history. As we stand on the brink of a new year, I resolve to be a better critical thinker about news, and I hope you will, too.

Amanda Sturgill, associate professor of journalism

It’s been hard to tell what information is reliable and true. Like most people, the news I see often finds me. It shows up in notifications on my phone or in my social media feeds.

That’s convenient, but it can also steer me wrong. When you take bits of news out of their contexts, it’s hard to assess the quality. Someone’s unsupported opinion can look a lot like a verified fact when I see it in a Facebook group or in an Instagram video. A channel offers daytime shows with information gathered by qualified journalists who follow codes of ethics. The same channel offers evening shows with opinion-makers who want to get me to think a particular way. Sometimes, the opinion-makers call their show facts or real truth.

It’s confusing, to say the least.

It’s also hard to know how to check if something is true. I’ve seen a lot of folks encouraging others to “research it” on topics from vaccine safety to child abuse. These are important and serious topics, but the best way to research them isn’t always clear. For most people, it will involve turning to a search engine like Google or Bing. But when you type in your words there, the answer isn’t always the true one. The rules search engines use to decide the best answers to your questions depend on a lot of things other than the underlying truth. How well the page’s computer code is written might be one. How popular the result, another.

Sometimes things become popular because they are correct. Sometimes, it’s because people want to believe them. I work in news and information, and even I have sometimes been fooled.

So here’s my resolution for 2021.

Check first. Before I share a piece of news that has found me, I’ll ask myself the following three questions:

Who shared this?

People sometimes have good intentions when they share information, but don’t understand the information they are sharing. They’ll post something they read from someone who said it came from a source like “a doctor my cousin knows” and so on. You are right to be skeptical if the source isn’t clear.

When you ask who shared it, you are trying to make sure that the person would actually be someone who could know and understand the information. If you can’t tell, that’s a good reason to not share.

Why did they share it?

Viral posts are often that way because they make you feel something. That strong feeling can short-circuit your common sense – can silence the voice that might make you think better of it.

This can affect you in two ways. First, bad actors may share false information in a way that makes you feel happy or angry, hoping that you’ll pass it on without thinking. Second, your own friends and contacts may share things with you as a way of passing along the feeling they have.

In either case, the fact that you feel strongly about what is said is a good clue that you need to get an answer to the third question.

Do they give convincing evidence?

I can prove a whole lot of things by citing online research. Health cures abound online. One article I saw advised on the best way to apply onions to your scalp to help with a skin condition. I’m not running to the root cellar quite yet because the evidence just isn’t convincing.

Convincing evidence tends to be first-hand, which means people telling facts saw or studied it themselves. It tends to come from experts, which means people who are trained enough to evaluate the evidence.

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Here’s an example: flu shots. I’ve heard the myth that the flu shot causes the disease many times. It’s not true – shots are made from inactive things that just can’t cause illness. They can cause your body to make the antibodies to fight the disease and that’s what makes you feel sick.

If my friend on social media says the shot gave them the disease, it’s firsthand, but they aren’t an expert. My doctor has firsthand knowledge of immunizing thousands of people and is an expert. That’s whom I should trust.

So for 2021, I’m resolving to use a three-question test before I share something I found online. And if the tidbit doesn’t pass all three, I’ll keep it to myself.

Amanda Sturgill is an associate professor of journalism at Elon. Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.