What is Real? Fighting Spam, Fake News, and Our Own Fallibility

  • Posted on: 24 July 2017
  • By: lyanabu
My Aunt

Back in December, my dryer broke, so I called a repairman. While he was working on the dryer, I was surprised that the first topic he brought up was fake news and how you couldn’t rely on any source for real news anymore.

I thought, "What happened to chit-chatting about the weather?"

I was hoping to get my machine repaired; I wasn't expecting a discussion about the nature of reality at 8 in the morning with a stranger.

The question about whether you can trust the media can get very deep quickly. How can you trust anything? How can you check your knowledge? In fact, how can you know if anything is real?

Wondering what we can really know is a centuries-old pursuit

In 1637, a French scholar named Rene Descartes came up with a thought experiment: What can we know is truly real?

You might say, “Whatever I can sense for myself, I know for sure.”

But then what about dreams? While you’re dreaming you experience reality, but when you wake up you realize it wasn't real.

So Descartes dug deeper, back to the very basics. He wrote, I know that I’m thinking, so at least there’s something that exists, I am the something that thinks, therefore I exist. I think, therefore I am. And with that, he set in place one of the underpinnings of modern Western philosophy.

How to assess your information

But you’re looking for more practical methods to sift through all the information you’re exposed to every day. I’m going to talk about the varieties of fake news, the filters you can use to sort through them, and understanding that you can be wrong even after all that. And then I will finish with the resource that I suggested to my dryer repairman.

Determining what's real and what's not: Your Email

Let’s start with your email. Why? Because unlike the news, or the internet, where you have to actively search for information, email gets sent to you, so it feels more personal and you may be more inclined to believe it. Thus it can be a prime source of fakery and deception.

UNM receives five million emails every day, but only five percent make it to staff inboxes. Gmail blocks 99.9% of Spam. You probably think you get a lot of junk email, but you're only seeing a tiny portion of it. These processes combat false information without your even being aware of it. But you can thwart junk mail yourself by setting up automatic filters and unsubscribing where possible.

The human element remains an factor in deceptive email. A few months ago, my aunt sent me an email titled, “Fwd: Extremely Good and Important Article to Read/Save/Print andSend”. She wrote, with a hopeful tone, "Is this true? It sounds authentic." and then she cited the person who sent it to her, a friend.

The email goes on to mix bogus health claims with some factual nutritional guidelines without citing any actual articles, dates, or studies, except for a glancing reference to "Johns Hopkins" to add a dash of credibility. Additional clues that this is not what it says it is are:

  • Sentences in all caps
  • Multiple exclamation marks
  • Exhortations to forward to everyone
  • Unsubstantiated claims and broad generalizations
  • Reminders to share with your entire email list
  • Indications such as > that show this email has been forwarded multiple times

A quick search of snopes.com found this to be a hoary claim, circulating for at least a decade. Basically it’s chain mail. I have told her before that she needs to check with snopes.com because otherwise she looks like a chump. But she's not used to viewing her email with skepticism, and she forgot about snopes.com.

Determining what's real and what's not: The News

Let’s talk about general types of fake news. According an academic article entitled, Deception Detection for Fake News out of the University of Western Ontario, fake news can be classified into five main types:

  1. Intentionally deceptive: “The Pope has endorsed Donald Trump.” 100% lie.
  2. Jokes taken out of context: A friend emails a satirical article from The Onion to you and you think it's real
  3. Large-scale hoaxes: Reputable news sources report a deception as real. For instance, the claim that Iraq had huge stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
  4. Slanted reporting of real facts: Selectively-chosen but truthful elements put together to serve an agenda. My aunt's email is an example of this, combining good advice, "Learn to relax and enjoy life." with false assertions such as "Cancer feeds on mucus."
  5. Stories where the ‘truth’ is contentious: On issues where ideologies or opinions clash - for example, exact crowd numbers at rallies or protests -- you may never know the exact truth.

Adjust your skeptical filters

Expecially lately, we’ve had plenty of opportunities to improve our filters. But we’re human, and we get tired or are vulnerable. What do we need to watch out for?

Does it sound too good to be true?

Check the sources. Responsible media has a reputation to defend. Have they been wrong before, and have they owned their role in the outcome? Is this a paid advertisement?

Are you seeing this news item in multiple outlets?

Accept your fallibility

The final thing we need to watch out for is: Being confident about your conclusions.

There is nothing quite as effective, when it comes to shutting down alternative viewpoints, as being convinced you are right. -- Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc

The 2016 U.S. Presidential election outcome stunned me. I expected Americans to see beyond the circus atmosphere and buckle down to the task of soberly choosing the most qualified candidate for the job of leading the world's most powerful country (or at least the most powerful military). I honestly thought it would be a landslide, not even close. I was right -- but I was also wrong.

We must accept that we’ll be wrong sometimes.

To return to what Descartes knew, sometimes even when you see something for yourself, you can be mistaken. The New York Times ran a piece about police body cameras, and how your point of view limits your understanding of what happened even if you feel you are 100% right.

Chuck Klosterman has a related angle on this in his book But What if We’re Wrong: Thinking About the Present as if it were the Past. Throughout history, he argues, people knew things, were convinced about their knowledge, even about things we now know were completely wrong. For example, the theory of the four humours; phrenology, smoking is good for you; no need to wash hands when doing surgery, and many more.

How many things, he asks, are we completely wrong about that people in the future will look back and be amazed at how wrong we were. We need to face up to our limitations.

In  conclusion

I told the repairman that there were many challenges to knowing what’s real these days, but that he could check with real books and real publications with long standing reputations to defend. I also recommended one of my favorite resources – the library – in search of what’s real.