Fact Check Your Friends: Fake News Sites Battle Starts With Us

Zachary Volkert - Author

Dec. 27 2017, Updated 3:23 a.m. ET

There’s only one way to fight the fake news sites and stories flooding our feeds: Fact check the living hell out of your friends, family and colleagues.

Sure, it’s going to be incredibly uncomfortable telling your mother-in-law that Hillary Clinton is, in fact, not a lizard person, despite the fact that Fake News Site.com may be showing her pictures of the former Democratic nominee’s reptilian skin. Similarly, fact checking your yoga instructor’s article about Donald Trump wanting to implement a Holocaust-style tagging program for Muslims is unlikely to help either of your find your prana next class.

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Unfortunately, you’re going to have to suck it up and start learning to form a respectful rebuttal. While there are undoubtedly a myriad of reasons that Trump triumphed over Clinton in the 2016 elections, fake news was certainly an issue that negatively shaped the image of both candidates. Take, for instance, the fact that the top false stories started to outperform legitimate news on social media in the three months before the end of the campaign, according to an analysis from Buzzfeed.

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Yet it might not be time to start fearing a fake news apocalypse quite yet. Hoaxes are nothing new. You may have, for instance, heard jokes about 18th-century Russian empress Catherine the Great dying from complications related to having sex with a horse. Cooked up in France to disparage the name of the foreign ruler, this rumor was passed around mouth-to-mouth long before the internet, and has remained stubbornly accepted by a lot of people to this day. Just imagine how different things would be if someone had run a Snopes fact check on the tale two centuries ago.

So, now that we’ve established that the fact checking cause is, in fact, noble, how can we fight the good fight against misinformation while still being able to enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner free of nasty looks from your easily hoodwinked family members? Despite how difficult it might be, there are ways to fact check fake news stories without ending up on someone’s black list.

1. Fact Check Yourself First

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It only takes one time of you erroneously calling someone out before they never take you seriously again, but it’s pretty easy to avoid it ever happening in the first place. First off, read the full article that was posted. Is the title misleading, but the content actually verifiable? Say so. Is the claim supported by something that’s taken out of context? Provide that context. You want your intentions to be firmly rooted in putting a stop to fake news stories, not petting your own ego by showing off how much smarter you are than the other person.

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2. Make Sure You’re Defending the Truth, Not a Person

Avoid blanket statements and don’t mix issues. Don’t tell someone who hates Clinton that she’s absolutely not corrupt, and even worse don’t praise her actions on an unrelated note. Specify your fact checking to the point where it doesn’t open up a whole separate universe of issues to discuss. You’re trying to stop fake news one share at a time, not shift someone’s entire thought paradigm in one conversation. You’re more likely to achieve that goal over time if you look for common ground.

3. Accept That Fact Checking Itself Is Fallible

In peak post-truth election 2016, live fact checking of the debates became the en vogue way to watch along at home. While there are certainly benefits to sifting through the information that a politician is funneling to you, it’s also important to note that true truth-seeking takes, at the very least, hours to do in a meaningful way and a lifetime of study for more complicated topics.

While it wasn’t written with fake news in mind, a column from GQ fact checker Amanda Shapiro offered some insight into how this process works.

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“If you’re doing it right, fact checking shows you how slippery facts can be. When I’m checking a story for the magazine, I know I’m doing it right if I get to a point where I’m completely confused. That’s when I can really start digging in. Because fact checking only works if you let yourself doubt what you thought you knew, whether it’s about sex offenders, police shootings, serial killers, veterans with PTSD, or celebrity trainers… That’s why all you armchair fact checkers should save your strength. This election doesn’t give a s**t about your facts, but it’s a battle worth fighting long after November 8th.”

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4. Know When Someone’s Harmless Fringe Theory Isn’t Worth It

Conspiracy theories are notoriously hard to fact check for a few reasons, the most pernicious of which is that they are, by definition, an idea that exists outside of the generally provable data we have to deal with. If someone is convinced that Clinton and Trump joined forces at a secret Illuminati meeting, telling them that the news is fake is not likely to change their mind. Focus on tangible evidence, while gently reminding them that what they are arguing is, in fact, just a theory and shouldn’t necessarily be taken into account when forming their opinion about a candidate.

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5. Provide Tools So That People Can Fact Check for Themselves

Your response doesn’t have to be a detailed breakdown. A brief, “No, random-person-I-haven’t-spoken-to-since-high-school, actually Obama does not have a secret ‘666’ tattoo behind his left ear, here is an article with multiple photos proving the contrary.” If you do it in a cordial way, people will eventually seek to prevent these embarrassing public revelations of their gullibility. If you insult them, you’re likely to get blocked, just further sending them into their echo chamber.

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On the other hand, a general mistrust of the media also needs to be taken into account. Point to specific evidence instead of just saying The New York Times reported this — especially if your link leads to an opinion piece. For instance, note that the story about anti-Trump supporters being bused to a rally in Austin, Texas, was later retracted by the very person who started the rumors. If your fact checking is solid, you should be able to find it in more than one source.

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6. Report Fake News Sites To Facebook and Google

The grand majority of traffic that leads to fake news circulating on the internet comes from social media and search engines, with the lion’s share of those clicks coming from Facebook and Google. Luckily, both of them have a system in place which allows users to report such stories as they happen, reported BBC. You might not be able to convince your ex-significant other that Clinton wasn’t caught on video having a seizure, but you can get the platform to deliver the ultimate fact check and remove it from circulation.

Now that you have a framework, what tips can you give to fact check fake news sites and stories while maintaining friendships?

[Image via David Carillet/Shuttershock]


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