On “Fake News”
The Daily Bonnet is not “fake news,” at least not in the sense that the term has been used in the last few months. Of course, every article on the Daily Bonnet is fictitious, but unlike “fake news” articles, the purpose of the Daily Bonnet is always to amuse or make a point (like the Onion or Babylon Bee) rather than to deceive. No one is supposed to think a Daily Bonnet article is real.
Still, as a creator of satirical news, the problem of deceptive fake news is something I’ve considered quite a bit…and something I’ve learned a lot about.
Recently I found myself embroiled in an online discussion on an anti-Justin Trudeau Facebook page filled with poorly-constructed memes and articles of dubious merit. If Canada has an alt-right, it would likely look something like this page. I haven’t done this in months because I know it’s wrong (I even preached a sermon against it), but there I was fruitlessly demanding logic, facts, and information from a group of people who had no interest to do anything other than slander and throw out ad hominems. Of course, I’ve known for a long time that you can never win an argument on the Internet (and perhaps not in real life), for a wide variety of reasons such as the backfire effect, motivated reasoning, confirmation bias and so on.
Here is one of the memes we were discussing.
The comments below the meme were such profound nuggets as “I bet she’s a Liberal. LMFAO!!!!!!”; “This is a brand spanking new way of displaying Libby/NDP stupidity. It can’t be anything else!”; “Stupid their drill bits not bullets”; “Liberals are brain dead”; “Libtard logic” and so on.
You can see that in the context of an anti-Trudeau page, the meme, even though it had nothing to do with the Prime Minister, seemed to confirm the commenters’ biases about liberals.
To many people, however, the meme will instantly appear fraudulent. And, indeed, a quick google search reveals another meme with the same text and a totally different picture of a different woman. In other words, this meme, as predicted, is fake.
When addressing fake news or memes like this, many people suggest using google, or snopes.com to verify the source. Some also suggest carefully examining the URL or looking at the quality of the writing or the design of the page. There have even been some efforts to tag fake news sites with warnings like: fake news, biased, satire, etc.
I’m not opposed to these strategies. However, the real BS detector should be our own minds.
Perhaps we’re a bit scarred. Maybe we’re not as confident in our own abilities to detect BS as we once were. But, think about it: the very fact you’re suspicious of a source and are consulting snopes.com means you already have an internal BS detector.
Perhaps if we look at how to lie to people on the Internet, we can learn a bit better about how not to be lied to.
The drill bit/bullet meme offers some interesting suggestions on how to lie on the Internet. Have a look again at the comments. There is an irony here, of course, that people are readily believing a fake meme and calling the fake woman in the fake meme “stupid.” But what’s more interesting for our purposes here are the biases that the meme intends to confirm:
- young women are liberals
- young women are unintelligent (most of the meme’s audience are older men)
- liberals are anti-gun
- liberals don’t know anything about guns or bullets
- liberals are out of touch with the working class (hence the ignorance about drill bits)
- liberals don’t really do proper research
- liberals are emotional and flighty
The meme checks many boxes in terms of far-right biases about liberals. And this is key. The fact alone should make one suspicious. A conservative-leaning person should think, “hey, perhaps this meme is too perfect to be true.” Even before confirming the validity of the meme from other sources, it right away should trigger our BS detector.
Let’s compare this meme to another popular one that plays into liberal anti-conservative bias.
Again, let’s ask: what biases about conservatives (and Donald Trump) does this meme seem to confirm?
- Donald Trump really doesn’t want to run for President
- Donald Trump is not actually committed to Republican ideals
- Fox News is unreliable
- Republicans are dumb
- Republicans love Donald Trump
- Donald Trump is manipulating the public
- Donald Trump is cynical
A liberal-leaning person should have their BS detector triggered with this one. Again, it appears just too perfect to be true. Also consider how perfect the supposed source is (People, 1998). The existence of the source (which is rare for a meme) makes people less likely to even bother to attempt to confirm it. But also, since it’s so old and from a print magazine, it’s unlikely anyone would put in the effort. (No month is provided, thus making it necessary to read every issue of People magazine from 1998). Again, this is too perfect. Our BS detector should be warning us.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that “perfect” articles or memes cannot be true. Only that we should be extraordinarily skeptical of things that seem to confirm our own biases.
I also realize that many fake news articles are more subtle. However, for the most part, their purpose is to get a reaction, and the easiest way to get a reaction is to play on biases and emotions.
How to Lie on the Internet
Here’s a quick way to construct an idea for an article or meme that is quite likely to fool you or someone with your own biases. (Assuming someone else wrote it, of course).
- Choose a hot or controversial topic that you have an opinion on. (It doesn’t have to political. Let’s say: automobiles).
- What is your opinion? (Let’s say your opinion is Japanese cars are more reliable than American cars)
- Write a fake article or meme that confirms this bias. (‘American cars found to be mechanically unreliable’.)
- Load it with pictures, facts and figures and fake quotes.
- Post it somewhere where like-minded people will read it (A special-interest Facebook group, for example).
- Wait and watch for the reaction.
Please don’t actually try this. There’s more than enough deception online. However, my point is that I’m confident that we don’t need an online BS detector. In fact, I think that would make the problem worse. If every website was flagged based on it’s reliability, many of us would soon lose the ability to make these detections ourselves and that would mean that in future the problem of fake news would be even worse.
Perhaps we could simply ask ourselves, “do I want this information to be true?” If I do…I better make sure that it actually is.
(top image photo credit: Alan Cleaver/CC)