Misinformation, Fake News, and Propaganda

by Lionel Di Giacomo

In spite of overwhelming scientific evidence supporting climate change, a segment of the population still believes climate change is a “hoax”. How did these individuals come to that conclusion?

Aside from a vocal anti-science movement, now with a mouthpiece in the White House, there is a gross amount of misinformation and propaganda today masquerading as “news”. More and more, we are inundated with inaccurate and manufactured media often ceated to support an underlying agenda. How do we, as concerned citizens, weed through this forest of misinformation? thumbnail of truthseeker

Objective Reality Exists

Take a deep breath—you are not crazy. Science still works, most people recognize the reality of climate change, and the majority of journalists still seek the truth and report it. Beliefs are personal, interpretations can be argued, but facts are not relative—and never will be. 

We all want validation to support our viewpoint, and that makes us susceptible to accepting media that fits within our paradigm as fact. Social media exacerbates that: online algorithms designed to keep people coming back generate “echo chambers”—serving up news feeds and search results that reinforce biases and entrench our beliefs.

Public Doubt, Private Profits

Corporate misinformation campaigns often find a willing audience in those hungry for an alternative perspective, to reinforce th
ir own ideas, or to feed denial (“This report says smoking isn’t bad for me so I don’t have to quit”). 
For years, big business has misinformed to serve their agenda. Big Tobacco fought the science that smoking causes cancer for decades, preserving profits and harming public health. Similarly, oil companies knew climate change was real decades ago, but chose to sow confusion and doubt instead of promoting solutions and transforming their industries. 

Miss Information’s Toolbox

In 1984, George Orwell  explained that propaganda relies on eroding trust in the objective nature of reality. Once people feel they cannot trust the news, or even their own logic and experience, misinformation can slip by our critical defenses. 

How do we recognize misinformation when we see it and help others do the same? Following are some tips for evaluating sources and stories. We also recommend this helpful NPR story on self-checking news: http://bit.ly/mediack.


Critical Thinking

Be critical of the news you consume. Is it based on facts from multiple independent sources, or speculation and emotion? Just because a story agrees with your world view doesn’t mean it is factual. 

Use Fact Checking Sites 

Good fact checkers walk you through their logic to help you see the evidence for yourself; so, even if you don’t agree with their ruling you have access to more information to broaden your view of the situation. Some good ones: Politifact.com, Snopes.com, and washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker.

Weed out bad online sources

If you don’t recognize a source, search the topic to see if major media outlets are also running the story. Compare how stories differ from one outlet to another. If the source appears to be legitimate, but the story seems unbelievable, sensational, or does not present an objective representation of the opposing viewpoint, there is probably an underlying agenda. (Of course in today’s reality, much actual news seems unbelievable, so be aware!)

Even good sources make mistakes

Recently, several major media outlets have come under fire for sloppy reporting and publishing unsubstantiated information. Journalists compromise standards under deadline pressure, ratings, and the rush to be the first to report a story. This weakening of journalistic rigor doesn’t indict all media: rather it should remind each of us that we the reader must not be passive consumers. We are active participants in the media, and we must hold all news media to a higher standard. 

Keep track of local news

Small papers have a big impact, and your input can help keep a local newspaper factual and focused on important stories. Letters to the editor rich with facts and sources can do a lot to correct the record and influence your community.

If you have a question about a story or news outlet promoting environmental misinformation, let us know! Contact Research and Advocacy Associate Lionel Di Giacomo at lionel@greatoldbroads.org.