“You won’t believe how this Amazonian tribe cures cancer using only piranha scales and parrot feathers! DOCTORS HATE THEM.”
“Discover 10 natural (and gluten-free) ways to resurrect the dead: number 6 will surprise you!”
“The government lets refugees stay in five-star hotels while poor citizens are homeless. SHARE IF YOU ARE OUTRAGED.”
“Were the Rothschilds actually in contact with extraterrestrial life forms? And how many freemasons does it take to unscrew a light bulb?”
I’m sure posts like these nowadays infest pretty much anybody’s Facebook feed. I guess it is both the curse and blessing of unlimited access to all sorts of information combined with freedom of expression. I usually tend to just scroll down and ignore them and leave them to their glory at the expenses of the gullible. However, when I see people I previously deemed intelligent actually share them for other people to read, I tend to get slightly more alarmed. Not just because of the content of the article itself, which alone speaks volumes, but because the sources of such articles are usually very fishy and their names should at the very least ring a bell, making them unfit to support any sort of claim. And this phenomenon is not only limited to hippie remedies and conspiracy theories but caters well to the agenda of political parties and organizations of all sorts, in a real ‘fake news industry’ that capitalized millions of dollars in the last US elections alone. However, you look at it, misinformation (or “alternative facts”, as a wise man once said) is all around us, and its exponential growth has only recently become visible enough to hit the news. All over the world, people have started waging their own crusade against this subtle but not less deadly enemy.
A first mover in the field was none other than Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. An incredibly small part of its immense team of independent editors decided to put a very peculiar motion to the vote: to replace every single citation of the Daily Mail in Wikipedia articles with more reliable sources. The decision was caused, in the editors’ words, by the media outlet’s “reputation for poor fact-checking and sensationalism”. By a majority of 58 on 90 editors, the motion passed, and volunteers all over the world are already at work on modifying the already existing 12000ish links to the Daily Mail. Needless to say, the decision triggered an immediate reaction from most of the British press, including the Mail itself, which called the move “a politically motivated attempt to stifle the free press” and raised the stake by claiming Wikipedia itself should not be considered a reliable source of information.
Another episode occurred in Italy, where after a series of legal défaillances concerning some of the members of his party, Beppe Grillo, leader of the Five Star Movement, deemed it appropriate to blame it onto the “partisan press”, which in his opinion fabricated such accusations in order to protect the status quo from his “revolution”. As a solution against the alleged misinformation of the national newspapers, Grillo suggested creating a People’s Jury on the Internet, where random citizens can vote to determine whether a certain piece of news is true or false. Regardless of the preposterous suggestion, it is ironic enough of him to blame the public newspapers and television of misinformation, when the media affiliated with his party (all sorts of Facebook pages and websites and even a newspaper) are some of the major retailers of clickbaits on the Internet. Not to mention his infamous personal blog, but that’s another story.
So why is misinformation on the Internet dangerous in the first place? Well, imagine if somebody started spreading the news that vaccines are actually harmful and people believed it. Suddenly you would see a decrease in the number of vaccinations, and while common diseases such as the flu would not be affected, you would see other illnesses that we had not witnessed for a very long time flourish again and reach pandemic levels. Guess what? In 1998, an academic named Andrew Wakefield published an article in which he correlated vaccination in children with the incidence of autism and other complications. The article was later refuted, but in the meantime people believed it (and some still believe it today), and the rate of vaccinations in the UK dropped dramatically. Unsurprisingly, an epidemic of measles festered the country for the following years. Now, imagine if somebody came to you claiming that immigration and outsourcing are the main cause of unemployment in your country and that the only solution is to kick everyone out and restore autarchy…
Unfortunately, there is little governments can do to control the spread of fake news: freedom of speech and press decrees that anyone may publish anything they like, as long as it does not incite to violence or illegal actions. Attempts from outside the news world, as the Wikipedia case and Grillo’s People’s Jury exemplified, are largely unsuccessful. It is then up to news outlets such as newspapers and tabloids to monitor their agents more strictly to prevent inaccurate depictions of reality. But then it is also up to us to use our critical thinking to understand what is a credible source and what is not. I usually enjoy comparing national newspapers to find the points where they coincide, and as far as economic theory is concerned, nothing clears your mind like reading a nice abstract on an academic journal on the subject, especially since someone sacrificed herself to let us read them for free. In addition, there are several blogs and websites spreading all over the Internet with the sole purpose of conducting fact-checking campaigns and debunk fake news. The most popular are Politifact for Politics and Econofact for Economics. Quickly reading through any of their articles will undoubtedly help you discern whether those suspect claims you read on your feed have any foundation. In general, however, I really like this rule of thumb: what makes a source credible? Evidence and authority. Why would you trust some random guy on the Internet when you wouldn’t believe professors and scholars?