4 Refreshingly simple tips to distinguish fact from fiction
To make informed choices, seek the truth, not (necessarily) the win
A couple of years ago, The Economist ran an unsettling special report on the future of warfare. This insight particularly struck me:
“In the future, ‘fake news’ put together with the aid of artificial intelligence will be so realistic that even the best-resourced and most professional news organization will be hard pressed to tell the difference between the real and the made-up sort.”
As a marketer and as a consumer, I feel like something as trivial as buying toothpaste can feel this way already. We’re almost constantly bombarded by conflicting information from seemingly reliable sources. And a lot of people are tempted to either check out completely or only listen to information that reaffirms their existing beliefs. I don’t altogether approve of this, but I get it.
But it’s actually easy to tell fact from fiction. If we were to all follow these four simple tips, it would prevent or dispel 98% of public misconceptions.
No. 1: Be more wary of information that confirms your beliefs than information that challenges them.
Because of the way cookies and digital advertising work, you’re much more likely to see content that confirms what you already believe, or what you might be persuaded to believe based on your political leanings. You see it in your social media news feeds. You see it in personalized suggestions on YouTube. You’ll see it in virtually any website that has curated content or ads.
The reason we get tricked into believing editorialized half-truths and fake news is because of confirmation bias. Simply put, confirmation bias means we’re more likely to believe inaccurate information that reaffirms our views than accurate information that challenges them.
What should you do? Resist confirmation bias.
No. 2: Read past the headlines.
This sounds obvious, but we’re all busy, and we all fall for it. Often, a well-written, balanced article will be soiled by a sensationalized headline. It makes things easy for readers because it spares them the burden of actually reading. It helps media outlets court people who want entertainment rather than news, which to some extent is all of us.
But the real story is about the context, the motives, the knowns and unknowns. People are usually more reasonable, and governed by more nuanced motives, than headlines suggest.
Headlines aren’t information.
No. 3: “Studies” aren’t protected information and should be ridiculously easy to find.
An acquaintance of mine sent me an article citing a “study” showing that electric cars are worse for the environment than diesel cars. The article didn’t link to the study. It quoted an article written on the study by another media outlet. That article linked to the homepage of a German think tank. But I wasn’t able to find the study, most likely because it was either fictitious or misrepresented.
Too many news sources cite studies without providing specific publishing information. If an article you’re reading online cites a study, it should hyperlink to the study directly, or at least to a press release that links to the study. If they can’t figure that out, they probably botched the analysis.
No attribution? Assume it’s fiction.
No. 4: Bias isn’t synonymous with fake news.
When something heavily editorialized masquerades as reporting, that’s unethical. And unfortunately, it’s far too common. But journalists are human. If you disregard all information that you perceive as being in any way biased, you tend to end up with ultra-biased information that reaffirms your worldview.
In some forms, bias is comparatively innocent. Journalists are often subject to word counts and other limitations. They often have to prune mercilessly, drill down to the most pertinent facts, and rely on intuition to decide which leads are worth their time.
No matter how introspective you are, you have intellectual biases you aren’t even aware of. It’s part of the imperfect world we live in and have to make sense of.
I have no doubt that somewhere in the hundreds of articles I’ve written there’s a statement or two that reflects some bias I’m not even aware I have. Bias is bad, but it’s not the same as fake news. If you really want to understand a complex issue, like the pandemic or the Black Lives Matter movement, you generally have to reconcile accurate but biased information from right- and left-leaning sources.
When it comes to media bias, be vigilant, not puritanical.
Seek the truth, not the “win.”
As a content marketer, I consider it my duty to provide reliable information that helps people make more informed choices. That’s not always the most effective way to sell things in the short run, but in the long run, it strengthens the financial performance of businesses by building trust.
In the excellent book Storynomics: Story-Driven Marketing in the Post-Advertising World, authors Robert McKee and Thomas Gerace contrast science and rhetoric, a distinction we should all understand:
“Rhetoric imitates science by presenting evidence and drawing a conclusion, but the difference is that science weighs all evidence, both for and against a theorem; rhetoric slants its argument by laying out only the evidence that supports its claim, while ignoring or refuting every point that contradicts it. In other words, science seeks the truth; rhetoric seeks the win.” (emphasis added)
That points to a great formula for being an informed citizen and making informed choices: Seek the truth, not (necessarily) the win.