How Can You Arm Yourself Against Fake News? - Dundurn
Dec 14, 2023

How Can You Arm Yourself Against Fake News?

In my new book, Manipulating the Message: How Powerful Forces Shape the News, I document all the ways distorted messages and misinformation infect the news you consume every day. As the number of public relations and communications professionals in Canada gets bigger, the ranks of journalists shrink due to cutbacks and a loss of advertising revenue. This makes it tough for media outlets to verify the information they are fed daily by publicists, politicians, corporations, police departments, and other players who want to get their messages heard.

In the face of increased misinformation and even outright disinformation that appears in our news reports and social media feeds, what can the public do?

Quite a bit, actually. It starts by applying a critical thinking lens to everything that appears in the media. I would suggest the first step is to be deliberate and think carefully about the things you see, and resist the urge to rush out and share the content with your family and friends. There are some questions you should ask about the content. My book offers the following suggestions for questions you can start with:

Who created the content, and when did they create it? Is any evidence offered for the claims in the story? Does the evidence support the story’s thesis or conclusions? Do the headline and lead paragraph reflect the rest of the article? Whose interests are being served by the article? Do the sources represent a conflict of interest or a skewed perspective?

A key question to always ask is: Who benefits from this message? If a spokesperson or an expert is making a claim, are they truly impartial and independent? Who funds the researcher, institute, or think tank offering a perspective? Sometimes more specific questions need to be asked. If you’re reading about the latest purported scientific breakthrough or new miracle drug, you should see if there was a sufficiently large sample size in the study being described. Was a control group used, and was the research peer-reviewed? If you’re reading a story about a public opinion poll, you might want to inquire about the margin of error and whether there was a representative sample.

Finally, there are proactive steps you can take to ensure you’re not falling victim to a campaign of disinformation. Sometimes people deliberately post old photos of a demonstration or a battle scene and attempt to pass them off as events that have just happened. You can do a reverse image search of photos to see if they have been manipulated or if they are being used out of context. It’s always good practice to search for and try to verify the original source of any claim you see in a news article or social media post.

It’s possible, with some critical thinking and online legwork, to take fact-checking into your own hands.

Cecil Rosner is an award-winning investigative journalist whose career as a reporter, television producer, and news manager spans four decades. He has exposed wrongdoing, uncovered wrongful convictions, and revealed systemic injustice. An adjunct professor at the University of Winnipeg, he has trained journalists across Canada. He lives in Winnipeg. Learn more here.