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Universities and Fake News

It appears that we are entering a new phase of social communication, in which falsehoods will be intentionally disseminated via various media. When nation-states or governments do this, we often label this as propaganda. It’s known to have powerful influence on public opinion when the falsehoods can be simply communicated and are repeated over and over. When one-off false news releases occur on diverse topics, saturating the media space, it yields a skepticism about all information. Both of these are undesirable in democracies.

It occurs to me that much of scholarly inquiry uses skills that are well-equipped to help us survive in an era of fake news. Indeed, one feature of scholarly inquiry that spans all the disciplines is its dispassionate search for truth, often in the midst of irrelevant and/or contradictory information. The ability of scholars to discard the untruths and noise in a set of observations and identify the true attributes is a key criterion for their success. All scholars are skeptical of new information until it has proven itself to be true.

So, in this age of fake news, what questions can we apply to each bit of news we encounter? First, and maybe most importantly, we need to ask whether we, independently, can acquire information that confirms or disproves the news item. If we have the ability to observe the same circumstance or make the same observations as the news report, would we conclude that the news item is correct or incorrect?

Second, does the news item provide some transparency to the method of achieving the knowledge that produced the item? Do we know the source of the knowledge — is this a first-hand report from an original observer or a second/third-hand report? If there is an explicit description of how the information was obtained, could anyone replicate this method? Is it a technique that could generate any other outcome or does the method necessarily produce the outcome reported? If there is no description of how the information was obtained, disbelief is prudent, for the time being.

Third, does the news item comport with other known facts related to the item? If the item is true, what events must have preceded it? What events, if any, must follow it, if it indeed happened? If the item is true, what other things must be true, and do we have any evidence that those things are true? If this logic leads to contradictions between known facts and the news time, suspending belief is prudent.

Fourth, do we find the source of the news credible? Does it have a track record or is it a completely new source? If it has a track record, what do we know about its veracity in the past? If it has no track record, was the same content also disseminated by sources known to have their own vetting? If these questions yield no support, disbelief is prudent.

Fifth and last, how long have we known this news? Has sufficient time passed since the announcement that independent sources might have vetted the news? Truth sometimes stubbornly resists immediate revelation. That’s why scientific ethics require replication and peer review before acceptance of a new finding. A suspension of belief, so common among scholars, seem a useful skill in this age.

These are the processes that are common to critical review of new information within all academic fields. It may be time to promote them in our everyday lives.

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