There is little doubt that using social media and online news reports to persuade, distort and even swing the outcome of our elections is a very real threat to the Western world’s democracy and, just as importantly, the pursuit of truth.
It is hard, verging on almost impossible in some cases, to distinguish what is real and what is not: Take, for example, the case of Jack Williment-Barr, the four-year-old boy who was photographed on the floor of an A&E department in Leeds, West Yorkshire after a preliminary diagnosis of pneumonia.
Scandalous if true, social media was awash with claims that the photograph is faked, staged by his mother. Tweets and Facebook posts from people claiming to be, or to know, a paediatric nurse at that very hospital disputed the accuracy of the photograph, saying that it would never be allowed to happen.
James Mitchinson, the editor of The Yorkshire Post (the outlet that broke the story), confirmed with Dr Yvette Oade, chief medical officer for Leeds Teaching Hospitals, that the incident happened and that the photograph was genuine. Dr Oade’s version of events was then double-checked by the newspaper’s editor with the chief executive of the hospital, Julian Hartley, who again confirmed that it was accurate. Both offered apologies to the boy and his mother.
Later, the first response, the one claiming to be from a paediatric nurse that was later retweeted and re-shared word-for-word, was traced back to the Facebook account of a doctor’s PA. Not only is she not a nurse, she also has no connections with the Leeds General Infirmary and happens to be the mother of a Conservative Party activist who is friends with Matt Hancock, the health secretary, on Facebook (Some outlets say that she claims that her Facebook page had been hacked.
Good old-fashioned journalism means double-checking, sources - and yet, despite the overwhelming evidence that the photograph is genuine, people still claim it is a Labour-inspired stunt.
When even the lies that comes from some of those at the very top are so bare-faced and bold, our instinct as decent human beings is to think that no-one would lie on such a scale, and about a subject that is so demonstrably verifiable.
And yet they do, and when social norms are challenged on such a shameless and repetitive level, we continue to let them because we are genetically and socially hard-wired to give our fellow humans the benefit of the doubt. After all, no-one could be stupid enough to lie so palpably, could they?
So, with this all in mind, how can we become better informed consumers of news and information? How can we tell what is fact, what is produced in error, and what is produced to deceive us?
The answer isn’t always simple, but it is straightforward: we do what James Mitchinson did, and we check the facts.
The first port of call for me is the comments section underneath whatever social media post I am reading; as Wikipedia (about which we will learn more later) has shown, the hive mind is a wonderfully broad and largely accurate collective and when a social media post doesn’t ring true then someone, somewhere will almost invariably post a link to a primary source that refutes it.
So, if you read something that looks a bit off, then scroll down and see what others have to say; you might be surprised how quickly and comprehensively a seemingly plausible story is debunked.
Learning: Read the comments, but do so critically
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Speaking of primary sources, these are usually my second port of call when I smell a rat. A primary source is simply the place where the story originated and in the case of the little boy in Leeds this was The Yorkshire Post – and a quick scan of the newspaper’s website showed that the story was accurate and verified as being true by the two most senior members of staff in the hospital concerned.
So, if you can take a look at the primary source. And you know where a great place to find primary sources is? The much-maligned Wikipedia…
Learning: Check primary sources if you can
As anyone who has ever tried to post a new Wikipedia entry will know, it’s bloomin’ hard to get past the massed ranks of the citizen editors and subject experts. I did it once, and was almost instantly bombarded with requests for sources and proof of that which I knew to be true.
And yes, it is possible to post nonsense on there too, but Wikipedia is constantly being edited and the sort of inaccuracies that used to be rife are now caught very quickly - and if you see one being shared on social media it is almost certainly a screenshot of a short-lived hoax put there solely to amuse readers.
But, where Wikipedia is almost unbeatable, is in the references (primary sources by another name) it publishes at the bottom of the page. Clicking on these will take you straight to the source of the claim, where you check its veracity for yourself.
Learning: Check references
Specifics and references
Another warning sign is an absence of specific details and/or references. If I tell you, for example, that the company for whom I used to work was hopelessly inept at contract management and wasted vast sums of tax payers’ money you might believe me or you might take it as the rantings of a bitter old man out to make trouble for his former employer.
But, if I am a little more specific and say that it was castigated by the National Audit Office (NAO) for overspending by a factor of three on an IT project that was both late and considerably reduced in scope and then link to the NAO report of March 2009 that reported it, then you can be reassured that what I say is accurate and truthful.
Learning: Be careful when an article doesn’t give specifics or link to evidence
Look out of the window
As someone once said, as a journalist my job is not to give equal weight to facts and opinions. So, if one person tells me it is raining and one disputes this and says that it is not raining and is in fact sunny, my job is not to give equal weight to both viewpoints; my job is to look out of the window and check what the weather is like for myself.
This is surprisingly hard to do these days, as most mainstream media gives facts and opinions equal weighting and equal airtime. This is wrong; we do not have ‘alternative facts’, we have facts and we have things that aren’t accurate or true.
Learning: Facts and opinions are not interchangeable – and there are not always two sides to a story…
Check your facts
There are a large number of fact-checking websites on the Internet, including Full Fact in the UK, Fact Check in the USA, and Channel 4 News Fact Check on Twitter. All of these debunk inaccurate and misleading claims made by political parties and others.
Interestingly, @CCHQPress, the Conservative Party Press Office profile on Twitter, rebadged itself recently as a fact checking account to widespread criticism…
Learning: Use a fact checking website to test claims made – but be sure to check that the fact checking website is actually a fact checking website.
The sniff test
If it smells wrong, then it probably is.
A good example of this is the Government's claim that 40 new hospitals will be built with the £3,000,000,000 it says it will give in funding for them.
Now, this might be true, but let’s look out of the window for a moment, shall we? For a start, £3b divided by 40 is £75,000,000 – and I doubt that a new hospital can be built, fitted out, and equipped for that little.
And then there are the staffing issues. With a shortfall of 100,000 staff across the NHS, including 40,000 nurses and more than 11,500 doctors, staffing the hospitals would be almost impossible.
So, after five minutes of not very concentrated analysis I think I can safely say that the UK will not see 40 new hospitals being built in the near future.
Learning: Trust your instinct; if it doesn’t look right then it probably isn’t
Or, ‘to whom is it a benefit?’. This is a time-proven test to apply to any situation or statement and while our newspapers have always spanned the range between hard-left, ultra-right and everything in between, the mainstream media is almost certainly less partisan and independent now than at any time in our history.
Advertising and, even more importantly, the selling of personal information and data, not to mention tax breaks, government grants and non-financial inducements such as peerages and the like, means that it has never been more important for the wealthy and the influential to get the right political party elected.
This is a hugely worrying development and one that means we now need to seek our unbiased news from a variety of sources rather than the newspaper we used to. This is a void that social media has rushed to fill.
And please don’t think that there is any vetting whatsoever going on on the various social platforms; unlike Twitter, which has banned political advertising, Facebook has publicly stated that it will publish any and all political advertisements, no matter how inaccurate they might be. Mark Zuckerberg has gone on the record as saying: “I don't think it's right for private companies to censor politicians or the news".
Facebook is, let us not forget, a business and one that profits handsomely from advertising.
Learning: Ask yourself “who benefits?”
Of course, some inaccurate social media posts aren’t shared maliciously. Often they’re shared because we want to warn others of a scam, crime, or other problem.
One such post on Facebook was shared by a friend of mine. It was too long-winded to share here but involved lone female drivers, unmarked police cars and a shortcut telephone number that can be used to call the police.
It was, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, completely and demonstrably false. Worse still, the number is was touting wouldn’t have connected to the police, so the information it was giving out was dangerous. How did I know this? I checked on a website called Snopes. This is a debunking website, and a quick check showed that my mate’s story was false.
Learning: Check scams and urban myth-style stories on Snopes before passing them on
Google image search
President Trump shared a photo recently that showed, he said, a section of the infamous border wall between Mexico and the United States of America being built.
I checked the image on Google Images and found that it was nothing of the sort; it was an old picture of a section of the wall being mended during a period when President Obama was in office.
How to reverse search an image on Google
On the Google search page, click the ‘image’ tab. In the right side of the search bar a camera icon will appear; you can upload an image, paste in the image’s URL or drag over the image that you want to double check.
Learning: Google Images can show the true origin of a photo
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Get out of your bubble
Social media encourages us to stay inside our own bubble, a safe space inhabited by our friends and those who think like we do. The trouble with this is that it encourages you to only look at one side of the story, and to seek only that evidence that supports your own belief systems. This is a well-known phenomenon called Confirmation Bias.
To try and minimise this effect, I used to take The Telegraph and The Guardian newspapers and I still try and read any news story twice, once from each political perspective, to gain a more balanced view of events.
Learning: listen to both sides before committing to an opinion
James O’Brien, the LBC radio host, has a devastatingly simple technique for exposing idiocy. All he does is to ask straightforward questions about the subject. For Brexiteers who claim, for example, that Brexit will remove red tape he asks them what rules and regulations that have affected them they would like to see removed. It is almost 100% effective in demonstrating that most people’s views are held on an emotional rather than an intellectual level.
Of course, studies show that it is almost impossible to change someone’s opinion with facts and some studies even seem to show that the very act of attempting to do so might harden a person’s stance. But staying calm and composed and asking straightforward questions is a neat trick that ensures that you don’t waste your time arguing with idiots who don’t understand what they’re saying…
Learning: Ask questions
Of course, politicians have always lied and history has always been written by the winners but it is fair to say that we have never experienced a time in which the immediacy and reach of social media means that history can be so rapidly and decisively changed by what is written and said. This means it has never been more important to train ourselves to become more discerning in our consumption of news and information.