Living in a world of fake news and deepfakes

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If we are active participants in the sharing of information and content, which we have readily become by engaging on social media and using the internet, we should really also:

1. Know ourselves, first

I find it difficult to engage meaningfully with content on any channel when I don’t acknowledge upfront what my own biases are and what usually triggers them. If the author/publisher is deliberately trying to evoke emotions, I am less inclined to engage now, because I know an emotional appeal or information presented in an inflammatory way often hides fake news, and I suspect the same will be true for deep fakes.

NB: Don’t bother reading the rest of this post if you don’t have an intimate understanding of your own belief system, biases, ethics, values, political inclination, etc.

2. Identify and confirm sources

The proliferation of fake news and (soon) deep fakes, especially using online and social media channels, means that when content goes viral, tracing its origin is often difficult. If we want to play – or indeed be, learn, work – in this space, it is our responsibility to find the originating (first) source, confirm its existence and identity, and understand its agenda/mission/purpose, so that you can critically evaluate the source’s independence and credibility.

I have learnt that if you cannot identify the original source with relative ease, the story is probably not worth your attention, and until you have identified the original source, you should probably not be sharing the content, for many reasons, including preserving your own ethical or moral code, honouring your good conscience, keeping your own biases in check, and avoiding legal risk and liability.

To help you decide whether to share information or not, Mike Stopforth, Director of Beyond Binary, created a (somewhat tongue in cheek) simple flowchart. Click here  for an article about Mike’s flowchart by the Good Things Guy, or here for Ewan McPhail’s application of the flowchart, to guide you through the process.

3. Critically analyse content

The spread of opinions and perspectives under the guise of news has been facilitated by access to and the use of social media as a news source by the general public and even some audiences who should know better. Independent, credible news sources also post information online and via social media, but anyone can use these channels to share their ill-informed, biased opinions, even if such opinions are void of observational evidence.

Being a gullible dupe who believes everything that is online or that takes a random stranger’s opinion as the gospel truth has never been my thing and shouldn’t be anyone’s choice. In addition to identifying the original source, also find out when information was collected and when content was originally published. Find out what experts say or think about the content, independently from the source of the content you are engaging with. If the information is not well presented, for example, poor editing and informal style, then it is probably opinion, rather than news – you don’t have to be a grammar Nazi, but at least realise that you are reading someone’s opinion and not substantiated news. And hone your ‘absurditometer’: know the difference between news, opinion, satire, and the downright bizarre and absurd. Common sense should become common again.

It is increasingly important to corroborate content. This does not mean finding all the re-posts and shares or declaring the content true based on the volume of these. It means finding at least two (preferably three) original, independent, credible sources that observed the same thing, first-hand. The corroboration of content is something that any journalist worth their salt does before publishing anything, and if you are going to share content, you should know how to corroborate it.

4. Become discerning news source selectors

There is nothing wrong with limiting your news intake to sources that you have investigated and found to be independent and credible. In fact, it is healthy to look after your sanity by not accessing sources (or even channels) that have been proven to publish fake news, distribute deep fakes, and facilitate personal attacks and online abuse. And who wants to waste their valuable time and energy doing that, anyway?

As an active participant in online and social media channels, I find my engagement is more constructive and healthier when I define the purpose of my engagement, before engaging. I try not to mix purposes, even though the content on offer is mixed. For example, when I access Instagram, I only follow a) friends or b) accounts that post visually pleasing materials. So, my purpose for Instagram is to see what friends are up to, and to see beautiful photos. Anything else, I simply scroll over.

I find the following useful and healthy:

  • Make a list of the topics that interest you – for work, personal development, your family life, active citizenship, politics, hobbies, sport, local and global news… anything that you would like to engage with and be informed about.
  • Find up to five independent, credible sources of information that you can access, and that has a reputation for publishing good quality, verified information, for each of ‘your’ topics. You can choose most of these sources because they share content that you are comfortable with, but at least a third must challenge your ethics, belief system, biases, values, political inclinations, favourite teams, etc. Note that all sources must still be independent and credible.
  • Set aside as much time as you want or have available per day, or per week, to access your list of independent, credible sources for information. It works best if you allocate a specific, regular time slot.
  • Optional: set aside additional time, if you want to, to access other sources for the purpose of connecting with friends, reading for pleasure, and so on.

Public awareness is key. I am using ‘awareness’ loosely, to mean informed and empowered to observe, analyse and think critically, and with unencumbered access to information. Without this, other measures to combat fake news and counteract deep fakes will be mostly ineffective.

Copyright © Leonie Vorster 2020

By Leonie Vorster

Strategist, writer, researcher, and amateur painter, photographer, yoga practitioner and scuba diver, living in South Africa

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