America has a “truthiness” problem. This has been in evidence for several years, which explains why TV host Stephen Colbert deemed “truthiness” the word of the year way back in 2006, defining it as “The belief in what you feel to be true, rather than what the facts will support.”
This is perilously close to the Oxford Dictionaries definition for “post-truth,” which editors recently deemed the word of the year for 2016. But regardless of who first identified a situation that is damaging to our democracy, the threat is a treacherous and growing one.
Consider: According to a study by Craig Silverman of BuzzFeed, the 20 most prominent fake news stories on Facebook were shared more frequently than the 20 most prominent legitimate news stories during the three months leading up to the elections.
And consider: Paul Horner, an Internet gadfly, recently detailed how he creates fake news stories out of whole cloth and how those stories garner a shocking amount of traction.
And consider: Mike Caulfield of Washington State University Vancouver recently explained that “newspapers” such as the Baltimore Gazette and Denver Guardian are “fake ‘papers’ that were created purely to derive ad views from people looking for invented Clinton conspiracies.”
Among some of the conspiracies that made the rounds during the election were fabricated stories about an FBI whistleblower being murdered and about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump for president. These stories were about as authentic as a $3 bill, but that didn’t stop thousands of people from passing them along, just as others shared a fabricated quote in which Trump supposedly said he would run as a Republican because, “They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country.”
All of this is the result of ideological silos into which Americans increasingly retreat, preferring to believe “news” that reinforces preconceived beliefs rather than seeking the truth. All of this plays into a mantra that Trump often repeated about the mainstream media being untrustworthy — even while he and members of his family repeated stories that were easily debunked as being entirely fabricated.
The debunking is not all that difficult. While discerning truthful news stories from made-up ones is a relatively new task created by the rise of social media, there are ways in which to determine the veracity of a report. Among the questions to ask, as suggested in a recent CNN story about how to spot fake news: Does the article cite primary sources? Does the story feature quotes, and are they traceable? Is it the only outlet reporting the story? Has it been debunked by a reputable fact-checking organization?
Snopes.com and Politifact.com are among the reliable fact-checking outlets, and there even is an International Fact-Checking Network designed to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to news stories. Despite the beating the media has taken from Trump and his acolytes, if a story appears in the New York Times or The Seattle Times or, yes, The Columbian, it is more believable than if it appears on, say, the Denver Gazette. If reputable news outlets knowingly publish a fabricated story, somebody gets fired; if the Denver Gazette does it, somebody gets a bonus for increased Web hits.
But perhaps the most important question to ask is: Do you think this story is true, or do you simply wish it to be true? That is the first step to determining truth from truthiness.