In his farewell speech, President Obama reminded us that "democracy needs you." This is not hyperbole, at its best, democracy is about the people. Democracy's roots are in highly participatory forms of government and the representative systems of today's nation states distance us from our governments, so we depend on the press to keep us informed.
Attempts to mislead and deceive us have been around as long as there has been press and restricting free speech in an attempt to fix this just further damages democracy. That said, people who choose to be active and informed citizens face a daunting task navigating today's complex media ecosystem. How can you tell what's real, fake or just sloppy reporting?
Those of us who write and do research have to be very careful with our sources or risk our reputations. Not everyone has the time to research every new source, nor is it such a good idea to rely on just a few that we think are trustworthy. If you spend any time at all on Facebook, Twitter or other social media, you are bombarded with stories that come from all over the place. While it is nice to have so much information so readily available, not all of it is equally worthy of your trust and possibly a share.
Newspaper editors and the like are no longer the only gatekeepers: we are. So, let's start by agreeing to stop sharing articles based on just a headline. Let's make a pledge to only share articles that we've read all the way through -- can we do that?
So, go ahead and read the article, then take a deep breath and ask the following questions:
1. Who is the author? What qualifies this person to write about the given topic? Now, if there's no byline and you're not reading The Economist, then that should raise your eyebrows. More often, however, there will be a name and you should check them out. For example, do you know me? What makes me qualified to write this article? Being published in The Huffington Post means that it had to pass the muster with some very demanding editors. But had you come across this article on my personal website, how would you have known if you could trust it or me?
A good place to start is the "about" page or biography (here's mine), which should explain the writer's qualifications. There are generally three ways people who write about politics become qualified to do so: by writing a lot, usually as a journalist; by collecting up a university degrees, usually becoming a professor; by working in the field professionally, usually in government or campaigns; or a combination of the three. There are also celebrities who get published just because they have a big name and an even bigger mouth--be wary of them.
Still feeling squeamish? Then Google them. You should find other publications, perhaps a LinkedIn page and Wikipedia might provide some insight as well. A strong Twitter following might indicate credibility, but not if they are following as many people as are following them.
2. Who is the publisher? This is pretty easy when it's a well-known media outlet, but even there, there are big difference in how the media is covering the news. But if it is indeed a well-known newspaper, then there are usually some editors and fact checkers looking over anything before it goes live. More problematic are the websites we just don't know anything about. This doesn't mean we have to write them off completely, in fact, you might just discover a fabulous news source. But again, let's start with their "about" page to find out who they are and who owns them. If that information isn't forthright, you can check who owns the domain here: http://www.whois.sc/. In fact, the domain suffix might give you a little more information as well. As with authors, if you're having trouble finding this information within the website, then Google them, take a look at their Wikipedia page if there is one.
3. How is this publication or website financed? In their classic 1988 book Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman built the argument that institutional structure effects outcomes. Their research was focused on the corporate news, which are businesses that make a profit from the news primarily through advertising, and their conclusion was that this has a profound effect on the content they produce. But besides corporate media, there are also state-run and independent (mostly not-for-profit) media, both with their own set of strengths and weaknesses. Other sources of news and analysis include think tanks, non-governmental organizations and international institutions such as the UN. So, it is important to know who is funding this content and what their objectives are. Information about the transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP) within the European Commission Trade website looks quite different from what Greenpeace or Politico.eu are publishing, but they all have very different aims for this content and taken together, can give you a much bigger perspective on the topic.
A few more basic questions about the look, feel and purpose of the content:
4. Who is the audience? This is going to give you a better idea of why they are reporting what the are reporting as well as how they are reporting it. Is this aimed at a certain age group, education level, professional sector or group of activists?
5. How well is it written? Is the text full of grammar and spelling errors? This indicates that it didn't go through a proper editorial process and if they can't get the language right, then it's difficult to believe they got the facts straight.
6. When was this information published? If there's no date, we have a serious problem since it's critical to know exactly when something was published.
7. Do they provide their sources? Links make this very easy and simple to do, so if an online publication or website isn't being transparent about where their information is coming from then that is good cause to question their work.
And finally, the really big questions:
8. Is this information credible? This is, of course, the underlying question. Forget about objective or unbiassed--that doesn't exist. But was there an honest attempt to get the facts straight? Linking to sources is one way to do check up on this but if they don't do that, then what? Whether you are doubting the veracity of a story or you're just especially interested in the topic, there's nothing like taking a look at how it has been covered in the different press. In fact, political communication courses often assign a comparative content analysis where students follow the same story through two or more news organizations or follow two or more news organizations for a period time to see what they cover, what they don't and how. The results are eye-opening, yet not always consistent with what what you might expect.
9. Does it sound too good (or too horrible) to be true? This is where we all need to be completely honest with ourselves. You know what appeals to your own political leanings, so, trust your instinct and if this information supports your views or is a spectacular take down of all that you oppose, then proceed with caution. A lot of this click-bait has no regard for the truth, it's just someone trying to make a buck. The latest one I've caught on Facebook was a list titled "the federal week in review" with all the terrible things that President-elect Trump had done. It's very tempting to share this list to show my friends what a jerk he really is, but then number one caught my eye: "Trump fires all Ambassadors and Special Envoys, ordering them out by inauguration day." Well, I know full well that it's common for politically-appointed ambassadors to resign from their posts on Inauguration Day, so I checked the story out further and found that, of course, this assertion just wasn't true. A great place to check these sorts of stories is Snopes.com, which indeed has an entry that addresses the issue of Trump's supposed firing of all ambassadors. Another useful truth-finding website is Factcheck.org.
And don't think that this is just a U.S. phenomenon, fake news is spreading in Europe as well. In December, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called on the social media to do more to combat fake news. Also, an analysis by BuzzFeed news analysis showed that Angela Merkel has become the target of "hyperpartisan sites and Facebook pages" that are publishing fake news and conspiracy theories about her in both English and German, including yournewswire.com (in English), anonymousnews.ru (in German) and AWDNews.com (in English, French, German and Spanish).
Democracy really does need you and if you care at all about democracy, then you will care about being truthfully informed. In the end, it all comes down to reading with a critical eye and a keeping steady hand with the share button. Just like democracy itself, being a a good citizen is hard and messy work. We can't be on top of every last detail and event. But we can make an honest effort to be informed.
A version of this article in Spanish was originally published on EsGlobal.