“Hey, Mom, there’s a kangaroo in the bathroom.”
“Really? How did a kangaroo get in there?”
“Well, it’s actually just some kangaroo fur.”
“Well, actually… (*sigh)… It’s my hair.”
That’s how my son went about telling me he had given himself a haircut.
Our children can get pretty creative when sharing “information”. Luckily my intelligence didn’t have to work overtime on that one. I mean, it’s pretty obvious. A kangaroo in the bathroom? Not unless we live in Australia, son, and even then… I would have heard it come in.
It’s the same when we see ridiculous headlines that make no sense. We chuckle, maybe feel a little curious, but it’s not hard to recognize the truth.
Yellow journalism – similar to the term “fake news” – is an age old problem. Newspapers and various media outlets get more attention by being more outlandish and crazy. A kangaroo in the bathroom?? No way! I’ve got to see that! As we respond to the spectacle and the unexpected, it fuels the fire for more twists and spins on stories.
But there’s more to it than that.
News is a powerful tool that can change the tide of an election, direct current events, and influence how we feel about each other. Misinformation can lead to some real problems. When talking to a friend who had helped with a campaign years ago, he mentioned that his candidate lost because people were spreading false rumors about the reasons behind the candidate’s marital status. Those who started the rumors might have known better, but the people who continued to spread the message had no idea the information was false. We can become accomplices without knowing it.
But should we control information to filter out the false and fake?
Having lived in countries that claim to only filter out misinformation, we could have an entire discussion as to the problems of doing that. No, we are going to have to be smarter and wiser at filtering the information ourselves. We might not be completely foolproof, or even rile-proof, but we can follow some general guidelines to help us navigate all the information coming in.
Pause and check the sources. There are some immediate indicators that the information you’re getting might not be entirely accurate. Does it have a tabloid feel? Has the message been forwarded so many times you don’t really know where the information came from? Dig a bit and see if you can figure out whether the information can be verified by several other sources.
Like with my original example with a kangaroo in my bathroom, what was the source? My four-year-old. Eh, not entirely trustworthy yet. That said, here’s one word of caution. Don’t write off every source right away. My children have told me some unbelievable things that have turned out to be true. Considering the source can help us gain perspective, but by checking other sources and researching a bit, we can determine if the information is true… or not.
Does it make sense? Your internal logic will serve you well as long as you don’t feed it too much nonsense. If you find yourself gobbling up every bit of ridiculous news, you might have a “fake news monster” on your hands. Take the time to educate yourself on a variety of issues. You’ll start to get a sense of what is right, what is twisted truth, and what is an obvious falsehood.
A kangaroo in my bathroom, even the kangaroo hair, didn’t make any sense at all. Sometimes the news you receive will be that obvious. Sometimes it won’t.
Understand all sides. When there’s misinformation floating around, it’s hard not to oversimplify and determine that everything coming from a single side is false. When we do that we shut out good information along with the bad. And then we’re only listening to things we want to hear, not broadening our perspective. Take the time to really look at and understand the information from all sides, getting a full panoramic view.
Don’t be too reactionary. This is the most important thing we need to keep in mind. It’s easy to get caught up in certain pieces of information because that’s what they’re designed to do. But if we slow down and find out what’s really going on, we can save ourselves a lot of embarrassment.
There’s another problem. Fake news and false information becomes more “true” the more it gets spread around. This is even true when trying to prove the fake news is fake. Any attention, good or bad, can end up causing damage. If we react too quickly we may unwittingly spread around that misinformation.
Imagine if everyone started talking about the kangaroo in my bathroom, even if just to say how ridiculous it is, or that it’s impossible that a kangaroo could get in there. Eventually some people would start to wonder if perhaps there really might be some truth to it.
Not everything labelled fake news is actually fake news. These days we’re facing new challenges as information gets more and more confusing. Is it fake news or is it perhaps information certain people don’t like? Either way, my rule of thumb is to try to be respectful while I gather more information.
Sifting through information will always be a challenge. Our intelligence has and will always be stretched and tested. But don’t let that stop you from learning, growing, and expanding your horizons.
And don’t let it divide us.