We now have access to so much information and news that it can be difficult to distinguish between real and fake, information and misinformation, and truth and lies.
Let’s take a look at some strategies and methods to spot fake news in English and talk about why non-native speakers especially need to practice this skill!
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- Source (n): A person, place, or thing that provides information, news, or data.
- It’s crucial to verify the credibility of the news source before trusting the information.
- Bias (n): Prejudice in favour of or against one thing, person, or group.
- The journalist’s political bias was clearin the way they presented the election results.
- Reputable (adj): Having a good reputation due to trustworthiness, reliability, and high standards.
- The BBC News is a reputable source known for its quality journalism.
- Misleading (adj): Giving a wrong or inaccurate impression by not providing all the necessary information.
- The headline of the article was misleading because it suggested a story that wasn’t entirely accurate.
- Sensationalize (v): To present information in an exaggerated, dramatic, or emotionally charged way.
- The tabloid newspaper sensationalizes celebrity news to attract more readers.
- Satirical (adj): Using humour, irony, or exaggeration to criticize or mock individuals, institutions, or issues.
- The satirical website, “The Onion,” publishes articles that satirize current events.
- Headline (n): The title of a news article.
- The catchy headlines on social media often draw people’s interest .
- Fact-Checking (n): The process of verifying the accuracy and truthfulness of something.
- Fact-checking websites like Snopes are valuable resources for confirming or debunking rumours.
Ignorance is Bliss?
I often try to picture what life would have been like for a normal person 200 or 300 years ago.
I come from a small village in the English countryside. If I was born in that village hundreds of years ago, it is likely that the majority of my knowledge, experience, and life would have occurred in that one small area.
There was no national education system or schools. No newspapers, mass produced books (many people couldn’t even read), or daily news broadcasts. News, if it spread, spread with people as they travelled between cities and towns.
A famous illustration of this general ignorance of people is in the 1851 book London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew. He interviewed normal working people on the streets of London and while they were hardworking and often skilled in their professions, they had little or no knowledge of science, the world, politics, history, or even of the geography of their own country, England.
Today, with our comprehensive education systems, mass media, and global social networks, we are in the opposite situation to the past.
Too Much News?
Every day we experience an incredible amount of information from around the world being forced into our brains.
I live in Japan, but every morning I read the BBC News from the UK to catch up on news in my home country and around the world, then I check a few Japanese newspapers, and often I’ll read an interesting Economist magazine article.
This instant access to news is a recent thing.
Perhaps more concerning is that I don’t just get my news from reputable and traditional news sources. I also look at Twitter (now rebranded X) and some other social media sites, and get my attention drawn to all of the different and opinionated posts.
I am automatically recommended articles every day by my phone, a Google Pixel, based on what I have been previously searching and reading – this is not ideal as it pushes me to read similar articles to my existing opinion rather than challenge myself.
And I also watch YouTube videos and short documentaries on a variety of topics.
To summarise, I sometimes feel like there is too much information out there. There are hundreds of different sources of information, coming from all kinds of places: university researchers, investigative journalists, tabloid journalists, consultants and self-declared experts, podcasters (like me), people with blue ticks on Twitter, bloggers, influencers, and normal people.
Distinguishing between truth and lies, real and fake, information and disinformation, is a challenge.
Today, I want to look at some key terms that are important to know when dealing with this topic, and give some tips you can take to become more aware and resistant to fake stories.
But first, are non-native speakers better or worse at dealing with fake news stories?
Language Learners and Misinformation
This is an interesting question to consider.
A few weeks ago, in episode 263, I discussed the Foreign Language Effect. Some of the supposed benefits of the foreign language effect are less emotional bias, reduced influence of morals, and better decision-making abilities.
Together, these suggest that people may be better able to resist the attraction of fake news and misinformation.
However, when searching for academic research on this topic the only paper I could find suggested the opposite is true. The paper is titled “People are worse at detecting fake news in their foreign language”, which probably tells you all you need to know.
The researchers discovered “that when using their foreign language, proficient bilinguals discerned true from false news less accurately.” This was the case for both international news and local news, and when using a foreign language false news headlines were always judged to be more believable.
There are many different possibilities for why this happens, and more research is needed on the topic. For native speakers, lack of deliberation and laziness has been connected with belief in false news stories. In other words, if people don’t think about the story in detail, they are more likely to fall into the trap of misinformation.
While research has not been conducted on this yet, it might be reasonable to suggest that deliberation and reasoning is more challenging for non-native speakers.
However, from personal experience I know that there are also cultural issues and challenges when it comes to reading and gathering information in another language.
What is a reputable source in this culture? What are the signs to look out for in headlines and articles that suggest it might be a very biased or incorrect article? How can you tell if something is a joke?
I know these things in English… but not very well in Japanese. The culture of information reporting is very different, which makes it challenging for me as a non-native Japanese speaker.
Overall, as non-native English speakers and English learners who want to read and benefit from all the English language information in the world, you need to be more careful and aware.
One way to be more aware is to understand some of the key terms and vocabulary. If you can understand and comprehend these things, you will be better equipped to deal with them!
You’ve all heard of fake news, I’m sure. It is the favourite catchphrase of Donald Trump and conservative politicians in the US.
Fake news means misleading or false information which is presented as true, real, and legitimate news.
You can split it into two broad categories.
First, there is fake news that is intentionally fabricated, false, or misleading. These stories are often created to deceive or manipulate readers by spreading false information.
Second, there is fake news that contains elements of truth but is taken out of context or manipulated to suit a particular agenda, or it is inaccurate due to the authors incompetence.
Not everyone likes the term fake news. The British Government, for example, banned the term in any official documents. Instead, they advocated for 2 different terms: misinformation and disinformation.
Misinformation is incorrect or misleading information shared without the intent to deliberately mislead. It may result from genuine mistakes, misinterpretations, or the spread of rumours.
While not always intentional, misinformation can still harm by encouraging false beliefs or misconceptions.
Disinformation is similar to misinformation but is deliberately crafted with the purpose of deceiving or manipulating the public.
It is intentionally false information spread to advance a particular agenda, whether political, social, or economic.
When governments or official organisations spread disinformation or misinformation, we often use the term propaganda.
Propaganda is the systematic dissemination of information, ideas, or opinions, often with a bias or agenda, to influence public opinion or behaviour.
In plain English, it is when people deliberately spread information, ideas, or opinions with a particular point of view or goal, usually to change how the public thinks or acts.
Clickbait is content designed to attract clicks or views online by using sensational or misleading headlines, images, or content. While not necessarily fake, clickbait often exaggerates or sensationalizes information to maximize user engagement.
The issue is that while the sensational or clickbait headline might not relate at all to the actual content, many people just read or notice the exaggerated headlines and don’t check the article for the real story.
Deep Fakes and AI
With new technology, deep fakes and artificial intelligence are becoming bigger problems.
Deep fakes are manipulated multimedia content, typically videos or images, created using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning techniques. They convincingly replace a person’s likeness or voice, making it appear as if they are saying or doing things they never did.
Deep fakes pose a serious challenge in discerning genuine content from manipulated or fabricated material.
In recent months, weeks, and days, we have seen the problems and issues that experts, let alone normal people, have in telling the difference between real images and images created or edited with artificial intelligence.
Importantly, this is not super expensive technology. You can use OpenAI’s image generator Dall-E for free to create images and Google’s latest Pixel phones come with AI editing software as part of the package (my old google Pixel 4a already lets me use AI to remove people from the background of photos).
How to Spot Fake News and Misinformation?
Now we’ve talked about why non-native speakers may struggle to notice fake news more than native speakers, and defined some of the key terms related to the topic, how can you spot misinformation?
A useful source I found for this is an infographic from the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) which was based on a 2016 article from FactCheck.org. So I thought I would take their tips and further explain them to all of you listening.
Hopefully they will prove useful!
Where Did You Find the News?
The first thing you need to do when reading an article or watching a video, is to check the source of the news.
What news site is it? What magazine or newspaper? What YouTube channel? Who is the Twitter user?
I think there are two levels to this. The first is whether the source is completely fake or real.
The BBC News, Washington Post, New York Times, and Financial Times, whether or not you like or dislike their approach to news, are all real news providers. They have a staff of professional journalists, produce their own research and stories, and write articles based on evidence.
However, there are sources of information out there which are completely fake. Sites that copy the branding of major news providers to sell products or produce misleading articles. Or satirical websites like the Onion, which openly and deliberately makes fake news articles for comedy reasons.
Second, it is whether or not you trust the real news source. This is often a challenge with your own personal biases. As a university educated, working class, and liberal British person in my twenties, I tend to trust sources like the BBC news, the Guardian newspaper, or the Economist magazine. I don’t usually read The Times or The Spectator, or news sites from the USA, as they are politically quite different from me.
While I may not like the opinion columns in The Times, I still trust the paper from a news reporting standpoint. However, there are newspapers in the UK (including the immensely popular Daily Mail and Daily Express) which I am always sceptical about.
So, think about the source of the article you are reading or video you are watching. Is it published by a reputable organisation, a biased organisation, or a fake organisation?
Read the Whole Article
The next thing to do, is to read the entire article.
I mentioned this earlier when talking about clickbait, but you can’t always trust a headline. Headlines are designed to make you want to read the article – and they sometimes do this by exaggerating, sensationalising, or misleading.
The headline doesn’t tell the full story. Before you believe or trust the information you see in the news source, read the entire article to actually understand what is being said.
Satirical sites in particular, like the Onion, are famous for sharing articles with outrageous headlines onto social media. When you read the article, it is clear it is fake, but if you just look at the headline, you might fall for the trick!
Who is the author of the news?
If you still have suspicions, take a look at the author, writer, or creator of the content.
Are they a real person? What other articles have they written? What are their credentials?
If you take a look at my profile on Thinking in English’s website, for example, you’ll see that I have a teaching qualification, a master’s degree from a top university, and was a research student at a top Japanese university.
All of this is relatively believable and easy to prove. If I had claimed to have Nobel prizes, you can probably assume you can’t trust me.
I see this a lot on Twitter or other social media platforms. You might see someone sharing an article or comment that you find interesting or believable. But have a look at what else they are sharing. There are many social media news sites that share fake news stories or branded news stories for business reasons.
What are the sources in the article?
Articles (including my podcasts) will often quote or paraphrase from other sites. I often say “Research says…” or “according to…”
I try to link to my sources in every transcript… but that is not always enough to trust me (or any other site). Take a look to see if the sources that are being referenced actually support the points being made in the article.
As a student, this is something I always made sure to do. I would spend hours looking through article bibliographies to find original research and make sure I was quoting the truth.
When was the article written?
One of the most common types of fake news in recent years isn’t necessarily completely made up but is a misleading telling of events.
For example, a video that was originally recorded years ago being reshared with a misleading caption that makes the audience believe it is a recent video.
Or an article being misquoted years after it was originally published for political reasons.
So make sure you know when the article you are reading comes from!
Is the article a joke?
I’ve already mentioned this, but always consider whether an article or social media post is a joke (even if it is not a funny joke).
There are satirical articles being written every day. The idea of these articles is to make fun of the news, politicians, and current affairs. But if you are not aware of the source or writer, you may not necessarily realise the article is satirical.
And for non-native speakers, without the cultural context that native speakers have, it can be really difficult to tell if something is trying to be funny or serious. But it is a skill that you should, and need to, develop.
Check your own biases!
This is the most difficult thing, but perhaps the most important.
You are biased. I am biased. We are all biased. It is natural.
We all tend to believe news that confirms and supports our exisiting beliefs. And we tend to not believe news that goes against our beliefs.
I find this in my personal life. If there is an article criticising British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, I naturally believe it because I strongly dislike his politics, policies, and character.
This can make it harder to tell the difference between real and fake news. It is important to take a step back and consider whether the story is believable regardless of your own personal views.
I’m sure you have all seen people in the last few weeks sharing, or criticising, articles, stories, or images without considering if they are real or not. This can be dangerous and lead to you believing lies.
What do the experts say?
And finally, what do the experts in fact checking news stories say? You can search reputable companies online who have made fact checking their business.
Twitter Community Notes is another new fact checking service but is still a little unreliable as it relies on verified Twitter users doing the fact checking themselves rather than professional journalists taking over this role.
If you are unsure about the news story, see what the expert fact checkers are saying about it!
We live in a world of instant information access.
As English learners, navigating fake news, misinformation, and disinformation can be particularly challenging. We’ve discussed the importance of critically assessing the source, reading articles in their entirety, checking the credibility of authors, scrutinizing sources within the article, and considering biases.
The lesson here is simple: be open-minded and discerning about the news you consume. Develop the ability to look through the sea of information, question your own biases, and find the truth.
As English learners, you are not only mastering a language but also enhancing your critical thinking skills. The power to distinguish fact from fiction is a precious skill.
While it is a difficult challenge, I believe you can all improve your ability to resist misinformation!
What do you think? How do you avoid misinformation? What fake news is common in your country?
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