We’re in a new era in which exaggerated, misconstrued and sometimes completely false news stories exist. It’s also one in which the president of the United States refers to credible media outlets as “fake news” when they report things he doesn’t like, and members of his administration attempt to get away with lying by saying they’re presenting “alternative facts.”
In this environment, it’s difficult to know what’s actually true unless you’re an expert in the subject. Numbers and data can be particularly deceiving ― especially when they’re misused.
But there’s hope! It’s not always easy, but here are a few steps you can take to make sure you don’t fall for blatantly false claims.
Verify that the data or study cited exists. This should be common sense, yes. But in the era of “fake news” (actual “fake news,” not just news that President Donald Trump doesn’t like and calls fake), you do need to start here. If the news article you’re reading doesn’t link back to a source for the data or study, you should stop reading. This poll report from Sputnik News is a good example of this bad behavior: The article never says where the poll came from, nor does it link to a source. Without that sourcing, you shouldn’t believe that it exists.
One of Trump’s key complaints in his first days in office was that his victory was undermined by millions of noncitizens voting in the election. And he even claims to have some data and studies to back that up, making it sound credible. But one of Trump’s named sources, Gregg Phillips, still hasn’t produced that evidence, so the claim shouldn’t be considered valid.
Once you’ve verified that the data or the study actually exists, the next thing to find out is where the information came from. For example, reports from partisan sources, academic research projects and official government statistics all come with different agendas. There’s always an agenda. With nonpartisan or academic sources, it’s usually just to do the research. Partisan sources should be viewed with skepticism, especially if the findings offer much-needed support for a policy for which they’re advocating.
Relatedly, you should ask if the purpose of reporting particular information is to advance an agenda or simply to provide an interesting finding relevant to current events. When Trump brings up an academic study on noncitizens voting, that’s not a neutral, FYI-type of reference. He’s talking about it to advance his agenda. That doesn’t mean the study is invalid, but it does mean you should make sure he’s using the information correctly. Which leads to the next issue.
If there’s a controversy about how the study or the data are being used, be very cautious. Let’s use the example of Trump’s illegal voting claims again: The academic study that gets cited as evidence is actually pretty controversial. It rests on a very small number of poll respondents who might have simply selected the wrong button in an online survey. Some academics claim to have debunked the study altogether. But even the original study’s lead author says the Trump camp is misusing it. All of that means that claims based on that study, or any study with such controversy surrounding it, should be viewed very skeptically.
The next question you should ask is whether the report’s claims make sense. That doesn’t mean you should just ask yourself if you agree with the findings. That isn’t relevant to whether they are true ― data and large-scale studies allow us to find out things about the world beyond our own experience, so naturally some results will differ from your assumptions about what they should be. What is relevant is that the conclusions drawn are logically supported by the information provided. If you don’t understand where a conclusion came from, ask questions and be skeptical.
Finally, every data-related report should have a discussion of shortcomings, complications and how certain the authors are of the findings. It’s extremely rare that a single analysis would show a definitive conclusion without any room for question, and that needs to be acknowledged. If an author seems to claim that their conclusion is the only possible interpretation of the data, be skeptical of that claim.
In short: Question everything and use multiple sources. But keep in mind that something isn’t automatically “fake news” just because you disagree with it. It means you need to investigate the issue more and decide for yourself what to believe based on as much information as you can gather.
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