The 2019 UK election campaign has been particularly dispiriting for anyone who cares about the truth. Even established parties have proven they are not above using tricks to manipulate the news. Meanwhile, politicians are quick to shout “fake news” about anything they disagree with, even accurate stories.
The Conservative Party kicked things off by doctoring a Keir Starmer interview to make him appear to refuse to answer questions. Then a prankster gained thousands of views with a photoshopped Daily Mirror page claiming Jo Swinson shot squirrels for fun.
A tweet by a now-suspended account launched the fake squirrel story, getting less than a thousand shares. But a screenshot was shared on Facebook, where it went viral. Someone else added the story to the semi-professional Medium site, where it was widely shared before being taken down.
Some of this may seem trivial or nonsensical, but even the silliest stories skew the discussion away from rational debate. Jo Swinson was forced to deny shooting squirrels in a television interview, even as the shares racked up across Facebook.
At the other end of the technological spectrum, an astonishingly realistic video by Future Advocacy used an impressionist voiceover artist and real, doctored videos to show Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn endorsing each other as prime minister.
Such fakes are not illegal, although Future Advocacy believes they should be, and some American legislators have moved to ban them in the run up to an election.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives exploited the public’s desire to try and sort fakes from facts by rebranding their press office Twitter account as “UK Factcheck”, mimicking the established independent FullFact.
So, with so much officially sanctioned and well created misleading content there is out there, how can you tell if an online story is actually true?
One simple thing to start with is to ask who the original poster is. Does this person have a history of unusual claims or perhaps this seems to be a newly created profile? Is the website hosting the content slightly unusual, perhaps ending with something other than the standard .co.uk or .com?
Next, look beyond the outrageous headline and read the whole story. The headline can never give the full picture and may just be clickbait. Check all the content. Are there misspellings or poor grammar? Click through on the links in the story – do they back it up?
If pictures are involved, they can be searched for using reverse image search to find the original picture. Does it appear on any reputable site?
Don’t be distracted by official-looking forms or trademarks. Research shows blind people are better at spotting scams because they are not distracted by logos.
How often do you actually check?
All these things are relatively easy to check. But most readers only make these checks if they already suspect the story isn’t true. And herein lies the real problem, not with technological wizardry but confirmation bias – not on your computer but inside your head.
First, study after study shows most people are far more likely to select stories to read that are consistent with their pre-existing beliefs. Reading these stories then entrenches their beliefs further. If a story feeds into an existing set of beliefs, it is far more likely to be accepted without questioning.
To go back to our first example, if you already believe Labour politicians never give a straight answer, you are more likely to click on a doctored video of Keir Starmer looking stumped, headlined “Labour has no plan for Brexit”.
You are more likely to believe it, without considering the source. It is then used as evidence of your original belief, strengthening your view that Labour politicians are untrustworthy.
This matters because it leads to more extreme and entrenched beliefs. Hillary Clinton is not just a politician whom you wouldn’t care to vote for – she is a criminal who should be locked up (or so many Donald Trump supporters believe).
What can be done about this? Interestingly, research suggests making news slightly harder to understand may make readers less extreme. This seems to be because readers have to pay closer attention to a “disfluent” text. In engaging their brains, they make better judgements about the content – but the effect only works if the readers are not trying to multitask.
But as websites compete for eyes, few businesses would try to make their content slightly too hard for their readers.
In the end, the best advice may be to stick to reputable news providers, such as the BBC or the Times. For all their faults, they at least have trained, named, accountable professionals with a commitment to honest journalism.