How not to be fooled by propaganda and fake news after a tragedy

We live in a world where propaganda, disinformation, and fake news recently corrupted a major election in America. Did you think it stopped being a problem in recent months because we’re aware of it now? Think again. Just yesterday in the wake of the Mandalay Bay tragedy fake news and propaganda were coming up as the number one search result on Google, being giving prominent placement in the Facebook “Safety Check” for the event, and dominating Twitter thanks to legions of trolls from 4chan and bots from (likely) Russia. It’s never been more important to understand media literacy, and fast.

On[The Media] Media Literacy Chart (original)

These two charts do a great job of teaching you how to quickly hone in on fake news after any tragedy, and also after a tragedy that could be terrorism, which brings out its own brand of propaganda.


On[The Media] Media Literacy Chart (terrorist act version)

Sadly, mainstream media often supports misinformation by using language that drives negative bias toward people of color and positive bias toward white people, even though facts exist such as: the majority of mass shooting are perpetrated by white males. By calling people of color thugs, terrorists, gangsters and worse, and by using photos and facts about a suspect that dehumanizes them, media propagate the stereo type of people of color as criminals and amp up hate toward them, hate crimes directed at them, false arrests, and police shooting unarmed people of color, among other issues. Meanwhile, the coverage of white killers uses normative language like “lone wolf,” “quiet type,” “alleged shooter” and the like, shows candid photos of them living a normal life, and talks about their hobbies. Understanding this bias in the media is part of media literacy as well.

Some people and media outlets say they do this to offer “balance”, but we love this perspective on balance from Dr. James P. Burke:

“Trustworthiness and faithfulness are goals; I don’t believe “unbiased” or “balance” are possible or even worthy goals.

Yes, outlets should avoid motivated partisanship. But every person has a point of view that colors perception. They should not attempt to balance that out; rather, they should attempt to be faithful to how they understand the situation after doing a responsible amount of research into the trustworthiness of their facts.

The idea of balance is used by those in power to assert power because it asserts that even injustice has an opposing view that needs to be heard. A marginalized voice does not need to be balanced by the voices of the powerful. That’s just an example of the bogus assumption behind balance.

Anyhow, those are my two cents. I don’t pretend to be an actual expert on journalism, though. I think these are hard ideas to struggle with, and I try to draw on the epistemology that underlies my own professional work in order to think about what virtues I want to see in reporting. Even if research analysis and journalism are different practices, they do share some commonalities.” ~ Dr. James P. Burke

It’s not just “the media” that perpetuates this bias in reporting and a tendency to believe what confirms your existing beliefs or validates your existing fears. It’s our own unconscious biases as well. Don’t think you have any bias? Before you read another news story, take this test from Harvard’s Project Implicit and see where you might be tripped up by fake news that fits your biases. It looks for several types of bias: gender, race, mental illness, and more.

Above all: check facts, don’t sacrifice accuracy for speed, and treat everything you read, hear, or watch with a grain of salt until it can be verified.

image credit On[TheMedia], Paul Iacono

Have more media literacy tips? Tell us in the comments!