Four Types of News
News comes in many different flavors. That goes for fake news, too. Not all fake news is created equal. If you want to know how to avoid fake news, the first step is figuring out just what in the heck that is. In my view, it's most useful to think about news coming in one of four different buckets.
Information is any content that is true. Accurate information is true content that doesn't bias or skew your view of the world. Accurate information is packaged in such a way that believing it makes you better off: your beliefs about the world are more likely to be true, your understanding of the world is deeper, and the overall picture in your head matches reality more closely.
There is a lot of accurate information in the news ecosystem. For example, take a look at the BBC report on the recent shooting in Indianapolis: "Indianapolis Mass Shooting: Eight Dead at FedEx Facility." The title is truthful and accurate. It let's you know exactly what happened without pulling your political strings in either a conservative or liberal direction. The story itself conveys actual reports from police and witnesses, being careful to hedge comments by saying things like "Police say that eight people have been killed" (instead of simply asserting that eight have been killed) and "The gunman, thought to have been acting alone..." (instead of simply asserting that it was a lone gunman).
The only connection to the political controversy surrounding gun control debates in the US comes at the tail end of the article where the reporter notes that President Biden has introduced some steps that might curb gun violence in the US. Finally, the article ends by putting the deaths in this instance into context with a comparison to total gun deaths in the US this year. This data is bolstered by the only hyperlink in the article, one to a non-profit, non-advocacy, non-partisan research center on gun violence (Gun Violence Archive).
This article is a paradigm of accurate information.
As the label makes clear, misleading information is content that is strictly speaking true but is misleading in important respects. In brief, you can speak truly but deceptively. My kids are masters at this technique.
Me coming down to breakfast in the morning: "Did you kids eat all of the cereal?"
My kids: "No."
Me looking in the box and seeing one square of Captain Crunch nestled in the bottom corner: "What the heck!"
My kids: "See, there's some left. So, technically, we didn't eat all of it."
OK, granted, my kids didn't lie to me. What they said was true, strictly speaking. But they pretty clearly deceived me. The lesson is that you can deceive and manipulate while only saying true things.
This kind of deception happens all the time in the news. It's so prevalent, that I can't even scratch the surface of the problem here (but I'll do so in a future post). Instead, let me just give you a quick example of how a news headline can be manipulated to remain true and yet convey a very different sense of reality. Consider these two mock headlines about the tragic Daunte Wright shooting:
White Cop Shoots and Kills Unarmed Black 20-year old Father who was Pulled Over for Expired Plates
Man charged with Aggravated Robbery shot by Respected Policewoman after He Attempts to Flee when Officers Discover his Arrest Warrant
Those headlines give you radically different pictures of the world. Ane yet each is 100% true. That's how information can be misleading.
Misinformation, as you might have guessed, is content that is false. But what makes it misinformation is that it is offered in good faith: the person doing the reporting THINKS that it's true, but actually it's not. Misinformation is a kind of informational mistake.
Last night, my wife asked me whether the Johnson & Johnson vaccine had caused blood clots in men in the US. I told her no. All of the reporting I'd seen was explicit that the complications with blood clots happened only in middle-aged women.
I was wrong.
As it turns out, there was a man who developed a blood clot during a clinical trial before the vaccine was released to the general public. I didn't know that at the time. So, while I didn't lie to my wife, I didn't tell the truth, either. I misinformed her.
Any time a journalist reports things she thinks are true but aren't, that's a case of misinformation. Any time one of your friends posts something on Facebook that she thinks is true but isn't, that's a case of misinformation. And anytime a blogger or Substack writer tells you something he thinks is true but isn't, that's misinformation.
Finally, some false content is created and spread deliberately in order to deceive others. That's disinformation. Like misinformation, it's false. But unlike misinformation, the creators don't believe it. They know it's false and use it anyway in an attempt to manipulate your worldview. It's a flat-out lie.
Everyone who doesn't live under a rock knows about Russian use of disinformation in American elections. But sources of this sort of news content abound, from lone operators with a laptop in the backwoods of Maine to entire towns in Eastern Europe whose main exports are fake news stories (aimed mostly at gullible American audiences).
In all, that gives us four types of news content:
Which of these is fake news? Anything in the last three. Fake news comes in different flavors: it can be true information packaged in a misleading way, false content conveyed unintentionally, or false content shared on purpose. All three distort your view of the world, and so all three are types of fake news.
Which of the types of fake news is most prevalent? That's hard to say (because it's a big question). But here's an educated guess: most of the fake news coming from for-profit news companies is misleading information. Places like Fox News and MSNBC rarely run stories that are out-and-out false. It's easier (and less likely to invite defamation suits) to tilt the truth in deceptive ways.
On the other hand, the fake news coming over your social media feed is more likely to be misinformation. Your next door neighbor won't be an expert on very much, so most of the stories she likes and forwards are things she really believes even though she's in no position to confirm whether they are true.
In either case, being aware of HOW content can be false is the first step to consuming the news more responsibly.