The age of unreason


Coal jobs in Kentucky and West Virginia have nearly quadrupled since the start of Trump’s administration. Environmental regulations that prohibit release of toxic waste have been eliminated and now the coal industry is booming. Power companies plan to build 25 more coal-fired plants across the region in response to the amazing windfalls.
In other news, Donald Trump recently purchased trademarks and manufacturing rights to Girl Scout cookies so he can eat all the cookies he wants, and sell them all year long. In a controversial deal with Girl Scout organization leaders, the president was able to obtain all rights to the cookies, which will soon be renamed Trump cookies. This has caused overwhelming backlash with girls and scouts all across the nation.
What is your immediate reaction to these fabricated news stories? In general, the news often triggers an emotional response, which may be positive or negative.
Our minds instantly react to reading these reports, and a snap judgement is made that is initially based on our world-view paradigm. This is the effect of fake news, and the influence of this phenomenon has far-reaching consequences.
Fake news refers to stories that are complete fabrications created to perpetuate the spread of misinformation, often for the purpose of political or social gain, and to increase advertising revenue. Fake news is not new, as it originated in traditional media, but it is more prolific in this age of viral media and 24-hour news, in which people are easily fooled by articles on Facebook or similar media. Headlines pop into view that conform to the readers’ basic convictions and confirm deeply held beliefs and fears.
Consider the October 30, 1938 War of the Worlds scare, when Orson Welles dramatized an H.G. Wells’ Martian invasion on his radio show and triggered nation-wide panic that the end of the world was near.
Newspaper headlines the following day reported that thousands of terrified citizens begged the police for gas masks, jammed highways in attempts to flee supposed “alien landing-sites” and called the electric company to shut off power so the Martians could not see their lights. Reports of suicides and heart attack deaths occupied front-pages across the nations’ newspapers.
In a maddening twist, this story itself was actually a sensationalized myth, and demonstrated how easily we can be fooled. The event did happen, but the reaction was not nearly as significant as the newspapers reported. Slate indicated that the story evolved from a media campaign to gain advertising dollars by showing that radio broadcasts were not to be trusted as much as newspaper coverage.
What is it that confounds actual facts and leads us down a rabbit-hole of misinformation? Chris Mooney reports in Mother Jones that we are literally fooled by our own brains. Deeply held, life-long beliefs create emotional responses to what we read or hear, activating neurological reactions that confirm or deny these convictions.
Political, social, religious and cultural beliefs form the basis of reactions to media reports. Psychologist Leon Festinger writes, “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”
Basically, what we believe and what we want to believe overshadow our sense of reason, especially on topics that we consider extremely important. Some of this is harmless. Some is extremely damaging. Take the fake Pizzagate story about a satanic child pornography ring that led to a shooting in DC. Innocent people have been permanently harmed by a fraudulent and dangerous fantasy.
Conversely, shouts of fake news are now being thrown around by the president, notable members of Congress and media personalities to discredit actual facts.
For example, Alex Jones’ claim that the massacre of 20 school children and 6 staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT is a hoax, perpetrated by the Obama administration to promote stricter gun control. These false claims led to harassment, death threats and stalking of residents of Newtown who lost their loved ones that day. Yelling the phrase “fake news” does not debunk reality.
Resisting the forces of fabrication that are dividing our nation seems unfeasible. Yet, we are wired to discern truth and reality. The key to moving beyond emotional bias to the discovery of fact is critical thinking. Factcheck provides ways to fight the spread of the fake news virus.
Consider the source. Gazing at papers lining checkout aisles at the supermarket, it is easy to spot fake headlines: “Humans with Rh-negative blood belong to alien lineage,” or “Demon Goat terrifies locals in Argentina!” Yet, when dubious headlines turn up on our news feeds from sites like
ABC.news.co or NBCPolitics.org claiming that “Pope Francis endorses Donald Trump for President,” the untruth is harder to determine. Snopes has compiled a list of fake news sites created over the past two years. Choose to find out which sites are reputable and unbiased, and get your news from those sources.
Read beyond the headlines. Attention-grabbing headlines often make wild claims. Further reading reveals citations from unfounded sources, or quotes from non-existent entities. Avoid being duped with eye-catching captions by reading the full story.
Check the author. Before believing an online article, research who wrote the piece. Some stories provide no byline at all, while others may provide false authors claiming to have won Pulitzer prizes.
Check the sources. When an article cites another source, or provides links within the text, check them. Often the sources are false and unrelated to the article content. Checking the support of claims in the article reveals whether the information is derived from reputable sources.
Check the date. Real articles from the past can resurface as a distortion of present-day news. Fake news sites use old content to support claims of current stories.
Determine satirical works. Sometimes, fake news is meant to be a joke. Some columns are written as satire, while some are obviously meant to fool the public.
Check your biases. Although extremely difficult, attempt to gain a neutral perspective. It may even be helpful to assume the opposite point of view to determine if personal opinions are prohibiting you from finding the truth.
Consult the experts. Sites such as FactCheck.org, Snopes.com, the Washington Post fact checker and PolitiFact.com exist to confirm or debunk the latest news. Take the time to find out if the story you just read is fake or based on fact.
In this age of fake news and alternate facts, vigilance toward pursuit of truth is imperative. We must go beyond yelling “fake news” and focus on reality, pointing out what is true and untrue about what we read and hear. It is time to dig deeply, think critically, and be reasonable.

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