Tips from professional
fact checkers

magnifying-glass-1607160_960_720IT’S NO LONGER NEWS that fake news is constantly in the news. Nor is it news that fake news purveyors have turned the term on its head, applying it to verified facts when they happen to prove inconvenient, or to attract larger audiences in order to increase advertising revenues. 

If the fake news phenomenon was ever a mere curiosity, it is no longer. Fake news had the power to send a man from Salisbury, NC, to a Washington DC pizzeria where he discharged three shots from a rifle. The good news is that no one was killed or wounded. The bad is that there’s no telling the next incident—or tragedy—that fake news may catalyze. 

Fake news isn’t limited to politics or, for that matter, restaurants. Last year the Financial Times reported that the financial-oriented SeekingAlpha.com unwittingly published an embellished if not false report that boosted ImmunoCellular Therapeutics’s stock prices. It was later revealed that ImmunoCellular had “indirectly” paid for the article. Not only that:

The article was one of at least 200 that appeared without appropriate disclosure of payment on the Seeking Alpha website between August 2011 and March 2014, according to the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

Fake news and banks

About the same time, this appeared in American Banker:

… When an Associated Press Twitter account announced to the world that the White House was under attack … [the] Dow declined by 150 points and several billion dollars of market value was wiped out in a few seconds. It turns out the AP’s Twitter account had been hacked, but the damage was done. This was not a scenario that was predicted but now it [is] one [that] firms cannot choose to ignore.

Not all fake news is deliberate or malicious. It can arise from misunderstandings. This summer UgBusiness.com reported an incident in which timing and misreporting created a false impression with regard to the stability of DFCU Bank in Uganda:

As the DFCU episode shows, this is a genuine concern; DFCU is the second largest Ugandan bank, but many people were doubting its stability at the height of the stories.

Whether by design or misunderstanding, fake news has the potential to inflict serious harm on any organization, including financial institutions. Plummeting stock values or even a run may be only as far away as the next disgruntled client or employee, or misinformed or uninformed reporter whose tweet or Facebook comment goes viral.

The problem might be lesser were the general public not so … well, human.

We humans, it seems, tend to believe what we hear. We grow up taking advice from elders and other authority figures, and it usually works to our good. Any child who has once burned a finger takes at face value “Don’t touch—hot!” and is better off for it. Moreover, if you happen to be a good person who tells the truth (except, perhaps, when asked questions like “What would you say is your greatest weakness?”), you’re prone to imagine others will be equally truthful. 

That which we hear repeatedly tends to sink in as fact. Ever heard that crime increases under a full moon? That’s easy to believe; we hear it often enough; but it isn’t so. Police officers who believe it have succumbed to hindsight bias. Likewise, someone who has heard often enough that a certain bank has problems is more likely to believe rumors about an alleged forthcoming run.

Another reason we readily believe what we hear or read is that we’re smart enough to find shortcuts. If we researched every claim, we’d never get anything done; so when something sounds reasonable or fits our worldview, we tend to accept it. 

How fact-checkers check facts

A recent issue of TIME magazine devoted four pages to fake news and what to do about it. One study, it reported, found … 

… that 6 in 10 links get retweeted without users’ reading anything besides someone else’s summation of it …

Another [study] found that false stories travel six times as fast as true ones on Twitter, apparently because lies do a better job of stimulating feelings of surprise and disgust.

The article gave considerable ink to Stanford University psychologist Stan Wineburg’s research into precautions that professional fact-checkers take to avoid being duped. I’d say the good news is that their techniques are things that any of us can do. The bad news? Most people don’t or won’t bother. 

For instance, one simple technique that professional fact checkers rely on before forwarding an article or commenting on it is that they actually read it. Yet incredibly,

… One study found that 6 in 10 links get retweeted without users’ reading anything besides someone else’s summation of it.

Other fact-checker techniques within easy reach

Again quoting TIME:

Fact-checkers … almost immediately left the site and started opening new tabs to see what the wider web had to say about the organization  …

… Fact-checkers not only zipped to additional sources, but also laid their references side by side, to better keep their bearings.

… They would scan a whole page of search results—maybe even two—before choosing a path forward … This is important, because people or organizations with an agenda can game search results by packing their sites with keywords, so that those sites rise to the top and more objective assessments get buried.

The lessons they’ve developed include such techniques and teach kids to always start with the same question: Who is behind the information?

So far, artificial intelligence hasn’t proved itself terribly useful when it comes to identifying fake news. If it ever will, which is in question, we humans in the meantime must shoulder the responsibility. Else, we increasingly face a world in which no one will know what to believe.

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