‘Fake news’: debunking myths in the media

In a world dominated by the media, we are faced with the task of untangling a web of ‘fake news’ that is presented as fact. Despite a lack of clarity around the prevalence of misinformation in the media, it is prevalent enough for the Cambridge Dictionary to accept ‘fake news’ into its publications[1] and for society to accept it into its own vocabulary. From miracle cures for cancer to false claims about what is in our food, the spread of misinformation about science is dangerous.

What types of unreliable information are there?

Misinformation is the unintentional spread of inaccurate information, when the writer believes that the information is the truth, for example, if the writer accidentally uses outdated statistics. Meanwhile, disinformation is the intentional crafting of a story in accordance with a particular opinion or with the intent to mislead, such as clickbait and biased content[2].

Clickbait articles are probably the most common form of poor journalism. These articles use short, intriguing titles to catch your eye and either intend to mislead or sensationalise the truth. For example, Mother Jones, an American news organisation, published an article titled ‘The Scary New Science That Shows Milk Is Bad for You[3]’ which went on to explain that adults do not need as much calcium as children and therefore not as much milk. The risks of milk were then documented using inconclusive studies which attempted to find a link between dairy products and prostate cancer.

The news is often biased, either politically or commercially. Many journalists choose to present research in a way that agrees with their political beliefs. For example, climate change deniers often write with the intention of undermining the integrity of climate research, such as the 2002 article in the Jerusalem Post[4] which claims that evidence for climate change lies on ‘thin empirical foundations’. Companies may also hire journalists to cherry-pick the good data and use this to promote their products without publishing anything about the possible drawbacks of their products.

Why do we believe fake news?

Articles and posts are written with the aim of gaining a large audience – either to gain popularity or make money – so many writers use clickbait titles and sensationalist messages in order to entice readers. This means that people are generally the victim of bad science and are not to blame for falling for targeted titles. 

Computer scientists from the KU Leuven in Belgium[5] explain that humans are subject to confirmation bias – a phenomenon where people tend to find and interpret information in a way that satisfies something that they already believe in. This creates something known as an echo chamber, where people surround themselves with things and people that agree with them, meaning that they have a limited perspective. For example, a person that does not agree with vaccination (‘anti-vaxxers’) may have friends and organisations on social media that share ‘anti-vax’ posts which seem to confirm their belief that vaccination is dangerous, despite some of the information being inaccurate or fabricated.

How can we check that something is good science?

It is easy to read an article at face value and trust that it is telling you the truth; we are all vulnerable to this. However, it is important for us to be critical of what we read so that we can make a decision about what it means and how it might affect us. Here are a few tips about how to dig deeper into articles that you may come across:

1. Read the whole article. Don’t take the title or the first few lines as the whole truth; these are usually designed to draw your attention and capture your imagination. The full story may be revealed later in the piece. This will help you to make the decision whether to question the integrity of the science.

2. Check who wrote the article. Ask yourself whether the writer is qualified to write about this topic and whether they have any affiliation with the companies or industry they have written about. If a writer is working for a company then they are likely to write in favour of the company and their products/service.

3. Check the information. Determine whether the information is based on opinions rather than science – are there statistics or graphs? Or is it based on the writer’s viewpoint? Opinions can be useful if they are based in evidence and given by people qualified in that area but be aware that these opinions can still be vulnerable to biases.

4. Check the sources. A good scientific article will refer to more than one source of information in order to show that the information is repeatable. These sources should also be reliable, ideally published in a peer-reviewed journal. This means that other scientists have scrutinised the information and verified that it is reliable. Such journals include The Lancet and Nature, but a quick Google search of any journal name will let you see whether a journal is peer-reviewed and therefore reputable.

5. Check the quality. Reputable publications have high standards of grammar so there should not be spelling mistakes or peculiar use of punctuation.

6. Check the date. To be sure that data is reliable, it should be current. Ensure that you check when the articles and sources were written, if they are more than a couple of years old then you can’t be sure that the situation is still the same.

7. Ask a professional. Over the past few years, fact checkers have begun to emerge with the intention to combat misinformation and disinformation. For example, the UK’s independent fact checker Full Fact (available at www.fullfact.org) will allow you to check whether the article is accurate.

These tips have been written aimed at checking news articles, but the same principles can be applied to videos and social media posts too. Although these tips may seem time consuming, simply having an awareness of the spread of inaccurate information arms you with the ability to be critical and question the continuous onslaught of media that we tend to receive on a daily basis. 

This article was written by Scott Rutherford on behalf of LIVE with Scientists.


[1] Cambridge Dictionary, 2020. ‘Fake news’. Cambridge University Press. Available from: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/fake-news.

[2] European Commission Media Convergence and Social Media Team, 2019. ‘Tackling online disinformation’. Available from: https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/tackling-online-disinformation (accessed on 29/03/2020).

[3] J Harkinson, 2015. ‘The Scary New Science That Shows Milk Is Bad for You’. Mother Jones. Available from: https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2015/11/dairy-industry-milk-federal-dietary-guidelines/.

[4] Stephens B, 2002. “It’s curtains for global warming”, Jerusalem Post (p16). Available from: http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/A/JPArticle/Full&cid=1023716562436 [redacted].

[5] C Thornhill et al, 2019, ‘A Digital Nudge to Counter Confirmation Bias’, Frontiers in Big Data. Department of Computer Science, KU Leuven. Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fdata.2019.00011/full#h3.

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