Fake news: how to cut through the crap in a post-truth world

How do you find the facts in an era of fake news, spin and digital noise? BBC Washington correspondent Kim Ghattas investigates

In his final presidential press conference before leaving office, Barack Obama addressed the press about their role in holding politicians to account.  ‘You’re not meant to be sycophants, you’re supposed to be sceptics,’ he said. ‘And having you in this building has helped this place work better… America needs you and our democracy needs you.’ His words couldn’t be more different from Donald Trump’s actions who, in the same week, refused to answer a CNN reporter’s question during his own press conference, dismissing the network as ‘fake news’.

Today ‘fake news’ is a convenient term to disregard a news story or organisation because you don’t like it. Without free press, a government can make up news and present it as fact with no one to challenge them.

Growing up during the civil war in Lebanon, cowering in a hallway during hours of shelling is what made me want to become a journalist. I wanted to get the facts , so I could explain to the world why they should care about what was happening to my country. When you can make sense of the turmoil around you, you feel less helpless.

Today, after covering elections, wars, assassinations and uprisings, I live and work in peaceful Washington DC, but the onslaught of information – real, fake and ‘alternative facts’ – can feel like total chaos.

Fake news is exactly what the term implies: a fabricated story meant to mislead. Alarmist headlines in the tabloids about a flood of immigrants into the UK ahead of the Brexit vote were factually incorrect and deeply misleading. In response to the current climate, the BBC has set up a desk committed to spotting fake news stories, while Channel 4 showed a week of programmes dedicated to the subject.

In a world of non-stop Twitter updates, Facebook lives, YouTube and new news sites, it’s hard to find the truth amongst the noise. You may worry about politicians and corporations lying, but the real danger may be an overload of information to the point that everything becomes a distraction. Consider how many tweets, Instagram pictures and Facebook posts you may have checked while reading this article.

So, how can we find the truth in a post-truth era? Read, listen, think and keep asking questions, because as philosopher Francis Bacon said: ‘Knowledge itself is power.’

The truth is out there. Here’s how to find it

1  Subscribe to one reputable newspaper or magazine that is known for reliable, factually correct news. Browsing a publication from cover to cover gives an overview of the world and helps you to understand how everything is connected.

2  If you can’t afford a subscription, try the app Blendle – the iTunes of newspapers where you can buy articles per piece.

3  Use common sense: if the headline is too incredible to believe, it probably is.

4  Adopt journalistic reflexes: check different sources for a story online. If no established news organisation is running it, it’s not real.

5  Stop the spread of fake news: don’t post a story just because it has a catchy headline.

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