OK, digital denizens, this one’s on you.
The primaries in the U.S. are done next week. The general election lies ahead. You live in a democracy. You need solid information to weigh the issues, the candidates, and to make up your mind.
And you consume a lot of news online.
It’s no secret that we get more of our news, usually in headline form, from social and other online media. There’s been a lot written, debated, and trolled about what’s being done to us through our selected news outlets.
Yet we trust news we consume from online sources less. The national Monmouth University Poll found in a survey released this April that 86 percent of the public believe that online news websites report what they perceive as ‘fake news,’ whether on purpose or accidentally. That percentage is up slightly from a year earlier. A majority though, for the first time, believe online news sources regularly report fake news, rising from 41 percent in 2017 to 52 percent in 2018.
Separately, deep in a June report from the Media Insight Project, its survey takers found while 23 percent of U.S. adults had a negative view of online-only news sites, a higher 45 percent had a negative view of social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter as news sources. Only 18 percent had a positive view of social media platforms for news.
And our snap judgment about what to trust online, frankly, sucks.
Researchers point out that we humans tend toward “the familiarity heuristic,” trusting something more (say, a brand in a grocery store) because it’s familiar to us. So if something in online news, even if it’s just the format of how it’s presented, resembles something we’ve trusted before, we are soft-wired to trust it, too.
It is true that some online outlets are trying to better qualify the quality of news we see, and are tempted to share, on social media. For example, Facebook this year has been public about its efforts, working with fact checkers and taking down fake accounts and pages.
But what can we do for ourselves, individually? Especially with November barreling down on us like a viral cat video?
Or, as I put it to five seasoned digital news media observers and practitioners: If you had to advise someone who is a heavy consumer of news on social or other digital media the one thing they should keep in mind this election season, what would it be?
1. Don’t feel forced to move at the speed of tech.
“I’ve made breaking news my career, and take it from me, just about everything that’s happening RIGHT NOW in the news seems more important than it really is,” said Cory Bergman, co-founder of Seattle-based news startup Factal and earlier co-founder of the popular BreakingNews.com website and app. He sees this “artificial urgency” propelled by push notifications, constantly updated feeds, and #breaking hashtags.
“As humans, we’re drawn to it, and those of us who have worked in news or social media have optimized for it,” Bergman said. So, he advises, consciously counter it.
Bergman suggests, instead of “endlessly refreshing” Facebook or Twitter feeds, visit news websites directly once in the morning and again at night. Other ways to get a less-rushed perspective include signing up for newsletters that summarize the news, or listening to podcasts that wrap up the week.
“By reducing your exposure to RIGHT NOW, you’ll sift out a lot of the noise and give yourself some breathing room,” Bergman said.
2. Click through more.
It’s easy to get excited or outraged about a sensational headline or summary in a social media post and immediately want to believe it.
But Di Zhang, a librarian who teaches Seattle Public Library’s The Fake News Survival Guide class (the class resources are here), recommends taking one more step before making any judgment or taking any action about news online. “Fully read/watch/listen to the content,” Zhang said. “Don’t just share based on a headline or meme.”
That, and considering the source once you do click through, can help you critically and better evaluate information, “rather than passively consume it,” he said.
3. Don’t drink from only one well.
Zhang also says it’s important to search out additional news articles that, as Zhang put it, “support or contradict the claims” and not rely on a single story.
That advice was reinforced by Caley Cook, journalism lecturer at the University of Washington and an investigative and feature reporter.
“By consuming from multiple sources you automatically become critical about the way a story is told and what sources are used to build that story’s foundation,” Cook told me. “As many sources as possible each day is ideal. I like comparing one topic or news angle across three or four different news organizations.”
Cook also recommends reading investigative journalism to understand bigger issues and for building a foundation of knowledge about government accountability, to avoid focusing on sensational polls, and to talk to other people about news face-to-face rather than just discussing it online. “It makes the election human — which it surely is,” she said.
4. Understand the sources you rely on.
Having a deeper understanding of news organizations behind an online news story can also help. In this case, there is a technology that aims to assist.
Pamela Kilborn-Miller is program director for the Seattle-based We the People PSA Project that plans to teach people to become better news consumers through a series of broadcast public service announcements. She highlights an initiative that launched late last year at Santa Clara University, called The Trust Project.
“To improve the signal-to-noise ratio in our news consumption, I recommend subscribing to and promoting global news providers that integrate the Trust Indicators into their digital media,” Kilborn-Miller said.
The eight indicators include information about the news organization and its standards, reporters, story sources and more. The indicators were collaboratively developed by 75 international news organizations, and are both displayed on media company news sites and can be read as HTML code by Google, Facebook, Bing, Twitter and others to help with labelling news articles.
While still new, Kilborn-Miller says the indicators are based on interviews with real people who provided input on what they value in news, and when they trust it. Among the first news organizations to start using the indicators were The Economist, The Globe and Mail, BBC, The Washington Post and Mic.
5. Pay attention to words.
Finally, pay close attention to not just what is said, but how it’s said.
“Language matters. Anyone who is vying for your vote is intentional in the words they choose to get your attention,” said Kieran Snyder, co-founder and CEO of the augmented writing startup Textio. Snyder, who holds a PhD in Linguistics and Cognitive Science, says the specific words candidates use in everything from campaign ads to speeches and newsletters are designed to increase the chance you’ll vote for them.
“This is true both in person and online, but is especially true online,” she said. “Chances are, when you see that Facebook ad, you’re seeing one of several versions of it. The version you see is designed to reach people with backgrounds like yours — and for sophisticated, well-funded campaigns, your engagement is tracked and measured and used to drive the updates that have a higher likelihood of positive response the next time.”
Snyder sees this as an extension of the data trends in modern business being increasingly applied to politics. “Good recruiters or salespeople don’t have to guess what you want to hear; they already know because they’re writing supported by massive data sets. The same is true of political candidates,” she said. “They aren’t guessing what you want to hear; they already know. They’re choosing language that is intentionally tailored to get the interest of someone like you.”
That’s what a university journalism lecturer, manager of a news education campaign, linguistic and cognitive scientist, news startup veteran and librarian advise.
So it seemed only fair to put the same question to someone at Facebook, as its name has come up several times in this column. The one thing it thinks a heavy consumer of news on social or other digital media should keep in mind this election season?
“Be an informed reader,” said Julia Bain of Facebook News Partnerships. “Take the time to better understand the context of news stories you are reading and sharing.” Bain pointed to the work Facebook is doing, “to make it easier for people to see additional information about individual articles.” She also suggested following news sources you want to read, and prioritizing what you see in your news feed by using the See First feature.
Of course, all of this news context and checking takes more time, time most of us secretly hoped technology would return to us for other uses. Like, say, watching cat videos. But democracy and the information that underpins it is a messy, human business. And it’s one probably not best left to the machines.