How to Spot Fake News

Today we’re going to talk about how to avoid being a sucker who believes everything they read on the internet (or are told by friends or whatever.)

Pirates, if anything, trick other people. They do not get tricked.

This is related to my previously discussed admonition to Beware of Sharks, but different. In that case, we were talking about how to be aware of instances in which companies are trying to take advantage of you. Today, in the modern parlance, we’re talking about fake news.

Now, I’m going to attempt to write this without offending any of my readers, especially those of you I’ve actually met. You see, when people believe these kinds of things, it tends to be because of emotional reasons (which makes sense, given that there aren’t any rational reasons available.)

So they tend to get rather crabby when you tell them they’re wrong.

This is one of the pitfalls of learning to identify “fake news.” The other one is trying to keep a straight face when an otherwise rational person is trying to tell you something you already know is ridiculous.

But in some ways this is actually a good thing, because one of easiest ways to tell if something is false (or at any rate, unbalanced or misleading) is by its emotional effect on you.

People invent these stories presumably in order to get a rise out of people, and this emotional response is what allows them to be spread and believed.

So if you find yourself having a very strong emotional reaction to something you’ve hear, and it confirms the beliefs you already hold, and you don’t really know where the information is coming from…be suspicious.

Be very suspicious. Especially if someone is trying to sell you something.

Here are some other red flags to look out for:

  • If the story makes something ordinary and innocent suddenly seem threatening, especially if it’s really outrageous.
  • There’s something horrible in the product of an ostensibly trusted brand.
  • Something really newsworthy has supposedly happened, but is not being reported in the actual news.
  • It makes you feel like you are among the select few to know a special secret (unless it openly involves a lot of hard work. Then maybe. Unless it’s one of those pyramid schemes.

Once you’ve identified a bit of information you deem suspect, what then do you do with it?

You could of course do all the relevant research yourself, and you should. But for more trivial concerns there’s a better way.

When there’s work to be done, pirates prefer as much as possible that it be done by other people. Not because we’re lazy, but because we have better things to do. There are a lot of these stories floating around and no one has time to do all that research.

Except for people who have decided to make it their mission to do said research. So let them do it for you.

For instance, the good folks down at snopes.com.

They’re not the be-all end-all of course, and nobody is. But, unlike much of what you read on the internet, they are people who have thought through their opinion and laid out their reasoning for you to interrogate. Unless your interrogations lead to something suspect, it’s probably safe to trust what they say.

After I discovered it, I used to love reading through all the articles in their archive. Just to know what’s out there, and because I fancied myself an amateur folklorist.

It was rather entertaining, and I also got to know what “fake news” sounds like.

Once you’ve absorbed a number of stories that have proven to be fake, you develop a sort of “sniff test” with which to consider things. You develop the healthy skepticism with which pirates avoid being taken in by most sorts of nonsense.

These days, that skill is more important than ever.

The Snallygaster: Fake News Ain’t New

Hello, and welcome to episode one of Alexis’ bestiary, the part of the show where I talk about some silly beast. Today, we’ll be discussing the Snallygaster.

The United States is home to a number of fearsome creatures, but few have a cooler name than the Snallygaster. Of course, as any quick google search will tell you, the creature’s first victims, German immigrants in what is now Maryland, called it the “schneller geist” or “quick ghost.”

Like many such creatures, the Snallygaster was a pain in the neck for farmers. It preyed on livestock, often sucking their blood like Mexico’s El Chupacabra (“goat sucker”). To this day you can still find some barns marked with the seven-pointed star, said to ward off the creature. Why seven? Beats me.

And to follow another tradition of folklore and crypto-creatures, the Snallygaster too had an annoying habit of changing its appearance, having no regard for consistency whatsoever. However it tended to stick to features between that of a bird and reptile, usually appearing as some sort of scaly flying thing.

It was fond of metallic weaponry, whether beak, teeth or claws. And sometimes tentacles.

Tentacles on a wingy thing? Why?

I can’t picture it either. Maybe something like prehensile catfish whiskers? But would those have been described as tentacles, or whiskers? Who knows.

For many years, however, not a peep was heard from the Snallygaster. Evidently it had retired, and decided to live in peace. Then in the early twentieth century, the Snallygaster was the victim of a terrible fake news campaign perpetuated by the Middleton Valley Register, a newspaper seeking to profit from the Snallygaster’s notoriety.

The editors of the newspaper told outlandish tales of the creature carrying off livestock, uttering train-whistle-like calls–(“It’s the Snallygaster Mom!” “No, it’s just the train.” “That’s what they sound like!”)–and laying barrel-sized eggs.

To add insult to injury, they even dragged the president into the mix, claiming that good ol’ Teddy Roosevelt was undertaking a venture to hunt the Snallygaster. And to add a thin veneer of credibility to the stories, they claimed that the Smithsonian was interested in studying the creature.

This went on for some time until, mercifully, the powers that be told the newspapers to knock it off, and charged the editors with fraud, thus allowing the maligned Snallygaster to recover the pieces of its tattered reputation and move on with its life.

 

A note on sources:

I got all this information from wikipedia, and other websites that appear on the first page of a “snallygaster” google search. In keeping with the haphazard nature of the oral tradition of folklore, and my intended audience, I’m not citing any of them.

But as a “library person” I encourage you to take the list of sources from the wikipedia article, or any of the others, to your local library person and see what they can do with it. Or do the research yourself, that works too. Or not.