How to Avoid Falling for Fake News Even When You Want It to Be Real

May 16th 2017

One of the most frustrating aspects of the investigation into the alleged ties between Russia and the Trump administration is separating truthful reporting from fake news and conspiracy theories. While there's been plenty of excellent investigative reporting on Trump and Russia, there has been almost as much dubious or outright false reporting.

On both sides of the political aisle, many people who lack skepticism are being suckered by conspiracies that play to their biases. This is a phenomenon researchers call "motivated reasoning," and it's everywhere on social media, obscuring the truth being dredged up by legitimate news outlets.

For a perfect example, look no further than the conspiracy theory that claims Hillary Clinton orchestrated the murder of a Democratic staffer.

On July 10, Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was shot and killed while walking home at night through a neighborhood in Washington, DC. The murky nature of shooting, which is still unsolved, sparked a slew of conservative (and ostensibly left) conspiracy theories that Rich was ordered killed by Clinton for a variety of nebulous and debunked reasons. 

As if it were a cued up to distract from the stories about President Trump revealing classified information to Russian officials, on Monday a Fox affiliate in Washington aired a story alleging that Rich had been "communicating with WikiLeaks prior to his death." Not only that, but a private investigator "hired by the Rich family" had evidence that the DNC ordered Rich killed as a reprisal for leaking tens of thousands of John Podesta emails — emails that every U.S. intelligence agency believes were, in fact, hacked and released by Russian government operatives.

A more skeptical version of the story would have revealed that the facts about Rich's murder are entirely consistent with a botched robbery; that Rich's family didn't actually hire the private detective (who turns out to be a Fox News contributor); and that Rich would not have had access to Podesta's emails.

Nevertheless, it only took a few hours for Fox News, Breitbart, Drudge, WikiLeaks, and pro-Trump Twitter to jump on and disseminate the story. That made #SethRich a trend on social media, and sent searches for "Seth Rich" exploding on Google, pushing the Post's revelations to the side — at least within some online clusters. All without there being any real evidence of anything.

But it's not just the right that has fallen hard for distracting conspiracy theories motivated by wishful thinking. Liberals are dealing with their own strain of conspiracy, based on the false hope that President Trump and his cronies are about to be indicted on criminal charges. 

This hope stems almost entirely from the tweets of a few prolific anti-Trump accounts, including former British Member of Parliament Louise Mensch and one-time Bill Clinton staffer Claude Taylor. They've been relentlessly pushing blog posts and tweet threads alleging that "sources" close to various U.S. agencies have "confirmed" that dozens of indictments are about to come down in relation to the Trump-Russia scandal, including against the president himself.

Mensch has taken the conspiracy so far that one post of hers alleges that not only is Trump going down, but so are Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan — a collapse that would leave President Pro Tempore of the Senate Orrin Hatch as the (presumably surprised) next president. 

Like the Seth Rich conspiracy theories, these outlandish claims have no merit, make little sense, and are supported by thin sourcing, if any sourcing at all. They grossly misinterpret how impeachment, grand juries, and the U.S. justice system work. At no point has any mainstream outlet confirmed any of their allegations. 

But again, as with the Rich conspiracy, these writers are blogging on fertile ground, with those who are already inclined to believe that Trump is corrupt willing to believe any story about him going down. Already, at least one Democratic senator has been caught using a Mensch story as a source to claim that a grand jury is about to indict Trump, and left-wing media figures like Keith Olbermann and George Takei have also been taken in by these huge-if-true stories. 

What can someone do when confronted with one of these thin conspiracy theories?

The claims come too fast to debunk each one. Instead, it helps to follow a set of best practices. In a piece about the conspiracy theories of Louise Mensch, The New Republic offers a series of questions to ask yourself when you come across an outlandish claim and are tempted to spread it as the truth: 

1. Is that person a reporter for a legitimate news outlet?

2. If this person tweets a claim attributed to an anonymous source, do they follow that claim up with any reporting?

3. Does this person have credentials relevant to the subject matter they’re discussing?

4. Are this person’s claims drastically out of step with what’s currently being reported?

5. Why would a high-level official leak to this specific person?

6. Am I only tweeting this because it makes me feel good?

New opportunities to ask these questions appear constantly. Just as the tumult from the shocking story about the revealing of classified information began to subside, The New York Times revealed that recently fired FBI Director James Comey wrote a memo detailing how Trump had asked him to end the investigation into Michael Flynn, the disgraced National Security Advisor at the center of so many of the "imminent indictment" claims.

Expect a deluge of fake news and conspiracy theories to appear on the right to obscure the story, but also for the story to provide fuel for more theories on the left.

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