A Simple Test for Fake News

25 July 2019

In 1729, Jonathan Swift published his satirical essay, “A Modest Proposal.” Ireland had already been under increasingly exploitative English occupation for over 500 years, and this fueled its severe suffering from poverty and periodic famine. So as a way of mocking the heartless, instrumentalizing attitude of the English and Anglo-Irish ruling classes, Swift suggested—in an appropriately genteel tone—that the solution to Irish poverty should be to sell their babies as food. 


Swift’s piece includes scathing lines like this: “a young healthy Child well Nursed is at a year Old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food, whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boyled; and I make no doubt that it will serve equally in a Fricassie, or Ragoust.” 


Swift’s target, among other things, was the aristocrats’ approach to Irish poverty that aimed to find a simple single solution, while still preserving English mercantilism. Such an approach treated the Irish poor more as objects than people. So the “modest proposal” was a biting reductio ad absurdum: by taking it to its logical extreme (selling babies as food), Swift portrayed that approach as ridiculous and cruel. 


But now let’s do a thought experiment. 


Suppose Swift had published, instead of clear satire in pamphlet form, a piece presented with the appearance of a legitimate news source. And suppose it had the headline: “ENGLISH MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT PROPOSES SELLING IRISH BABIES AS FOOD TO EASE ECONOMIC HARDSHIP.” And finally, suppose this piece of faux-journalism had attributed the line about fricassee and ragout not to a fictional “very knowing American,” but to an English MP of the time. 


If Swift had done that along with a few other changes, he would have succeeded in producing a 21st century-worthy piece of fake news. I’ve characterized fake news elsewhere as follows: false but sensational-seeming information that’s packaged to look like a legitimate news report. The hypothetical piece by Swift would fit that bill.


The structural similarity between satire and fake news that emerges from this thought experiment can be illuminated by the following recipe for writing either genre. 


First, focus on an aspect of a target’s beliefs, operational approach, or character; then come up with the most uncharitable version of it that you can. Let that uncharitable version live in your mind as an avatar for the real thing.


Second, logically derive what that avatar would do in a particular situation (real or made up), and write down specific details of what the avatar would do or say. (For example, if your target is liberals who support things like legalizing marijuana and having a strong social safety net, you might write down that it is possible to use food stamps to buy marijuana in Colorado.)


Third, you face a choice. Do you want the thing you just wrote to be an occasion for scoffing and ridicule? Or do you want to stoke outrage, anger, and fear? If the former, present what you wrote in a medium that is recognizably comedic. If the latter, package what you wrote in a form that will be mistaken for a genuine news source. 


And voilà! You’re now ready to make money by writing for The Onion…or InfoWars


This structural similarity between satire and fake news is not just theoretical; it’s also historical. Jestin Coler, one of the most prolific purveyors of fake news of this decade, got his start writing in online satire forums. He then decided to see if he could get people on the alt-right to believe his stories, so he could expose them as ridiculous. He then recruited a team of satire writers with whom he had made contact online, and they wrote stories. But they started making so much money from advertising banners on their viral stories that they skipped the part about debunking them. 


Coler eventually fell from his perch as “king” of fake news, once enough people figured out what he was up to. And his main website, National Report, changed in 2016 to being a straightforward satire site. The National Report originally had the viral fake news story about food stamps and pot in Colorado. Since 2016, it’s run such satirical headlines as “Trojan Name New Ultra-Thin Skin Condom After Donald Trump.” Tellingly, however, if you click at random through various backstories on the site, it’s hard to tell which were written to be fake news and which were satire. 


So what lesson should we draw from all this? 


It’s not that fake news and satire are in the same category morally: satire presents its false information as such and so is far less likely to mislead (though it has other dangers, since it too can fan unwarranted outrage at a perceived out-group). 


Rather, the present insight partners with a recent piece of psychological research by Gordon Pennycook and David Rand that indicates that cognitive reflection predicts lower susceptibility to fake news. That research suggests that thinking a bit goes a long way to weeding out fake news acceptance. But still, it would be nice to have a dedicated cognitive tool for helping catch the fake headlines.


To that end, I think we can extract a simple test that can be applied to news headlines that you see shared on the internet—if you want to avoid falling for fake news. Call it the “Would this work as satire?” test.


The “Would this work as satire?” test is simple and quick, and I encourage you to practice it at home. Every time you see a political headline that fills you with outrage at people you perceive as political opponents, just pause for a moment and breathe. Then ask yourself, “Would this work as satire?” 


If the answer is yes, there’s a good chance you’re looking at fake news—or at least something that contains significant distortion. This is just a rough heuristic, of course. But if you get a positive test, then try reading further and doing additional research. After all, as psychologist David Dunning pointed out at the 2019 Association for Psychological Science, the main driver of misinformation spread is uncritical acceptance of (false) information that supports your own team. 


Pennycook and Rand are more blunt: they call it “laziness.” Still, we’re all busy. So the nice thing about the simple test is that it can make a good filter at the cost of minimal cognitive strain. 


Of course, reality is a strange place, so some of the things that seem like they would work as satire will turn out to be real. (Arguably, any of the Anthony Weiner headlines would have been great satire, had they actually been false.) So again, the simple test is only a rough heuristic. But it could help a small amount. 


That, at any rate, is my modest proposal. 


Image by memyselfaneye from Pixabay 

Comments (1)

MJA's picture


Saturday, July 27, 2019 -- 9:04 PM

A must see: "The Great Hack,"

A must see: "The Great Hack," "1986 is now! =