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Fake news affects you, you, and you

Fake news affects us all.

I have subscribed to the RSS feeds of hundreds of blogs and websites. Every third post on my Facebook feed is a link to a news article (the other two are photos or check-ins). Nearly all the tweets on my Twitter feed are headlines with links to articles. Its the same on LinkedIn. A bunch of WhatsApp groups I'm part of has people that tend to share news-like information from time to time. Then, of course, there are the newspapers (which very few people I know actually read).

And I consider myself to be the average of the audience on these platforms. Which means that there are a lot more people that see similar things on their social feeds.

Now, to the mechanics of how it works.

Given that we come across so many headlines and articles, the amount of them that we actually click and read through are in the range of 2-5%. That is, if I see links to about 20 articles (on Twitter, Facebook, my RSS, etc), I will click and read at most one of them.

Which means that I'm putting myself in a position to understand the details enough to make rational judgements on whether the picture the headline portrays is true, or partially true or outright false.

In the other 19 cases, I just read the headline and move on. If my BS filters are on alert, I will probably identify which are exaggerations and which are in good spirit correctly anywhere between 16 to 18 times. That means there is a good chance I'll make an erroneous call on at least one of the articles.

Now, if all article headlines I came across were mutually exclusive and unrelated, this would be a good place to be. Consuming 5% fake news a day doesn't really harm me in anyway. I'll still have the right perspective about things. And when I'm wrong, which will be occasionally, I will be corrected by others in conversation as it is very unlikely that two, three or four people in my circle all fail to identify the same article as right or fake.

But they are anything but mutually exclusive.

The articles, day after day, repeat their messages in the same spirit. They highly exaggerate findings and misquote people and conjure up catchy and emphatic headlines like "The DNC just torpedoed the majority of Bernie Sanders' agenda" and "DNC Committee rejects amendments to eliminate superdelegates after locking Sanders delegates out of the room".

If you're like me, you don't open and read every such article (you only read one in twenty). But reading these headlines has its impact. Read this everyday and you'll start forming a bias towards that side of the story. And one fine day, when you open an article and read through the details, you are a lot more likely to see it in this light than as a neutral.

Fake news affects us all. There is no easy way around it. When we see a hundred or more headlines a day, it isn't humanly possible to consider them all rationally and slot them into the right buckets.

Which is why, over the past few weeks, I have been reading news articles from three to six months ago. And I've learnt two things.

One, reading news is pointless. When something major happens (like the Dutch elections & the UP elections in India), you hear about it from multiple people. And if there aren't many people talking about it, it is probably not worth knowing anyway (with exceptions that I will address in point two).

Two, I now have a good idea of who writes objectively and who writes simply to attract clicks (I have this idea because I've been reading news articles from three to six months ago with the full knowledge of what has actually happened since and how those stories have evolved). This lets me trust an article by trusting a source. After all, this is how we have dealt with information all our lives. If your best friend tells you something, you are a lot more likely to believe it than if some random person tells you something. Find your best friends among news sources.

Addendum to two. In cases where you really need to be on top of things like the information related to your area of work and your industry and your area of interest (like football), subscribe to the RSS feeds of the sources you trust (from point two). And you will hear about things in a timely fashion.

Fake news affects us all. It is only responsible to do these simple things to not let it influence major blunders.

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