Politics and a few loose screws

Pop quiz: What’s the difference between news media and a rumor mill?

Last week, there didn’t seem to be much of a difference: Rumors flew after a picture of an asymmetric screw was posted anonymously on Reddit with a vague reference to Apple. Within 12 hours, the rumor — Apple’s trying to lock you out of its products! — had been posted and dissected on tech blogs, including Wired.

Yesterday, a Swedish design company confessed that they started the rumor just to see what would happen. Their whole explanation is worth reading, but I thought this analysis was interesting:

The blogs and newspapers that reported on the screw all fell back on that this was a vague rumor, unconfirmed, but yet discussed what impact the screw could get for the Mac world if it was in use. However, we noticed a difference in the discussions from the readers… Either they perceived the news as truth, or called it fake, no grey zone in between.

Readers don’t react to what might be news. As a rumor spreads, there’s no room for nuance. The Swedish pranksters found that when people commented on posts about the fake screw– and especially when they posted about it on their own social media accounts– they evidenced no sign of critical thinking.

Let’s transfer this to the world of political reporting, shall we? Yesterday, Garance Franke-Ruta posted a piece for The Atlantic called “What to Do With Political Lies.” Candidates continue to repeat half-truths and lies that have already been debunked by fact-checkers in the media. The article argues that news outlets need to quickly parry these lies as often as they are told:

Every story lives an independent life on the social Web and there’s no guarantee the reader of any given report will ever see a bundled version of the news or the relevant fact-checking column, which could have been published months earlier. One-off fact-checking is no match for the repeated lie.

The solution, according to this article:

Basic, simple, brief factual boilerplate can save an article from becoming a crutch for one campaign or the other; can save time; and can give readers a fuller understanding of the campaigns, even if they haven’t had time to read deep dives on complex topics.

Can we outsmart political spin and rumor mills in an age of 24/7 news? Maybe it’s impossible to shut down a lie entirely. But we can at least make it a little easier for readers to engage uncertainty with their critical thinking skills intact.

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