There has been and continues to be a great deal of buzz regarding “fake news” on social media, even having it picked up and reported on mainstream media outlets. Fake news isn’t defined as reporting that got some facts wrong or is slanted but news that simply isn’t true, made up, often attributed to fictional publications or media, and designed to appeal to biases. It is designed to look legitimate on the surface. This is done for various reasons. It may be to influence an election or the public’s opinion on a given subject. A main reason is that fake news websites generate traffic and can make money, a lot of money, selling ads to their sites. This is an agriculture column so why bring this up? Today there is a great deal of information and misinformation regarding agriculture. While most of it may not be classified as fake news, much of it is intentionally misleading/slanted. How can you determine the legitimacy of information? Here are some tips for agriculture news.
• When you see sensational headlines. This may be obvious but think about it. If there was something such as “GMO foods cause birth defects, cancer, and autism” it is likely to be all over mainstream media.
• Look at the adjectives and adverbs used. Extreme adjectives such as the most, deadly, brutal, shocking, entirely. You get the idea. In the real world of agriculture, things are seldom that cut and dry. Also be wary when you see adjectives designed to generate a strong emotional reactions.
• When using terms like safe, healthy, deadly, etc. it is useful to know what that means. Hopefully, they will define what they mean.
• If “reporting” facts, those facts need to be sourced. In spite of the wariness of government, see if a state or federal agency is involved. Where does the funding for the research come from? If you are unfamiliar with the source, look it up. The same holds true for people being cited. Anyone can attach a title or fudge on qualifications. Typically, they are affiliated with an institution so you can go to that institutions website and check.
• When citing studies or research, be careful when they cite only one study and even more careful when the study isn’t sourced. If they are using statistics, be wary of averages (means). This not a terribly useful and often misleading value. For example, if you have ten people and nine of them earn $1,000 per year and one earns $91,000 per year the average income for the group in $10,000. The nine making $1,000 and the one making $91,000 would be surprised. When speaking to data gathered from the field, it is preferable to have several years of data from more than one location
• Beware uncited sources of information, the old “people say” deception.
• Always be wary of absolutes such as all, none, best, worst, etc. The real world of agriculture is seldom that black and white. And along these lines, your “crap detector” should go off when articles deal with an issue that should be scientific in emotional terms. That doesn’t mean there aren’t true stories out there that will affect us emotionally but they won’t have to beat you over the head with it. The story will make it obvious.
• Finally, when you read something that seems too good to be true or just doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t.