Ep 109: Can Your Teen Spot the Truth?

Cindy Otis, author of True or False and former CIA analyst, joins Andy to discuss how misinformation snowballs (and how to spot it), the long history of fake news, and how emotion can blind teens (and adults) to the truth.

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Full show notes

With kids these days having 24/7 access to the internet on a million different devices, free to browse endless content and information, it can be frightening to wonder what they might come across. As a parent, you may worry that your teenager could be reading some inappropriate Reddit threads or secretly playing Minecraft until one AM on a school night….

However, there’s a very significant internet force that affects teens these days, one that parents might not always consider: the widespread phenomenon of fake news. You might not think your teenager could encounter dangerous misinformation online, but fake news is much more common than you might think. A 2018 MIT study has found that on Twitter, rumors and conspiracy theories are shared and clicked on almost six times as much as factual news. How can we teach our teens to avoid these fake news outlets and ensure they are remaining informed only by the truth?

Our guest today is Cindy Otis, a former CIA analyst and the author of True or False: a CIA Analysts Guide to Spotting Fake News. Cindy’s an expert on cyber security and the spread of information, and she’s here to answer some of your most burning questions about how fake news might find it’s way into your teen’s feed.

In our interview today, she outlines some of the book’s most intriguing concepts, like how fake news manages to appear in the first place, why so many people seem to believe it, and some things teens and parents can do to think critically about how they consume media.

The Origins of Fake News

So how exactly did the concept of fake news come into being? When did all the misinformation begin? While we might think of fake news as a recent development, there’s evidence that fake news as we know it has been around since ancient Egypt! There’s examples of fake news being used in many societies throughout history to influence public opinion on political matters.

Cindy brings up an example you might be familiar with: tobacco companies in the 50s and 60s spreading misinformation about cigarettes to distract people from their major health effects. Most of the time, these companies didn’t directly state that cigarettes are good for you, but instead made the scientific findings that advised against cigarettes seem murky and uncertain. By overloading the consumer with contradicting information, they made the science seem less credible.

In the episode, Cindy talks about how that’s often the case with fake news. Even if it isn’t necessarily lying to people outright, it may just be used to obscure or cause the reader to question factual information. When there is a lot of confusion and chaos around an issue, people are less likely to believe evidence--like the science that proves cigarettes cause cancer—-and instead find themselves uncertain about what to think.

When it comes to fake news in the modern day, social media (where teens spend an enormous amount of time) is a major factor. One way fake news is distributed and spread on these sites is through fake accounts, fake users, comments, likes, etc. Companies and organizations create this false social media presence to help emphasize their own ideas and sway the opinions of the public. Cindy’s research follows this kind of activity closely, and she delves into this idea further in the interview.

Now that we know how fake news gets around, it’s time to ask: why do so many people--including, potentially, our teens, seem to believe it?

Falling for Fake News

It seems as though we’d be able to spot fake news in a heartbeat, but it’s not as easy as you might imagine. To demonstrate the progression of a fake news story finding its way to a large audience and causing panic, Cindy shared a current example about a story on Twitter. This false conspiracy theory claimed that there were 6,000 armed protesters coming to a small midwestern town to destroy property--all 6,000 on one bus, to be exact--and it went viral.

You might ask yourself, how might anyone believe that 6,000 people might come to their town unprompted to cause destruction? Cindy explains that the underlying motivation to believe stories like these is fear. People who may not trust minority groups might believe that such people want to hurt them, causing them to accept far-fetched stories like these more easily.

This kind of thinking isn’t just true for outlandish ideas like these—social media feeds are curated to cater to the user’s own biases! Websites and companies collect enormous amounts of data on you and your teen’s activity, and then use that information to tell you the kind of things you already want to hear. Although this may not sound bad, organizations may be using you or your teen’s information to get you to spend money or, of course, believe fake news.

This tendency of social media to reinforce bias to prop up fake news is especially common when there is a vacuum of information--if details are missing, our brains tend to fill in the blanks with what we think is the truth. Then, when something comes along that agrees with what we think, we like and share it on Facebook or Twitter. This half-baked, highly misleading news is even more likely to stick with us when we’re in highly emotional states and the world around is rapidly changing, like during election season or a pandemic.

So when we’re in these chaotic, highly emotional environments, how do we keep ourselves and our teens from falling prey to fake news or misleading information?

How to be a Critical Consumer of Media

Cindy and I go into depth about steps you and your teen can take to be better consumers of all media, including fake news. One thing we discuss is how all news--both fake and legitimate--might be manipulating your emotions. While serious subjects can definitely naturally touch one’s emotions, it’s important to pay attention to how materials might be attempting to appeal to your teen’s fears or sympathy to sway their opinions. What pictures does the outlet choose to use? What kind of highly charged language might be in place to push you or your teen towards a certain viewpoint?

In addition, Cindy talks about how important it is to identify when you or your teen is being micro targeted. Microtargeting is when a company or organization mines a great deal of data about the websites a person visits and products or services they enjoy, and then uses that information to deliver extremely specific content into their feed. This isn’t necessarily a cruel practice, but it may be a tool organizations use to spread false information or to manipulate you as well as your kids.

Cindy and I also chat about the reliability of polls and statistics teens or parents might read online--and how it’s hard to find ones that are truly reliable. It’s rare that a poll reaches a diverse population, and it’s not often that respondents feel as though they can answer truthfully. Visualizations of poll results can also be very misleading, and may confuse the viewer into jumping to the wrong conclusion.

Overall, what matters is that your teen is informed about how to examine a piece of information and decide whether or not it contains a false rumor or misleading ideas. By sitting your teen down to have these important discussions about fake news and media bias, you can help them be smart about how they examine the media they consume.

In the Episode…

In our thorough discussion of how to responsibly consume media, Cindy and I chat about….
  • Why we’re often suspicious of politicians
  • How some fake news becomes more believable by incorporating small kernels of truth
  • Why factual news sometimes becomes garbled and finds its original meaning warped
  • How we can evaluate a piece of media for manipulation
Talking to Cindy was such an eye opening experience that allowed me to adopt a new perspective on the how misinformation spreads and what to be on guard for. We’ll see you next week!

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Ep 109: Can Your Teen Spot the Truth?
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