Years ago, long before Twitter and Facebook, my teachers would ask me and my classmates to sit in a line. And in a game then called ‘Chinese Whispers*’ we would pass a secret message down the line, mouth to ear. And by the end of the line, the story would likely be very different from what began.
Although this childhood game is just a bit of fun, it has real-life implications. They say that information is power, but the truth is that it is not the information, but whoever controls it and how it is told that holds all the cards.
And today this could not be more important. As the world grows so does our circle of friends and strangers. Some of you will have social media accounts, that over the next few years, will connect you with thousands of people. And you will come to rely on them not just for friendship, but for learning about the world.
And this is where misconceptions, prejudice and being controlled can begin.
The Social Mesh
News articles, blogs, and opinions will filter through this mesh of people in ways similar to the old game of ‘Chinese whispers’, and by the end, it is hard to know what the real story is. And even worse, someone may change the story deliberately to mislead you, or just make one up for some personal reason.
You may have heard US President Donald Trump talk about ‘Fake News‘ (where the stories are untrue, or only parts are told,) or his opponents call him a liar. But when you don’t know the real truth, how can you decide? Is Trump a liar, or are the press spinning tall tales?
Well thankfully there is an answer, and its called ‘Critical thinking.‘
And in a world where the control of stories is power, it prepares you to decide for yourself what is true, and what is a lie. It helps you decide who to vote for, which issues will affect your life and what you need to do about them. Today I will teach you an introduction into how to think about stories and some questions you might ask.
Critical Thinking and Critical Appraisal.
Critical thinking is a process by which you can approach information. It allows you to ask the right questions about stories to figure out what is real, and what is not. It helps you to spot patterns, tricks and tells that reveal whether the speaker or writer is telling the truth.
Alongside it is something called ‘Critical appraisal’, where you learn how to break apart scientific studies and important papers that often provide the basis for these stories. Today we will focus on critical thinking in general, as critical appraisal requires its own time and a basic understanding of scientific theory and study.
This may already sound difficult, but it’s not. Science may seem difficult, but it’s all about practice. One hour spent learning something makes you one hour better, and it’s true for critical thinking as much as maths homework.
So the concepts I will introduce you to here are just part one of something much bigger, that I will leave to you to investigate the rest. It’s probably better that way.
Tricks and Tails
First, let us imagine a story. Imagine, for a moment, that your pet dog has chewed up your parent’s favorite plant. It was your job to make sure the dog was looked after, but you left the front door open. Your parents are angry, and asking you what happened.
Dependent on what you want to happen, you will tell a different story. Perhaps you will say that ‘the wind opened the door,’ or perhaps that ‘the dog was asleep.’ Much like the game of Chinese whispers, you are changing the story to suit a particular purpose.
Your parents probably won’t believe you, but you have learned something: that lies can be useful. This is even more true for what you read on newspapers, television and online. If you can spin the facts to tell your story, you can make people do what you want.
But, you know this is wrong. Lies are generally a bad idea.
Unfortunately, ‘fake news’ is just that, lies. It may not be changing the facts ‘the dog ate the plant’, but it will change something about the story. Perhaps the dog ate the plant because ‘your parents weren’t feeding it’, (which may or may not be true,) but suddenly the dead plant is your parent’s fault. Not the dogs or yours.
This is called ‘spin’, a way of communicating information toward a certain story. Or another way of saying ‘bending the truth.’ But in the case of the dog, you are saying something believable, even if a lie. This happens all the time in the adult world, whether it be about Brexit (ask your parents,) or the reasons countries may fight each other.
It is saying something that’s believable, or perhaps even likely, without proof and letting people connect the dots.
So your parents may ask you a few questions. They may look around the room and notice that the dog’s food bowl is half eaten. They may notice that the television is on with your favorite show playing. Eventually, they will figure out the truth. The facts around them cut through your story.
You have learned something new: ‘lies can be spotted.’
For the dog and the dead plant, this is easy. Your parents know you, your habits and probably when you are lying. They spot patterns in your voice or inconsistencies in your story. It’s just time and practice.
But as the stories become more complicated, and more people are involved, it gets harder. What if the dog was in the next house, and you couldn’t check the food bowl? What if you had to ask your neighbor about the food, and they could lie. Welcome to reading news stories, lots of people, half the information and much more power.
The more uncertainty there is around a story, the harder it is to spot what is added or taken away. Just as further down the chain of ‘Chinese whispers’ the words change, the further through social media or a newspaper from the original source the story travels, the less it can be trusted.
Thankfully for all of us, if we learn to spot common ways in which the news and others will trick us, we can apply our thinking to new information. In the case of the dog and the plant, your parents could just check for bite marks on the plant.
Three simple questions
So instead of spending a long time going through all the tricks, I am going to give you three questions to ask whenever you hear or read a new story. And for each one, a little explanation of why it’s so important.
By the end of the questions, you may have noticed that the story doesn’t quite add up. Or perhaps that something is missing, and you are being forced to believe something false:
Do you feel strongly about what you read or hear (sad, happy, angry?)
Emotions are very useful things. But for a news company, making someone angry with a headline is a good way to sell a paper. But we know that when you are angry, you pay less attention to the facts. So if a headline is angry, or uses overly comforting words, it is there to make you concentrate not on the story, but your emotions.
The paper wants you to react to the story in a certain way. A good example would be whenever some British papers talk about people from abroad, they always use angry words. This is because they want you to be angry with those people, even if those people aren’t doing anything wrong. They don’t want you to think about the facts.
So if you read a news story and feel very strongly, take a moment to remind yourself that this could be the purpose of the writer. And that purpose may be to distract you from actually thinking about what the story truly means. So take a moment, forget the feeling, and read again.
If the story seems odd once you read it again without the anger, then you may have spotted something. Remember that a story built on emotion may lack truth.
Can you trust the ‘facts’?
Often a news story will contain a lot of numbers. They may say ‘40%’ of people think this or that, or that ‘10% of people’ did this or that. These numbers may not be trustworthy, or part of a bigger picture that the paper is choosing to hide. This is to trick you into thinking something is accurate or ‘backed up.’ It may not be.
For example ‘100% of people think that hunting foxes is okay ‘ may sound quite a little odd to you, especially when you realize that the group of people asked were all ‘Fox Hunters (this is called bias, and once you learn to spot it the news becomes very different.) If you were to ask 100 people from school, the answer would be very different.
You may also see newspapers refer to ‘studies’ or ‘one study’ done by a scientist. The problem is that not all studies are good, or even true. If you wanted to sell a medicine, and 3 studies had shown it a bad drug, and one showed it to beuseful, which would you talk about? Newspapers will often pick the studies that suit their story, without talking about the other ones.
This also happens in which stories some newspapers or social media stars will report on. For example, one particular youtuber tends to only report on crimes committed by a specific racial group, whilst ignoring those committed by others. There is a purpose to this, to make you hate a specific group by making it seem like they are all bad.
So when it comes to numbers and studies. it’s always worth finding out more. Who was actually asked? Where there other studies? What did they say, and did the newspaper mention them? Why not? Are these ‘facts’ really true, or are bits missing? If you notice something is missing, then treat the story as misleading.
And when a newspaper seems to only focus on one ethnic or religious group, be all the wiser. There is always more to the story than the color of a man’s face.
Who is telling the story?
You may notice that your parents buy the same newspaper every day, or watch the same news channel. But you may also notice that one newspaper will report on something in a very different way to another. For example, some British newspapers will always attack those from other countries, whilst others will always defend them.
Ask your parents about ‘The Sun’ newspaper, or if in America, ‘Fox News’. Ask them what these two groups say about people from other countries. Then compare it with what ‘The Guardian’ says in the UK, or CNN in America. The answers may surprise you.
This is called an agenda, which is the ‘purpose’ of the newspaper. Not all agendas are the ‘right’ one, and which you agree with is up to you. But if you can look at who is telling the story, you might be able to spot an early clue about whether you are being lied to.
Think of a friend at school who lies a lot. They may sometimes tell the truth, but if you hear a story from them you are much more likely to ignore it. But if you hear a story from someone you trust (or should trust,) you may believe it, even if its a lie.
Newspapers and broadcasters are meant to be trustworthy, but not all of them are. Adults have agendas, and it’s up to you to figure them out. One way is to look at who is telling the story. What have they said before? Do they like the person that they are talking about? Is it possible that they are changing the story because of their beliefs?
Or do they want you to believe what they do?
Bringing it together
So these are just three questions, and there are a lot more of them. It is important to know that each question isn’t meant to tell you ‘Yes or No’ about whether you can trust a story, but help you to spot the tricks.
It is then up to you to use your brain to work out what you can trust. This will only get better as you ask more questions and practice. Much like your parents are an expert in you, you can become an expert in spotting lies by others.
Asking questions, like about whether the plant has nite marks, or whether your neighbor likes dogs, helps you to approach a story prepared. It helps you to spot the lies and prevents you from being forced to believe something false.
Elections are won with lies, wars begun with fake news and truly terrible things spread by rumour. Its up to us to stop it.
The reason this is so important is that the world, especially the rich and powerful, rely on controlling information to control people. When a newspaper is caught lying, it used to be a big deal, but now it is not. The same is true of politicians and presidents. It’s up to you to spot the tricks.
And the younger you can start, the better decisions you can make. And as a final task, to you, I will leave you with one last question:
‘If this is so important, then why isn’t it all over the news?’
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*Apologies for the term used here. I feel it fair to acknowledge the relative cultural insensitivities of the past in order to learn from them. You can read an interesting take on the subject here.