Fake News? How Do We Decide?

fake newsAs some of you may remember, I decided to participate in the Better World Books Reading Challenge this year. I’m happy to say I’ve made significant progress and only have a handful of categories to complete.

So far my two most difficult reads have been Life by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, my book over 400 pages, and most recently The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer, which I chose as my National Book Award selection.

Why am I reading about the Third Reich when there are far more pleasant reads?

My interest in the Third Reich probably goes back to this: “They who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

The quote is usually attributed to George Santayana, a Spanish essayist—among other talents—born in 1863,  and has been paraphrased by many speakers and writers ever since. The message is the same. We have to know and understand our (humanity’s) past in order to avoid continually making the same mistakes.

This morning I found the following quote in Shirer’s book as I read my way toward the 20% marker on my Kindle. I read, re-read, and decided I would share it with you.

First let me explain. I spent last week attending lectures on the media, (Media and the News: Ethics in the Digital Age at Chautauqua Institution) including one from Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the cofounder of FactCheck.org. I’ll share some of what I learned, but first, the quote.

No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda. Often in a German home or office or sometimes in a casual conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, a beer hall, a cafe, I would meet with the most outlandish assertions from seemingly educated and intelligent persons. It was obvious that they were parroting some piece of nonsense they had heard on the radio or read in the newspapers.  Sometimes one was tempted to say as much, but on such occasions one was met with such a stare of incredulity, such a shock of silence, as if one had blasphemed the Almighty, that one realized how useless it was even to try to make contact with a mind which had become warped and for whom the facts of life had become what Hitler and Goebbels, with their cynical disregard for truth, said they were.  William L. Shirer from The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich


Shirer’s work, based on extensive records kept by various offices of the Third Reich, as well as his own observations on scene, is brilliant. He carefully documents the forced march into horror of a cultured, intellectual nation, and by the time the above quote appears, readers who started with only a vague sense of the way history unfolded, have begun to understand how and why Hitler’s propaganda took hold and festered.

Still, reading the book is watching a nightmare unfold.

Propaganda worries me. I’ll confess that more and more these days I’m horrified at the way people chuck facts they don’t want to believe and latch on to sources that are suspect at best. As the quote points out, if we’re told something often enough, no matter how cultured or educated we are, we eventually begin to believe it.

Today, as then, each of us has to decide for ourselves which sources are credible, and which are not.

We’re lucky to have access to facts but we need to check carefully.

Luckily there are good reliable organizations trying to help. FactCheck has a great list of ways to help us distinguish truth from “fake news.”

If you don’t have time to read the whole article (and I advise you to try), here are the highlights.

  • Consider the source
  • Read beyond the headline
  • Check the author
  • Ask where the support is
  • Check the date
  • Consider if it’s a joke
  • Check your biases
  • Consult the experts.
Do I check facts every time I have a question?

I know that I’ve been guilty of not employing FactCheck’s list every time I see or hear something outrageous. I’ve been taken in by so-called reliable sources that are only in business to raise revenue or blood pressures. I’ve believed sensational headlines that affirm my own biases until I’ve delved further into an article to ferret out the truth. I’ve learned that some “authors” of suspect articles don’t even exist—google their names in the byline to see what, if anything else, they’ve written and follow those links.

I’ve learned to go back to original sources and check how much of what I read was an interpretation or a manipulation. Just today, in fact, I read an article about the way President Trump and his family have drained our Secret Service resources. I then saw a denial, but the denial itself was so biased against the president’s so-called enemies, that I couldn’t trust the site. So I went to Snopes, one of my own trusted sources and found the facts with no editorializing. As Joe Friday always said, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

As it turns out the problem with the Secret Service is long standing and Congress can simply add more money to the budget, as they’ve done in the past. Case closed for me.

I’ve also read Facebook posts that are years old without realizing they were way out of date until I checked them on Snopes. I’ve taken jokes and satire seriously until I’ve learned to check out whatever seems too ridiculous to be true. I’ve been guilty of believing something I shouldn’t, just because it works with my own political viewpoint. And like all of us, I’ve forgotten to check with the experts.

And the experts are:

Jamieson suggested others in addition to FactCheck.org. She approves of Snopes.org, PolitiFact.com, and The Washington Post Fact Checker. There may be more, but if they follow their so-called fact checking with diatribes against political parties, candidates or issues, they can’t be trusted.

Since all of us are more likely to believe a fact if we see or hear proof, in the future FactCheck.org, and likely the others, will be using more video clips and audio segments to expand on what they’ve found and help listeners make their own decisions about what’s been said and by whom.

Propaganda and fake news.

Propaganda, fake news and the insistence that undeniable facts are lies have, in my mind, everything in common. But don’t believe me just because I said so. Don’t take anybody at face value. Now, more than ever, we need to form opinions based on solid evidence and thoughtful, rational interpretation.

Another truly scary moment in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is a description of the way that Goebbels routinely told newspaper editors and journalists what they could say and couldn’t, what they had to put on their editorial pages, and what facts to suppress. We have freedom of the press, and we can never let anyone, political leader or rabble rouser, begin to snip away at it.

They who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” I think everyone reading this blog can agree on that much. I think that’s a good place to start coming together, don’t you?

**I’m an Amazon Associate and get a small payment when/if you buy from Amazon after clicking my links. Amazon makes this easy for all of us, but check your local bookstores, too.


  1. Martha Waters on August 24, 2017 at 11:24 am

    Excellent observations.

  2. Coelle Baskel on August 24, 2017 at 11:27 am

    Thank You Emilie for taking a stand with an issue that is plaquing our society with a vengeance in the last couple of years.

  3. Kate Vale on August 24, 2017 at 11:57 am

    I find that looking at a wide variety of sources with discussions of the same issues helps me to identify and call out the “fake” portions that seem, of late anyway, to be shared more widely than what I conclude are reasoned arguments.

  4. Nancy Lepri on August 24, 2017 at 1:13 pm

    I hate watching the news these days not knowing what is real and what isn’t. Argh!

    I’d love to read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reicht.” I can’t see how anyone can purport that this never happened along with other historical events. Thanks for this posting!

  5. Lorraine Thacker on August 24, 2017 at 4:04 pm

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments on the subject. I have found Snopes and Fact Check to be invaluable sources for many years now, but never more so than in the past year!

  6. Dell Martinez on August 24, 2017 at 4:31 pm

    You have really touched a sore point! There are some people in my life that I dare not say anything about what we are reading in the paper and see on TV. It just starts a bad reaction.
    Dell Thank you for all the information. I am going to forward your email to a few folks and hope they do a little fact checking.

  7. Lynn Ross on August 27, 2017 at 2:30 pm

    Thank you for this great article, Emilie. I have never known how to prove the truth of an article, and have recently begun to limit what I believe someone said to news clips where I hear the words straight from their mouth. I don’t know what the truth is, but at least I know what they actually said. I’m going to share this article on FB. Thank you again.

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