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KPBS Midday Edition

A How-To Guide For Spotting Fake News Online

The book cover for "A Field Guide to Lies" by Daniel Levitin.
Dutton
The book cover for "A Field Guide to Lies" by Daniel Levitin.
A How-To Guide For Spotting Fake News Online
A How-To Guide For Spotting Fake News Online GUEST: Daniel Levitin, author, "A Field Guide To Lies"

The Internet is full of information, some precise and accurate and lots of stuff that's just not true. Facebook and Google say they are working to ban fake news from their ad networks. And they've been criticized for allowing fake news to spread during the presidential campaign. New York scientist, Daniel Levitin for -- writes about how to flood through the online information in his book, "A Field Guide To Lies". He spoke with midday edition producer, Michael Lutcken. By do we believe what we read on the Internet and is there any historical analog to the spreading means we see online quick I think we tend to believe it for two reasons, one is we don't feel we have the time 2:00 A.M. interrogate everything we encounter and we figure someone else will do it for us. And it would have spread if it wasn't true. And I think the second reason we tend to believe things is, we are social species. We tend to be descended from ancestors who are somewhat nonconfrontational and managed to get along. So not all -- so not all must behave this way, but we have a biological tendency to give others the benefit of the doubt. There are a lot of false story spread online during the election. One said Pope Francis have endorse Donald Trump. That wasn't the case, then it got shared nearly 1,000,000 times on Facebook. A story from the website, Snopes.com where shared only about 10,000 times. Why is it so hard to stop spread news -- fake news from spreading quick Is a neuroscientist, I'm can tell you once the brain adopts a belief, it's very difficult to unseeded even the face of overwhelming evidence. We call this belief perseverance. It's been shown tried to get somebody to revise an opinion or change their minds is very difficult. It's probably because an historical timescales, we think of our hunter gatherer ancestors, news was coming very slowly and there wasn't a requirement for people to update their police. You mention there's a biological reason it can be hard to change our views, especially if we held the belief for a long time. Are there ways you can talk to someone to help convince them as new armored -- information emerges Not everybody is amenable to a logical argument. But the problem we're scene. People are less facile in critical thinking. I wrote a handbook are field guide to lies to change that. To give people the tools they need so they know you can follow a systematic series of steps, plausibility -- is the claim even plausible? On my way here, I was working on the backseat of the Uber, or my computer, and the Uber driver said, I see you're working on the Internet. I read there were 17 billion people in the world who lack Internet. Now there aren't 17 billionaire in the world -- 17 17 billion people in the world. Somebody saying is implausible. But one has to recognize, he's trying to make a conversation. He's making an emotional point, even though he has his facts wrong. There -- if there's so many people that are wealthy, where there's so many people without Internet quick Wouldn't it be great if more people had access to the Internet. Which empowers them to get information and at the end of the conversation, I said oh by the way, I think your numbers can be right because of business. Did he believe you? I don't know that he cared about the actual numbers. Which is another problem. People are often confused by numbers and we tend not to question them and we assume numbers are facts. They are just things gathered by people like you and me and sometimes people make mistakes. Part of your book is about mathematical literacy in helping people understand percentages and averages. Some of it is plausibility checks. You talk about evaluating the reliability of a website. Martin Luther King.org. One might think it is an unbiased source of information about Martin Luther King and in fact it is run by a neo-Nazi group. They just bought the domain name. How would you advise people to evaluate the viability of the news they are reading online quick The best strategy is to go with the mainstream media. So go with NPR, American Public media, New York Times, Wall Street Journal -- Journal. The French sometimes get a story right, but the odds are with them. So is true TMZ broke the story of Brad and Angelina the story of Michael Jackson's death. Because they were willing to go with the stories with no corroboration. Just one report. Mainstream media took a while. My view is, I don't need to know what's happening in the world second by second. I can wait an hour or two for the mainstream media to tell me. If I had seen this story about the Pope inducing trump -- the Pope endorsing President truck. I would believe it if I read it in the mainstream media. Dee Sarton Mike Buescher Mark train true, eating what you don't know what got you into trouble, it's what you know for sure that just ain't so. This goes into a lot of the content of your book about the spread of this information. What did you learn about the quote as you are writing about Well I learned another lesson in how I am fallible. Which is something I learned on a regular basis as a practicing scientist. I come up against the limits of my own knowledge and ability on a daily basis. In this case, I assumed that because the quote that you just read was cited into blockbuster movies, Al Gore's, an inconvenient truth, and the big short. I assumed it was a Mark Twain quote. In preparing my book for publication I wanted to nail down all the sort -- citations. And that's when I discover Mark train never said that and there's no evidence anyone said it. It is sort of appeared. The irony of the quote is, the people who used it in the movie were so sure it was so, they didn't bother to check it might not be so. How we train ourselves to be more critical quick I think it's a bunch of things. With a numerical claim, trying to figure out if it's plausible. Work through the numbers on the back of an envelope. You have to be precise. Senior for your hearing is reported in the mainstream media. There are conspiracies every once in a while, but for the most part, the mainstream media is not part of a conspiracy. It's a bunch of people like you and me trying to get the truth. And are trained to do so. The other thing is, when you land on a website, understand that is not the named the research enterprise. That is only the beginning. Tried to figure out who operates the site in what you can learn about them. FindWhat other sites link to them. There's a tool in the Google search engine that lets you do that. Link: -- if the White House is linking to that website, that's one thing, and if it's a bunch of white supremacy organizations that's another. That was Daniel Levitin speaking to our producer, Michael Lipkin.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is denying that false news stories posted on the social media platform this year influenced the presidential election. But while hoax news stories predate Facebook and Twitter, social media has allowed them to spread more quickly than ever before.

Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin has researched why people believe fake stories and bad information. Part of the problem, he said in the new book "A Field Guide to Lies," is our brains have a hard time letting go of past beliefs, even in the face of overwhelming evidence or scientific proof.

"Misinformation has been a fixture of human life for thousands of years, and was documented in biblical times and classical Greece," Levitin wrote. "The unique problem we face today is that misinformation has proliferated; it is devilishly entwined on the Internet with real information, making the two difficult to separate."

Even though Zuckerberg said the vast majority of articles shared on Facebook are genuine, some fake stories were shared widely. An article falsely claiming Pope Francis endorsed then-GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump was shared more than 950,000 times on Facebook; an article debunking the claim was shared only 35,000 times.

Levitin said he was frustrated by the popularity of false information during the campaign and the disinterest from some in seeking out the truth.

"We can reform the way we think, but we have to want to. It didn't occur to me I had to justify why rational thinking is a good thing," he said. "People need to be persuaded that information-gathering and avoiding pitfalls are good things. They want the rational thinking when it comes to stepping on an airplane, that the engineers knew what they were doing; they want an intellectual approach to their medical care, but not in politics and their daily life."

Levitin joins KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday with advice on how to avoid being misled online and how even he has been swept up in misinformation.