Laura Petrolino

How to Spot Fake News: Triangulation for Communications Pros

By: Laura Petrolino | May 21, 2018 | 
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How to Spot Fake NewsAs the saying goes, there are always three sides to every story:

  • Your side
  • Their side
  • The truth.

And with the rise of fake news, the truth can often be hard to find.

While the onus is on everyone to combine critical thinking skills and research to spot fake news, as communications pros this responsibility is not just a societal one, it’s a professional one.

So how do you spot fake news? Especially in a digital world where it is very easily spread, often aligns with our own bias, and sometimes is accidentally covered by mainstream media sites.

How to Spot Fake News: Stop, Drop, Triangulate

While there are many super smart and easy ways to vet sources, spot suspicious stories, and fact-check information, I’m going to focus on one particularly important research skill today.

How to spot fake news with information triangulation.

Not only is that fun to say fast 10 times.

information triangulation.information triangulation.information triangulation.information triangulation.information triangulation.information triangulation.information triangulation.

It’s a crucial research skill for any communications pro.

Not only is information triangulation important when it comes to spotting fake news, it’s a skill that will help in any type of research you do. Competitive analysis, crisis preparedness and response, brand monitoring, SWOT, and even just in building your communications strategy.

One important note: what I outline below is NOT the specific triangulation process needed for a research study. Instead, it uses those methods and processes to apply to needs of communications pros, specifically when trying to figure out how to spot fake news.

So if you are a scientist looking for specifics around data triangulation for your research study, you aren’t my monkey (but I still love you and thank you for your contribution to science).

Triangul…What?

So what is information triangulation?

It’s a process of gathering and validating information from multiple sources (by definition two or more, but personally I always use at least three).

There are five types of triangulation:

  1. Methodology: Different types or research methods.
  2. Data: Different sources types of data.
  3. Researcher: Different sources of information or data (since everyone will approach research with their own bias).
  4. Theoretical: Approaching research from different theoretical perspectives.
  5. Environmental: Research is done in different type of environments.

To understand how to spot fake news, you must be aware of these different types of information perspectives so you can properly diversify your research.

The Triangulation Process: Evaluate the Situation

Each scenario is different, but here is an example of a process you can use to triangulate information.

Your first step is to evaluate the situation:

  1. Figure out the bias of the article: This is crucial. What bias does the article present? It might be subtle, but it will exist. For example, in this article, the bias is that artificial sweeteners WILL cause stroke and dementia. That’s easy to discern from the headline: “Diet soda can increase risk of dementia and stroke, study finds”
  2. Look at the source: In this case, USA Today isn’t really a source that you can assume has a certain bias on this issue. But if this article was in a publication that’s about natural medicine, or paleo or whole food, you can guarantee on a strong bias.
  3. Look for the modifier: In most mainstream publications, even if they are reporting something from a bias or sensationalized viewpoint, they’ll include a modifier to make sure they provide a full picture (even though the full picture might not be as good of a story). It will often be about 3/4ths of the way down an article and normally only a sentence or two. Here is the modifier in this story:

    Over seven years, researchers studied thousands of people over the age of 45 from the area of Framingham, Mass., on their drinking and eating habits. Researchers followed-up a decade later to see who had experienced a stroke or dementia. The data was adjusted The study only tracked the trend between artificial sweetener consumers, dementia and stroke, but was unable to prove that drinking artificial drinks was the cause of the diseases.

    This modifier can help you understand where you should look to triangulate the info and what questions you should ask. Think about all the questions which suddenly come up as far as the reporting of this study when you read these sentences. Compare this to the tone of the headline. Interesting, huh?

The Triangulation Process: Research

Now you are ready to start researching.

  1. Research the source: In the artificial sweetener article, your first step is to find the initial study cited. You’ll notice that USA Today doesn’t actually link to it. (This is also an automatic indication that you need to do more research. You should always be concerned when the publication doesn’t link to the study or piece of research they base the opinion of the article around.) Find it and actually read it. Even if you can only get the abstract somewhere, it will paint a much better picture than the author’s interpretation of the article.
  2. Research the experts: Often you’ll find that if you research all the experts cited in an article, they all come from a similar background or side of the issue. So always research each expert cited, as well as the reporter. If you see trends, you know your next step is to find varied experts on the issue. People who come at it from different perspectives.
  3. Ask the right questions: Here’s what you don’t want to do. Type into Google “artificial sweetener dangers.” Guess what you are going to get? A whooooooole lot of stories about how dangerous artificial sweeteners are. You need to train yourself to ask unbiased questions. And when that feels impossible to do, ask a group of questions which point to multiple sides of bias.

The Triangulation Process: Use Critical Thinking

Finally, you’ll review all the information you collected on the topic and start putting together the real story. You’ll find the original source and classify its level of bias, and then you’ll fill in the rest through the other sources you’ve found.

You’ll need to use your critical thinking skills here.

How to Spot Fake News: Check Your Bias

A common mistake people make when trying to triangulate their information is they will find three sources, yet they all come from the same perspective or method.

In theory, this sounds ridiculous. Why would anyone do that?  In actuality, it’s pretty easy. You’ve probably done it yourself a thousand times and not really noticed.

Why?

Because of bias.

You have a bias. I have a bias. Your consumer has a bias. We all have a bias! (I feel like Oprah now…. BIAS FOR EVERYONE!!!)

And often that bias is so strong, even when we try to check our sources we default to those which confirm our bias.

How to Avoid the Bias Trap

I personally follow this process to check myself (before I wreck myself).

  1. I ask myself where my bias is in this situation. You ALWAYS have a bias. Just remember that. And if you think you don’t have a bias it means you’re bias is so deep-rooted you can’t even see it. So dig deeper.
  2. I ask myself if I can argue for the side counter to my own bias. Here’s the reality of the situation: nothing is black and white. And if you let yourself believe it is you will just reconfirm your own bias over and over. Every side has a valid argument. And just because you don’t agree with an argument doesn’t mean it’s not valid. Furthermore, until you are able to argue for the other side, you don’t actually fully understand why you stand for what you do. So put aside your emotion and ego and find actual facts to you understand the perspective of the other side.
  3. I follow the triangulation process outlined above.

Wait, This Looks Hard

It’s really not. It’s more a mindset you take on when you read information. The more you go through the process, the more you’ll slowly start the natural questioning.

Everyone already does this to some extent naturally. This process just helps you be aware of it and add some organization to how you interpret what you read, see, and hear. This applies to news stories, “experts,” crisis, and the like.

Information triangulation will help you make judgments based on a fuller picture story. Judgments that will help your business, your client, and your career.

About Laura Petrolino


Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.

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