Can We Tell Fact from Fake?

“Fact Checkers” May Sneak in Agendas Under Cover of Professional Guidance

Question: Who was the first self-proclaimed “fact checker”?

Answer: Satan.

In the Garden of Eden, Satan first planted doubt about what God had said, then declared that God had lied. He then gave the First Couple the “real truth”—which turned out to be a catastrophic lie.

The moral of the story: beware of self-proclaimed “fact checkers.” That’s pretty discouraging advice, however, and it raises the question: How do you fact-check the fact checkers? Hold that thought.

In previous articles here, here, and here, I described the looming problem of criminals using AI systems to commit terror-extortion using deepfake videos that readily deceive viewers by showing their loved ones being tortured. Similarly, such AI systems can “jam” the internet with false statements of facts or warnings of dangers. Some human-impersonation AI systems can be outlawed, but false information on the internet cannot be stopped without closing the internet.

So, how can we protect ourselves against false, misleading, deceptive, and dangerous material online? Especially, how do we protect against messages that target us using AI techniques that exploit our vulnerabilities?

Essential Verification Methods

Advice already exists at several online sources. provides extensive and understandable ways to think about getting reliable information, including its Essential Guide to Verifying Online Information (2019). To verify online content, including videos and photos, the Guide recommends you first determine whether what it shows or relates to is something that actually occurred. If you have reason to believe the content relates to something real, then the Guide lays out the steps to verify it:

Provenance: Is this the original content or a copy?

Source: Who created the account, text, or photographic material?

Date: When was the content created?

Location: Where was the account, website, or content item created?

Motivation: Why was the account established, website created, or content item captured?

But notice that the Guide says the “fundamental claim of the article should be the first thing you check.” In other words, first you must identify the truth claim and see whether it’s true. The Guide’s other five steps don’t matter until the veracity of the underlying claim is determined. Finding out whether a terror-extortion video is authentic and real is the entire and gut-wrenching challenge for individuals, yet that must be figured out immediately. The Guide’s advice doesn’t help in an emergency.

Dealing With an Infodemic

To address the problem of online information jamming, offers a multimedia course for journalists and others called “Too much information: a public guide to navigating the infodemic”—a “TMI” course. The course highlights several worthy concerns, such as:

  • Humans are “hardwired to gossip,” so “rumors, conspiracy theories and hoaxes are nothing new.”
  • “Fear and love are powerful motivators” that trigger people to share information because they are scared and want to protect loved ones.
  • People online tend to imitate, identify with, and follow along with their “tribe” of fellows sharing common backgrounds or interests—people stick with their tribe’s views.
  • “Misinformation thrives when there’s an absence of verified facts.”

The TMI course describes “seven types of content commonly found in an infodemic”:

  1. Satire used to “strategically spread rumors and conspiracies.”
  2. Clickbait headlines that make claims not supported even by the associated articles.
  3. Misleading content that supplies some information but not the accurate whole picture.
  4. Imposter content that is false or misleading but claims to have reputable sources in known organizations, individuals, and brands.
  5. False context that uses genuine content but to advance a different narrative.
  6. Manipulated content such as images and memes that seem to look real but aren’t authentic.
  7. Fabricated content that is 100 percent false, including “deepfakes” fashioned using AI to depict things never said or done.

Beware Fact Checkers’ Ulterior Motives

The TMI course does help researchers and internet users engage in healthy skepticism about what they see and hear online. If the course supplies valuable ways to fish out truth from an ocean of noise, then we come to trust the course and its purveyors, right?

The presentation sneaks in a beautifully subtle deception, however. In the context of the “infodemic” of Covid-19-related information, the TMI course uses graphics and purposefully chosen words to define four basic categories of sources of online information (quoted here verbatim):

  • Mainstream Media
  • Your uncle’s memes on Facebook
  • Some dude on twitter
  • [Tweets like] On /pol/ I saw proof that Hillary is still killing FBI agents to hide the truth about Q - #WWG1WGA

Notice the technique of false alternatives. Three of the four information categories are presented derogatorily and appear ridiculous. The one “respectable” source left is “Mainstream Media.” The implication: Either you believe the mainstream media or you’re a fool.

Moreover, the TMI course advises people overwhelmed by online information in the health emergency to just “relax your standards” and turn to selected national and world government authorities for the real truth. Nowhere does the TMI course suggest ways to figure out whether the “authorities” are correct. People are told how to ignore dissent, not how to evaluate potentially valid competing claims. The course says: “Stick to official guidance,” linking to a few national and global agencies.

If you navigate around, you will discover the site declared that all alternative therapies for Covid-19 were absolutely worthless and that questioning “climate change” theories is baseless, too. Disagreeing with the “mainstream” views on these topics constitutes misinformation or disinformation, the site says. The site declares these things without acknowledging possibilities that different professional views might be correct. The site sells methods to find truth, gets your trust, then injects its brand of unquestionable beliefs. Very tricky.

Most puzzling, (as of this writing) does not deploy its techniques to examine the “infodemic” about the 2023 Hamas attack on Israel and the ongoing war. Both sides of the war publish statements—but doesn’t examine that war of words.

Full Employment for “Experts” in Power

The guides give advice that few of us can or will use because it’s too much work. That’s a tactic for selling experts’ services. Sure, YouTube videos and self-help books suggest you could do many big projects yourself, but they often persuade us that we cannot ourselves do such projects feasibly or well.

The job of being one’s own fact checker is daunting. Using the published methods creates a lot of work that prods us to hire “fact checkers” who profit by supplying customers with “the truth.” One might hear echoes of Pontius Pilate: “What is truth?

Notice the ultimate conundrum. Society is losing the definition of truth. The internet is filling up with some jumbled mixture of objective truths, private opinions, incorrect statements of fact, and outright lies. Fact checkers arise but may themselves have agendas that don’t include giving the whole objective truth or different sides of a story. We are left with reason to doubt everything we see or hear. That’s good to know except it doesn’t lead us to objective truth.

Truth Does Set Us Free

Satan’s contentions and Pilate’s question together seem to win. If we are to doubt everything, then we are to doubt any understanding, even of God. Add the “post-truth” mindset, and we have nothing more than personal opinions untethered to reliable reality. Human power-mongers swoop in to control those opinions. Confused people are easy to divide and conquer.

What to do? Use the methods available. But they really only work if we individually, and as a society, decide we want objective truth and will never tolerate lies. A free market for information will supply truth reliably only when both sellers and buyers desire objective truth. Government control of “truth” is no better. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, “Live not by lies.” We must embrace a worldview that declares there is objective truth and must shame those who lie and deceive.

Richard W. Stevens, an appellate lawyer, holds degrees in both computer science and law, and has authored four books and numerous articles on various subjects, including legal topics, the Bill of Rights, and intelligent design.

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