Fake News and Disability Culture

Skeptical yellow smiley face

There are a lot of articles right now about spotting "fake news." Some of them also try in a slightly wider way to explain how to evaluate the reliability, political bias, and professionalism of various news sources. Here are three decent examples:

6 Quick Ways to Spot Fake News
Kim LaCapria, Snopes.com - January 21, 2016

How to Spot Fake News
Eugene Kiely and Lori Robertson, FactCheck.org - November 18, 2016

10 Ways to Spot a Fake News Story
Melanie Radzicki McManus, How Stuff Works - December 19, 2016

What about disability content on the internet? Are we at risk of falling for fake news stories on disability topics? It's easy to single out anti-vax articles and ableist trolls, but what about the subtler forms of deception and sensationalism? What is the proper role of skepticism in a community that values believing what people say about their own experiences? Are we as good at spotting bad disability journalism when its conclusions do agree with our beliefs? What signs should we look for to sift the good stuff from the garbage in disability media?

I have three suggestions:

1. Recognize the disability version of "click bait."

“Click bait” is content designed to get you to click on a splashy, emotional headline or picture, often for the purpose of earning advertising money. Everybody who writes and posts on the internet wants to be widely read, but some people and businesses focus exclusively on making money by generating clicks, any way that they can. The most common forms of disability click bait include:

- Highly emotional appeals, usually to pity, sentimentality, or ridicule.
- Candid photos and videos of disabled people, (especially children), who likely did not give consent to being photographed or written about.
- Instructions to "Like," or "Share," especially when doing so is equated to prayer.

2. Approach moral / political outrage carefully, especially when your first instinct is to agree.

Healthy skepticism is important, but in disability culture and activism it’s tricky. We also want to accept disabled peoples' stories, even the horrific and "unbelievable" ones. Sometimes, things really are that bad. Nevertheless …

- Ask yourself basic critical questions about claims of extreme ableism or abuse. Does this story seem credible, given what you know about how the world works, based on your own life experiences, based on what you know about the reality of ableism?
- Remember that there is often a difference between the facts … what happened … and what it actually means.
- Do some research into the details of disability issues, and try not to panic over predictions of imminent doom. We may in fact be at a unique moment of real danger for the disability community, but the strengths we had before November 8 we still have, and political change is still hard, messy, and slow … even the bad stuff.
- Be skeptical, but don’t be an asshole about it.

Don't try to debunk stories you doubt, and don’t try to “expose” individuals who write about terrible personal experiences. Remember that in the disability community, really bad things really do happen. Meanwhile, maintain a healthy, base-level skepticism as you read, and add your positive and negative assessments to your evolving thinking about disability issues and ableism.

3. Ask who is speaking.

- Is the author disabled? What is their credibility on disability issues? Being disabled doesn’t mean someone is automatically right about disability matters, and non-disabled people often have spot-on insights, but direct experience and privilege should be included in your assessments.
- Are disabled people quoted or paraphrased in articles about disabled people? This is, or should be, “Nothing about us without us” in action.
- Again, remember, believing peoples’ stories isn’t the same thing as accepting their conclusions. Give individuals the benefit of the doubt. Focus your critical work on their ideas and conclusions.

These tips are only about methods and telltale signs. No matter what the external factors are, in the end you still have to evaluate the disability content itself.