10 Tips for Telling Fact From Fiction

Alan Abel poses appropriately in 1990. He's responsible for some of the world's most publicized hoaxes.
Theo Westenberger/Liaison/Getty Images

If America had a museum dedicated to its gullibility, out in front there would be a statute of Alan Abel, who was perhaps the foremost perpetrator of hoaxes in history. Back in the 1950s, Abel -- a jazz drummer turned performance artist -- conned the public and news media into thinking that his Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, or SINA, which campaigned for horses, dogs and other creatures to wear clothing, was a bona fide movement.

Since then, he's pulled Americans' legs too many times to count. He appeared on daytime TV in the guise of "Dr. Herbert Strauss," a physician who made it seem believable that people could survive on a diet of nothing but human hair, and planted a slew of newspaper stories including one about "euthanasia cruises," in which a cruise ship with a specially-greased deck would dump despondent passengers into the ocean. He even once convinced the eminent New York Times that he himself had died, compelling the embarrassed newspaper to print a correction to his lengthy obituary two days later [source: Keohane].


Abel's career is just part of a mountain of evidence of how easily we can be fooled into believing things that aren't true. You'd think that the advent of the Internet, which makes it easy to look up information on just about any subject, would help protect us from being conned. But instead, it only seems to have made things worse. Today, a digital hoax can spread across the planet in a few mouse clicks. It makes The Who's classic rock tune, "Won't Get Fooled Again," seem like a cruel taunt to us all.

Can we avoid getting fooled again? Maybe not, but experts say we can learn to spot tell-tales clues that we're being conned, and develop vetting methods that compensate for our tendency to believe what we hear, read or see. Here are 10 tips for telling fact from fiction.

10: Beware of Cognitive Bias

The famous 1934 photograph of the Loch Ness monster. Just before his death in 1994, Chris Spurling confessed that he and some other men had staged the picture.
Keystone/Getty Images

Our brains are designed to make sense of the onslaught of sensory stimulation and information that they get from the world by filtering and organizing. We have a tendency to focus on certain details and ignore others, to avoid being overwhelmed. And we habitually organize information into patterns, based on things we've seen or learned about before. That leads us to process what we hear, read or see in a way that reinforces what we think we already know. That phenomenon is called cognitive bias [source: Science Daily].

To make matters worse, some theorize that we also engage in selective exposure -- that is, we pick sources of information that tell us what we want to hear. Ohio State researchers, for example, found that when college students spent a few minutes reading news articles online, they selected ones that supported their already-held views 58 percent of the time [source: Hsu].


So, we're vulnerable to information that fits what we want to believe -- even if it's of dubious authenticity. That's probably why the infamous photograph of the Loch Ness monster, taken in 1934 [source: Nickell], was so convincing for many people. The silhouette resembled a long-necked dinosaur, which was something they had seen pictures of in natural history textbooks. And the idea that ancient creatures might have survived extinction already had surfaced in fiction such as Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 novel "The Lost World," so it wasn't too much of a leap conceptually. It wasn't until 1994 that researchers got an elderly man who had been part of the hoax to reveal that the monster in the photo actually was a foot-high model, fashioned from a toy submarine [source: Associated Press].

9: Pay Attention to the Unspoken Message

When South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford disappeared from home with no explanation, he said he had gone to hike the Appalachian Trail. But he wasn't very convincing. He later confessed he had flown to Argentina to meet his mistress.
Davis Turner/Getty Images

If you've ever sold used cars or peddled vacuum sweepers door-to-door, you probably know this from experience: Researchers have found that an attractive physical appearance and positive nonverbal cues, like eye contact, smiling and a pleasant tone of voice, may have as much or more of an influence upon us than the actual words that the person is saying. In fact, someone who is skilled at nonverbal messaging can actually foster what communication experts call a halo effect. That is, if we think that a person looks good, we assume that he or she is intelligent or capable as well. That's a big help in fostering credibility [source: Eadie]. But just as a salesperson can learn to project a convincing demeanor, a swindler or a dishonest politician can practice the same tricks.

However, other nonverbal cues provide useful information for evaluating whether someone is telling the truth or a lie. Researchers who've studied the questioning of criminal suspects, for example, note that even highly motivated, skillful liars have a tendency to "leak" nonverbal clues to their deception in the course of a long interview, because of the difficulty of managing facial expressions, physical carriage, and tone of voice over time. The trick is to watch for those tiny flaws in the subject's demeanor to emerge.


When making an untrue statement, for example, a person may flash a "microexpression"-- a frown, perhaps, or a grimace -- that reflects his or her true emotions, but clashes with what the person is saying. Since some of this microexpressions may happen as quickly as the blink of an eye, the easiest way to detect them is by replaying a video. But it is possible to do it in a real-time conversation as well. U.S. Coast Guard investigators trained in spotting such leakage, for example, have been able to spot such clues about 80 percent of the time [source: Matsumoto, et al.].

8: Watch for the Big Lie

Master of the Big Lie, Adolf Hitler is welcomed by supporters at Nuremberg.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Throughout history, purveyors of falsehoods seldom have bothered with piddling minor fibs. Instead, they generally have opted for what propaganda experts call the "Big Lie" -- that is, a blatant, outrageous falsehood about some important issue, and one that's usually designed to inflame listeners' emotions and provoke them to whatever action the liar has in mind. The Big Lie is most often associated with Adolf Hitler, who advised in his book "Mein Kampf" that the "primitive simplicity" of ordinary people makes them vulnerable to massive deceptions. "It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and would not believe that others would have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously," the Nazi dictator wrote.

Ironically, even as he explained the method of the Big Lie, he used it to promote an especially brazen untruth -- that Jews and Communists somehow had deceived the German people into thinking that their nation's loss in World War I was caused by reckless, incompetent military leaders. The Nazi dictator was onto something, though perhaps even his own twisted mind didn't grasp it: Some of the most effective Big Lies are accusations of someone else being a liar [source: Hitler].


Hitler, of course, didn't invent the Big Lie, and a liar doesn't necessarily have to be a bloodthirsty dictator to pull it off. But the best way to protect yourself against the Big Lie is to be an educated, well-informed person who's got a broad base of knowledge and context. Sadly, we live in a culture where fewer and fewer people seem to have that background. In a 2011, Newsweek gave 1,000 Americans the U.S. citizenship test; more than a third scored a failing grade -- 60 percent or lower -- to questions such as "How many justices are on the Supreme Court?" and "Who did the U.S. fight in World War II?" That's kind of scary [source: Quigley].

7: Rely on Trustworthy Sources

When you hear some startling information, ask yourself if the person is trustworthy.
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"Garbage in, garbage out" -- also known as GIGO, for short -- is a popular saying in the computer field. If you input wrong or inaccurate data when you run a software program, even if the computer runs the program perfectly, you're still going to get a wrong answer [source: Heathcote]. The same principle holds true for your brain. If you get your news and information primarily from supermarket tabloids, for example, you may think that most politicians and TV stars are either secretly dying of loathsome diseases or spending every waking moment engaging in extramarital affairs. And if you depend on ideologically strident TV commentary to stay abreast of what's going on, you may end up with some startling misconceptions. A 2011 study, for example, showed that 60 percent of the daily viewers of one conservative cable TV news channel incorrectly believed that most scientists think climate change is not occurring [source: WorldPublicOpinion.org and Knowledge Networks].

That's why just passive reading, watching and listening isn't enough to protect you against misinformation or even downright deception. Think of it this way: You wouldn't buy a used car without looking under the hood and checking the vehicle history report for accidents. Similarly, you should vet an information source, to make sure that it follows responsible journalistic practices and takes accuracy seriously. Check to see, for example, whether your newspaper runs corrections and employs an ombudsman to investigate factual disputes and answer questions from readers. To get a feel for what your news source should be doing, read this 2011 Columbia Journalism Review essay, "Eight Simple Rules for Doing Accurate Journalism" [source: Silverman].


6: Provenance is Proof

A selection of British newspapers profile the Duchess of Cambridge's pregnancy. Note the different angles they take.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

No matter how authentic a purported Picasso or Rembrandt looks, you wouldn't plunk down millions of dollars for a painting without seeing paperwork that details all the hands that the artwork has passed through over the years, and proves it isn't a forgery. Similarly, when you're presented with a purported historical fact, you can track it back though the past and make sure that the story hasn't been changed, or if you're interested enough, even figure out how it's evolved over time -- who tinkered with the truth and why.

There was a time when such a quest would have meant perusing dusty volumes on the back shelves of libraries or squinting at microfilm. But today, thanks to the Internet and the rise of online databases and search engines, you can do a pretty good job of it with a few keystrokes. From 2008 to 2011, Google compiled a searchable database of old newspapers from around the world dating back into the 1800s, and though that project is no longer adding content, nearly a million pages from 2,000 papers remain available for searching [source: Keller]. Additionally, there are a number of other databases available if you don't mind paying for them, such as the New York Times' online database of articles dating back to the mid-1800s. Another such online source is Newspaper Archive which includes 120 million articles from newspapers from all over the U.S. and some foreign countries, dating back to the 1600s [source: Newspaper Archive].


5: Don't Succumb to Pierre Salinger Syndrome

Journalist Pierre Salinger, originator of the Pierre Salinger Syndrome.
Chris Felver/Getty Images

While the Internet can be an incredibly useful research tool, it also increases the danger of being had by some hoaxer who takes advantage of Web users' gullibility. In recent years, we've seen numerous instances in which the unwary were duped by dubious info which they assumed was true, because it was posted online -- a phenomenon known as "Pierre Salinger Syndrome," after the late journalist who in 1996 announced that a source had given him a government document proving that the U.S. Navy accidentally shot down TWA Flight 800 while conducting missile tests off Long Island [source: Ganley]. As it turned out, the document was a fabrication that had been floating around the Internet for weeks, and which already had been discredited [source: Reid].

In 2009, so-called "Birthers," who believe that President Barack Obama actually was born in Kenya rather than Hawaii, uploaded what appeared to be a certified birth certificate dated August 4, 1961, indicating the President was born outside U.S. borders [source: WorldNetDaily]. Skeptics in the news media soon pointed out obvious flaws in the document -- it included, for example, the words "Republic of Kenya," even though Kenya was still a British dominion at the time. An anonymous blogger even posted a list of materials that he claimed to have used in creating the forgery [source: Weiner].


There are some simple steps that you can take to avoid being duped. A quick Google search can determine where a document or purported news article has been published previously, and whether its authenticity has been challenged. You can also research the details of the document, and see whether there are any flaws of the "Republic of Kenya" sort. Finally, you can consult a debunking Web site such as Snopes.com, which catalogs popular internet hoaxes [source: Snopes].

4: Look for Details that Don't Fit

A man is screened during a security check at Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel. Israeli airport security officials are famous for the techniques they use to question passengers before a flight.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Israeli airport security officials famously rely more on questioning and less on sophisticated scanners to intercept terrorists, fugitives and other people they want to keep off planes. They'll scan a traveler and look visually for things that don't match the person's story, and/or ask the same question in a couple of different ways, looking for inconsistencies in the answers. The Israelis are so relentlessly probing that some tour groups have given their members lengthy briefings in advance, on how not to flub answers nervously and trigger an even lengthier back-room interrogation [source: Parker].

FBI interrogators have their own version of this technique, called statement analysis, which is based on research showing that a person's choice of words may change distinctively when he or she slips a deceptive statement into a narrative. They've discovered, for example, that a person who is lying may suddenly start leaving out the pronoun "I" and start using "we" instead. Additionally, a change in the choice of verb tense may indicate a deception. For instance, Susan Smith tearfully pleaded on TV for the return of her "abducted" children, saying, "They needed me." Police later determined she had deliberately drowned them -- which of course she knew at the time she made the plea. Hence, the past tense.


Another warning sign to investigators is when an interview subject uses an odd or inappropriate choice of words, such as using the word "startled" to describe having a knife held at her throat by an assailant, rather than "terrified" [source: Adams]. These kind of slip-ups are easier to pick out in written statements, but if you're a careful listener, you can train your ear to catch subtle mistakes that may indicate that you're being lied to.

3: Conspiracies are Tough to Pull Off

Many believe the World Trade Center bombing was part of a vast conspiracy even though there’s no proof. Says author Michael Shermer, "How could 19 nobodies …bring down the most powerful nation in the world? But that’s exactly how it did happen.”
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Whether we're talking about phantom gunmen along President Kennedy's motorcade route on Nov. 22, 1963, or rumors that the government secretly is manipulating the weather, conspiracy theories provide an alluring, almost addictive alternative explanation of the world around us. Why do so many of us find stories of cover-ups in high places so appealing?

Michael Shermer, a psychologist and Scientific American columnist who wrote the 1998 book "Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions," believes the answer that our brains are hard-wired to see conspiracies. "We generate beliefs based on patterns we believe we see in the world," he says. But researchers have shown that people will look for patterns even when none exist as a way of having a sense of control in the world. Shermer believes this tendency is exacerbated by events such as the Kennedy assassination or the September 11 attacks. "There's a cognitive dissonance going on between the size of the event and the size of the cause. A big event should have a big cause. But that's not the way it usually works."


In reality, he says, elaborate conspiracies don't occur as often as conspiracy theorists assume, because history tells us that the more sprawling the plot, the more likely it is to go awry or be leaked by someone who can't keep his mouth shut. "Look at the Lincoln assassination conspiracy," Shermer says. "They did get Lincoln, but their grand scheme was to assassinate his entire cabinet. Instead, that plan fell completely apart" [source: Kiger].

2: Beware the Chain E-Mail/Facebook Alert

Be careful about forwarding information you get from Facebook.
Tim Robberts/Taxi/Getty Images

In 2012, lots of Facebook users received a warning from well-intentioned friends that they needed to post a copyright notice on their personal pages, in order to protect their content and photos from commercial exploitation. And a lot of Facebook users dutifully complied, just as their parents or grandparents may have dutifully re-typed five copies of an anonymous chain letter and sent it to their friends, so as to avoid whatever dreadful fate that supposedly befell people who broke the chain.

Of course, just as the chain letters were hoaxes, so was the Facebook copyright warning. As Brad Shear, a Washington, D.C.-area attorney and social media expert, told ABC News, the privacy declaration in the message "is worthless and does not mean anything" in legal terms. Additionally, a Facebook spokesman issued a statement, reminding users that while they give the social network permission to post their photos so that friends can see them, "we do not own them" [source: Stern].


PC Magazine columnist John C. Dvorak offers a few tips on how not to fall for such hoaxes. For one, be wary of any message that's been cut and pasted from some unidentified source. Look for misspellings and facts that don't seem quite right -- because they probably aren't. Another red flag is when a message contains wording that is "vague and breathless, such as 'This came to my attention after I was told that ... '" Or worse, "This is not a hoax." And finally, if the message urges you to repaste it and pass it along to other friends, don't [source: Dvorak].

1: Know the Techniques Deceptive People Use

Frank Abagnale speaks onstage at the event "Catch Me If You Can: Frank Abagnale 10 Years Later" during the 2012 SXSW Festival.
Bobby Longoria/WireImage/Getty Images

Hoaxers and con-artists, oddly, are eager to divulge their secrets, as evidenced by the number of them who've either written memoirs or given extensive access to interviewers. Some of these books -- ranging from Robert Crichton's 1959 classic "The Great Imposter," a biography of con artist Ferdinand Demara, to "Catch Me If You Can," a 1980 memoir by reformed impersonator Frank Abagnale, Jr., have even been made into Hollywood movies [sources: Williamson, Shone].

These stories can serve as virtual how-to psychological manuals on pulling off brazen deceptions, even if the operational details are a bit too dated to be useful. These documents also are a great asset in protecting yourself against such chicanery, because if you study them, you can reverse-engineer the con artist's bag of tricks and think through the skeptical investigator's techniques for exposing them for what they are. It's also possible to educate yourself by reading cautionary manuals, some of them written by fraud investigators and journalists who are willing to impart what they've learned from catching crooks. One such book is financial journalist and radio host Steve Weisman's 2008 book "The Truth About Avoiding Credit Scams: The Essential Truths in 20 Minutes," which provides detailed descriptions of lottery scams and other schemes that con artists try to use, and how to spot them before you fork over your hard-earned savings [source: Weisman].

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Tips for Telling Fact From Fiction

I've long been fascinated with con artists and the art of deception, ever since I saw the 1990 movie "The Grifters," which was based upon a book by the great pulp novelist Jim Thompson. And as a journalist, I've had a number of opportunities to talk with real-life con artists. The most notable of them was Richard Bailey, whom I profiled for GQ magazine back in the 1990s, when he was arrested and put on trial on charges connected with disappearance of Chicago heiress Helen Brach. Bailey, who made his living for years romancing and swindling wealthy women, had a certain irresistible homespun charm, even as he spun lies so outrageous that it's hard to imagine anyone believing them. He passed off a snapshot of himself standing next to Morgan Fairchild, for example, as proof that he'd had an affair with the famous actress -- a claim that my subsequent call to her publicist quickly refuted. When I pointed out the fib, though, Bailey was surprisingly good-natured about being busted. For him, apparently, it was no big deal, and he just kept on spinning his stories despite it.

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