More than 90 percent of fake news articles contain a graph or some kind of mathematical data. That statistic sounds alarming, but the more alarming thing is that Charles Seife, a professor of journalism at New York University, made it up. “We think of numbers as something other than human,” he says. “But numbers that we use in the everyday world are very much human and they’re created, manipulated, and presented by humans.”
According to Seife, there are several common ways that people use numbers and graphs to mislead. You have already seen an example of the easiest and most frequently used one: simply making up numbers. Even when percentages are supported by polls, it’s important to determine what they represent. Ask who was polled and what specific questions were asked. You want to make sure you fully understand what’s being evaluated or measured.
Graphs can also easily be used to mislead. By changing the scale on a graph, “we can make big effects look small and small effects look big,” says Seife. Graphs might also start at a point other than 0, which is where most graphs start, to make a change seem more significant than it is. Alternatively, graphs that show data where small changes have a big impact might purposefully start at 0 to make significant changes look small. Statistics and graphs are powerful tools that can quickly communicate information, but they’re only as good as the people who create them.