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A Consumer's Guide to Information: How to Avoid Losing Your Mind on the Internet

A Consumer’s Guide to Information

How to Avoid Losing Your Mind on the Internet

Katherine Pickering Antonova

Copyright 2016 Katherine M. Antonova

All Rights Reserved

This ebook is licensed for your personal use and enjoyment only. This ebook may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

This is for Anya and Marina: in the hope that your generation handles information better than your elders have.

Contents

Chapter One – Information Revolution

This Is Hard for Everybody

How to Use This Book

What Is Critical Thinking?

Can You Handle the Truth?

Paying Attention

Engaging With Ideas

Follow the Evidence

Your Brain Is a Traitor

Questioning Ourselves

When Evidence and Reasoning Won’t Help

Chapter Two – What’s the Good News?

Tabloids Have Invaded Your Home

How to Not Get Conned

Breaking News

The Lamestream Media?

Chapter Three – Dealing with People

Who Can We Believe?

Is This Person for Real?

Engaging with People Who Disagree

The Trouble with Groups

Chapter Four – Reading Arguments

What Is an Argument?

More about Evidence

How to Test Claims

Arguing about Causes: Explaining the Past

Confusing Cause and Effect

Arguing about Effects: Predicting the Future

Arguing by Analogy

Conspiracy Theories

Propaganda

Chapter Five – Reading Reviews and Advice

The Art of the Review

Advice

Red Flags

Limiting Choices

Chapter Six – Data and Statistics: What Are They Good For?

Numbers Are Not All the Same

Surveys and Polls

Statistics about Uncertainty

Statistics about Reality

Chapter Seven – Privacy and Security

Controlling Your Information

Being Safe

Spotting Scams and Hoaxes

Chapter Eight – Health and Science: What Will Kill Us This Week?

What We Don’t Know Is Killing Us

Science is a Process, Not an Answer

Science in the News

Reading Good Science

Do Not Consult Dr. Google

Chapter Nine – Effective Searches: Google Is Not Your Mom

Step One: Don’t Use Google

Step Two: Use Keywords

Step Three: Stop Searching the Whole Internet

Chapter Ten – Getting out of Your Bubble

This Benefits You Most of All

Bubble-Free Browsing

Getting off the Internet

Chapter Eleven – Too Much Information

Reading Efficiently

Information Management

Chapter Twelve – How to Not Go Crazy

Being Wrong Sometimes

Controlling Your Exposure

Slowing Down and Checking Out

Rules of Thumb

Acknowledgements

About the Author

CHAPTER ONE

INFORMATION REVOLUTION

In the early stages of the industrial revolution, people reported being terrified or nauseated by the speed of the new trains, and changes in work and the environment massively altered most people’s lives, often in ways that were deeply damaging. Today we are living in the early stages of an information revolution that is similarly transforming most aspects of our lives, and it can be overwhelming.

This Is Hard for Everybody

We have easy access to enormous amounts of information, but it has also become harder to escape the bombardment. While it should be easier than ever to find out what we need to know, in some ways this too has actually become harder, because there is so much unhelpful information to sort through first.

Moreover, our own brains are fighting us. We are not built to manage information at the speeds we now confront. The constant distraction caused by alerts and alarms emanating from our personal devices makes it difficult to focus. Staring at lighted screens after dark disrupts our sleep. And more deeply, various defense mechanisms that humans have developed to cope with risk and threats in the physical world can actually make us more vulnerable in the digital world, where we get the wrong information, miss what we do need, and get manipulated or cheated by those who use our vulnerability for their gain.

The onslaught of information we face every waking minute of the day is not just hard on our minds and bodies and a source of vulnerability. Too much information often just makes us feel bad. We are exposed to a great deal of sad or difficult news even when it doesn’t affect us. We are pressured to make decisions without being able to master what’s at stake in them. We know so much about each other that we are often battling feelings of jealousy, hurt, fear, and worry about how we stand in relation to others, what they think of us, and how different many of us really are, even while most people actually get along just fine with others in face-to-face encounters.

It is tempting to just turn away from this upsetting wall of noise. However, the interconnectedness of our world through information is now so dense that total avoidance is impossible. This book offers basic critical thinking strategies to help anyone navigate the minefield of non-stop information. If we were all a little better at handling the situation, the situation would improve for everyone.

How to Use This Book

This book is for anyone who feels overwhelmed by information in general or stressed by the difficulty of finding what we need and can rely on, in particular. These days that might well be all of us.

Casual readers who are looking to improve their approach to information in certain realms should feel free to jump around: the sub-headings in each chapter are meant to make the book easy to navigate.

Those who are just beginning to think about how they consume information should find plenty to ponder by simply reading through from beginning to end.

Those who want to do serious work on becoming a savvy citizen in the world of digital information are recommended to skim the book first for an overview, and then move slowly section by section, trying out the ideas here one at a time, with frequent breaks.

Improving our information literacy is hard work that takes time, but like most skills it gets faster and more automatic with practice, and comes with a big payoff. In this case, the payoff will be getting reliable answers to our questions, knowing how to avoid being manipulated or conned, and having the confidence of being able to defend our views and the security of knowing we are acting on solid information.

What Is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is not a negative approach to the world. Critical thinking is a rational process of sorting and weighing information so that we can find what we need and have confidence in what we know. It is a way of training our brains to overcome those instincts that work against us in the world of information. It is also a way of seeing the world beyond our personal perspective. It shows us how our actions affect others we haven’t met. This teaches us how to act with compassion and fairness not just toward the people we meet face-to-face, but toward all those whose lives we touch.

Can You Handle the Truth?

Critical thinking is an active, effortful practice. Especially at the beginning, if it hurts it means you’re doing it right, much like a physical workout. We have to train ourselves to work past our first reactions, because these reactions tend to be not just emotional, but specifically grounded in the feelings of our “lizard brain,” where fear, disgust, panic and other extreme reactions are triggered before we have a full understanding of our situation.

Even people who have many years of training and experience in research fields still need to constantly remind themselves to question their own biases and go through mental checklists, though other parts of the critical thinking process become second nature with time.

Paying Attention

Critical thinking is also more than a set of skills that we can practice. It requires a degree of mindful attention that is more difficult to find time for now than ever. Think of mindful attention as the kind of zone an artist or athlete gets into at their best.

For example, ordinarily when we look at someone’s face, our brains rush to recognize the person and read their expression, because that’s what we need to do most of the time. But we can make a conscious effort to look at that face in a completely different way, as an artist does, seeing details we normally gloss over like the fact that the face takes up the bottom part of the head only, or the way shadows contour the features.

This willful act of shifting focus and noticing what you didn’t see on first glance is also central to critical thinking.

Engaging with Ideas

To engage with ideas means to try them out, understand them, and walk around with them awhile without judging them. Judging may follow, but the only way to truly disagree with an idea—to do so with certainty, in a way you can defend to others—is to first fully understand it from the perspective of those who hold the idea. You have to temporarily let your own certainties, expectations, and experiences be set aside in order to take in another view of the world. Then you return to your own, hopefully having been enriched by your journey.

This is not a comfortable process. If you’re doing it right, it should fill you with doubt, and maybe even guilt, shame, fear, and anger. This is because you need to seriously entertain a reality where what you think you know is not, in fact, true. That is an upsetting sensation. When you’re done with this process you might come back to where you began, or you might come back somewhere nearly where you began, or perhaps you’ll land somewhere unexpected. You can’t know, or the process won’t work.

Entertaining real uncertainty and doubt is incredibly difficult. It is a leap of faith, where you unmoor yourself from much of what you know—and therefore from much of yourself—and imagine a different, unfamiliar world that feels alien and perhaps unwelcoming (at least at first). In order to land in a place of confidence and enlightenment, you have to rely on the process. It is like stepping into a dark space, but doing so knowing that there is solid ground under your feet even when you can’t see what it looks like. The ground beneath your feet is made of evidence and reasoning. This is what supports our explorations of the outside world.

Confronting Disappointment

This process may also lead you to realize that a source you have trusted in the past has misled you. To avoid feeling that betrayal of trust or out of loyalty to people we respect we are sometimes tempted to gloss over such incidents as insignificant exceptions.

Critical thinking requires, though, that we determine what caused our source to feed us unreliable information, so we can make a reasoned decision about whether we can continue to rely on that source. Sometimes the most trusted sources will mislead us by accident. Sources with the best intentions may mislead us out of ignorance or confusion.

You can acknowledge good intentions without accepting the misleading conclusions your source came to. You can be more loyal in the long run by not enabling people you respect to continue to be misled and to mislead others.

Don’t First Look at the Source

The first mistake most people make when trying to assess the value of information is to rely on where the information came from: who said it? What’s your source?

In fact, you’ll often see this as the first piece of advice in many free online guides to spotting “fake” information. One of the problems with this advice is that it just reinforces divisions when people already only trust information from their own “side,” and are therefore predisposed to reject anything from alternative sources on principle.

But information, facts, truth, and reality itself do not have sides, and that’s the stuff we’re looking for. The biggest problem with the advice to “look at the source” is simply that the source really doesn’t matter very much. This mistake is known as the “appeal to authority fallacy.” This fallacy says that because someone said X, if we respect or like or trust that someone as an authority, then what they say must be true. That’s bad logic because anyone can be wrong, whether because they’re lying, don’t know better, or they simply made a mistake or don’t have the appropriate information or experience in this particular case.

Follow the Evidence

So what else do we have to go on? The golden rule at the core of all critical thinking is: follow the evidence. If a source is really worth listening to, they will show you their evidence and explain their reasoning about it so you can judge it for yourself.

When you read a claim someone makes, look for what evidence they share and how they explain they arrived at their conclusions, and ask yourself what they left out, long before considering who said it.

What Evidence Means: Reasoning

Alongside evidence, we look for reasoning that links the evidence to claims. In other words, when we evaluate how reliable or useful a piece of information is, we look for data, documentation, testimony, etc., we weigh that evidence, and we also assess the logic and plausibility of how that evidence is supposed to support the conclusion we’re interested in. This process together is what critical thinking is all about. It will become clearer as we look at examples.

Your Brain Is a Traitor

There are several ways our brains make it harder for us to process information accurately that we should learn to recognize as we feel them happen, though their names are not important:

Confirmation Bias – We are tribal creatures who value belonging and bonding with others like ourselves. We are predisposed to recognize and believe whatever information confirms what we’ve already chosen to agree or identify with. This can make us miss vital new information, or problems with what we think we already know.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect – When we know little about a subject, we’re actually more likely to feel certain of our opinions about it, and to rate ourselves as experts. Learning more about the subject teaches us how much more there is to know, and leads to more tentative, yet actually sounder, conclusions. This is a dangerous problem, because not having information we need makes us vulnerable, yet we actually double-down on false or limited conclusions and aggressively reject that which challenges them, putting ourselves even more at risk.

Cognitive Dissonance – So that we may survive the many contradictory streams of information and experience hitting us every day, we often accept a principle in one aspect of our lives while arguing against it in another, without noticing the contradiction. It is a defense mechanism to avoid confronting our most difficult problems. But the cost of this tendency is that we behave like hypocrites, not even living up to our own values in some aspects of our lives.

False Equivalence – Our minds seek balance and fairness, and this is reinforced at tremendous volume by a media environment that emphasizes presenting two sides to everything rather than doing the more difficult work of fact-checking and researching multiple perspectives. So we tell ourselves that we are fair and objective when we politely acknowledge “both” sides on any question, or decide to “agree to disagree.” In reality, however, any issue worth discussing has more than two sides, and the evidence probably does not shake out equally among all of them. Truthfulness is more important than neutrality. We need to know the truth so that our choices really fit our values and needs.

Correspondence Bias – We usually understand how our own mistakes are partly due to extenuating circumstances, but we tend to judge other people’s mistakes as solely the result of their inherent character. This is closely related to our tendency to pay more attention to things that irritate or threaten us than to things that help us. The sad result is that we often take just one incident or fact as defining whole people or groups, especially when what little we know is negative.

Selective Memory and Attention – The reason things like astrology or fortune-telling can seem spookily accurate is that we notice and remember facts that confirm the idea, while not noticing or dismissing as irrelevant anything that contradicts it. This function is how our brains sort through the non-stop input from our environments to focus on what we need to know, but it can play tricks on us. Instead of needing to remember which characteristics mark a path that leads back to water, we now need to sort through much more complex and sometimes deliberately deceptive clues to understand abstract concepts, and to do that well we have to make more conscious choices about where to focus our attention.

Illusory Truth Effect – One of the ways we manage being constantly confronted with new information is that we start taking repeated information for granted, so that we can focus on new input. One of the costs of this trait, though, is that when we read or hear the same false statement over and over—even if we know from the start that it’s untrue—we begin to believe it without realizing what we’re doing. The more we see the false statement, the more we believe it, and we can even reach a point where we will dig our heels and defend the false statement when it’s debunked, just because it has become part of our mental landscape through repetition. Note how this makes us frighteningly easy to manipulate!

Questioning Ourselves

The following questions are a guide we can walk ourselves through to help us set aside our assumptions, biases, and blind spots in order to engage with ideas critically. We should ask ourselves these questions deeply, with careful thought about each one, and we should remind ourselves of these questions each time we approach a situation when we confront a really difficult problem or disagreement.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Is it possible that I am sometimes wrong? (Of course it is.)

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Are there things I don’t know? (Of course there are.)

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Is it possible that other people know things I don’t, and could tell me things that are to my advantage? (Of course it is.)

#
p<>{color:#000;}. If someone I trust says something, does that make it true? (No, it doesn’t.)

#
p<>{color:#000;}. My perspective is valid and real. Are other people’s perspectives also valid and real? (Of course they are.)

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Do I know what other people’s perspectives actually are without listening to them? (Of course I don’t.)

#
p<>{color:#000;}. What specific harm will result from listening to a different perspective with an open mind and heart? (None: listening is free and safe.)

#
p<>{color:#000;}. On subjects where I feel certain I’m right, what is the source of my certainty? (Is my knowledge comprehensive, vetted by myself and other experts, and still subject to new evidence? Is it up-to-date?)

#
p<>{color:#000;}. If a statement makes me feel strong emotions, do my feelings make that statement true or untrue? (Of course they don’t.)

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Are my feelings more important than the truth? (If I am the only person affected, that’s my call. But if other people are affected, I can’t deliberately avoid truth just to spare my feelings.)

#
p<>{color:#000;}. How does it make me feel to consider listening to contrary opinions with an open mind? How do I feel while actually listening? What are those feelings trying to tell me? Can I let them wash over me and wait to see what’s on the other side? (Yes, I can.)

#
p<>{color:#000;}. I am entitled to my opinion, but is my opinion worth sharing? (Is it based in truth about the world, beyond my personal feelings? Does it add something productive to a discussion?)

When Evidence and Reasoning Won’t Help

Some subjects or questions are knowable, and some are not. Empirical data and rational analysis can’t solve every problem or answer every question. There are many important spheres of life where critical thinking cannot help us.

But we also need to acknowledge those areas where not knowing and not thinking cost us dearly. We do not need to leap to indulge our outrage, fear, disgust, contempt, anger, or desires without first confirming that these feelings are grounded in reality and assessing how we can respond to them in a productive way. We can avoid leaping to conclusions without evidence, and we can remind ourselves to handle information especially carefully just when it seems to feed our deepest fears or desires. That is precisely the moment, when much is at stake, that we owe it to ourselves to be sure of our facts.

CHAPTER TWO

WHAT’S THE GOOD NEWS?

One of the most dangerous and unpleasant realities of internet media today is the pervasive presence of fake news that is intended to manipulate our views or take our money. Deliberately manipulated “news” is far worse than the mistakes or ill-advised reporting we sometimes see from legitimate news sources, much less the occasional questionable editorial choice or minor error—quickly corrected—from the most reputable news organizations, which get that reputation by relying on journalists with professional training (including in ethics), fact-checking their work, and then having it further evaluate by editors.

Tabloids Have Invaded Your Home

The manipulation of information is as old as time. But before the internet, most fake news aimed at the public was relegated to tabloids at the supermarket checkout, and that physical context gave us clues about how trustworthy that information might be. But today when nearly all information reaches us as words on a screen, we have far fewer clues to distinguish one type from another. Often we see news when it is shared with us by friends in a social media space that feels personal, and that makes us tend to give it more trust than we would if we encountered it at random in a public space. And because of the ease and cheapness of today’s software, anyone can produce what looks like real news articles, except that they completely invent the content out of thin air. The process of making fakes is so easy, and the means of bringing it to us so misleading, that most of us, no matter how savvy and whatever our views, have been taken in by fake news at some point.

Viral Lies

Because Americans increasingly get and share their news on social media platforms, these fake news articles can go viral, being seen and believed by millions around the world, long before anyone can begin to refute them. Debunking such articles takes time, but the results are also less dramatic, and don’t get shared as often. Even after reading that a piece of news was debunked, many people remember only the fake version just a short time later.

The Con

Reporting just before the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, Buzzfeed found more than 100 fake news sites run from a single town in Macedonia. The sites were made purely to profit from advertising, and they experimented with fake news supporting candidates from both parties.

Profit is often the motivation for producing fakes, but sometimes they are purposefully intended to sway our political views, made by people with vested interests in the outcome of an election.

The Joke

Other forms of fake news are made just to be funny, and such sites should reveal themselves as “satirical” somewhere, but this information might be in small print, or not noticeable from the headline shared on social media. The Onion is the most well-known of these, and others include the “Borowitz Report” in The New Yorker, Sports Pickle, Private Eye (a UK version of The Onion), News Biscuit, Unconfirmed Sources, and CAP News (which imitates the ABC News logo).

Fake News Is Making Us Miserable

Other than satire sites, fake news is usually made to be intentionally disturbing, often presenting horrifying details that make ordinary people question the decency of the world. That’s what gets attention, and therefore the clicks that result in advertising money. The cumulative result of seeing a lot of this kind of fake news, however, is depression, anxiety, and fear—all of it unnecessary, since these horrible events never occurred. There’s enough real bad news in the world already. Let’s not allow ourselves to be upset by the fake stuff.

Headlines to Stop Clicking On

The first step when assessing whether a news story is fake is to notice whether the headline you see is playing to your emotions. Fake news headlines are often either extremely vivid and shocking (“Mother kills baby with a hatchet, then eats puppies!”) or full of vivid language with no details, forcing you to click to the site to find out what the headline refers to (“Obama DESTROYED Warren with this comment”). Another common tactic is for the snappy headline to contradict a dominant media narrative (during a week of news about school shootings, a headline saying: “Ninja principal tackles shooter and prevents tragedy!”). These kinds of headlines feed a wish in our minds to not have to accept what the real news is telling us lately. Finally, headlines that pose a question (“Did Adele Really Pose Naked with a Monkey?”) can usually be answered with a simple “no” without even bothering to click through. Framing a claim as a question is a sneaky way to pretend you’re not spreading something you know is false.

One solid strategy for remaining sane is to simply not click on any such headlines. The chances of them being true, or truly interesting, are minimal. If you’re curious, search Twitter for accounts that “spoil” “click bait” news. These accounts read the article for you and tweet the key information missing from the headline (they tend not to last long, probably because the task is herculean). Just reading some of these twitter feeds, such as @BaitClickSpoilr and @ClickBaitSpoilr, is an entertaining look at how manipulative those headlines really are. Along similar lines, follow journalist @CraigSilverman for frequent call-outs of fake news as well as errors in mainstream media.

Another quick way to avoid clicking on sketchy headlines is to skim the comments on the post first—if the news is fake, often someone will have pointed this out by the time you see it, and save you some trouble.

The Trickiest Fakes

But some forms of fake news work harder to trick you. These headlines are shocking or disturbing, but the language isn’t so hyped up, so that it might still sound like a real news site (especially since real news organizations are starting to write headlines in the same terrible way to compete for our clicks).

Some fakers use site names that are intended to be mistaken for a real local newspaper, like The Denver Guardian. Others use web addresses that begin the same way as major networks, like “www.abc.com.co”. Always look at the URL (Universal Resource Locator—the address for any website—located in the address bar at the top of your browser) to confirm that you really are looking at what you think you are.

Most established US websites end in .com, .org, .net, .gov, or .edu, and usually the part of the address before that ending is just the company or institution name. Be suspicious of misspellings, extra components, unusual endings, or strange names in a web address. That said, some “strange” endings for a US viewer may be a standard ending for another country, such as “.mx” for Mexico or “.no” for Norway. British commercial websites end in “.co.uk,” which should not be confused with just “.co”.

To be on the safe side, just do an independent search for the organization’s name, which should quickly bring up the official site (usually designated as such in the search results).

How to Not Get Conned

The best strategy to spot fake news is to get independent confirmation of the key facts, or to identify inconsistencies that suggest the information was manipulated. None of these steps is difficult or time-consuming, but you may have to go through several of them before you’re sure of what you’re looking at.

Check the Date

Sometimes old stories are recycled and shared (often by accident) as if they’re current. The same story can be shared over and over, sometimes with a few details or the picture changed, to give an impression that some event is a constant phenomenon when it actually happened only once.

Who Started It?

Do a quick general internet search to see if the website the story comes from is actually a news organization.

If the story comes from a blog, you’ll have to dig a bit further. Often blogs make small, local news stories go viral by sharing and discussing them, but a legitimate blog should link you back to the source of the story on a legitimate news site or official report from the appropriate authority. Occasionally a blogger will break a real news story, but that is only possible if that blogger has direct access to events or people who make news. If that is the case, the blogger should explain how he was the first person to make the event or statement public, and those facts should be documented or confirmed by independent authorities before we rely on it.

Sometimes a report comes through a news site specializing in opinion and analysis like Slate or The Weekly Standard that does little or no original reporting, and these sites may link you back still further. If a story is legitimate, you should be able to trace it back through links to a news organization with reporters in the location where the story occurred, or to official police or government reports.

Be suspicious of vague reports that say “according to police” or “according to local news sources” without actually naming or linking them. That’s an easy way to make something sound official when it isn’t.

Often a legitimate local news organization will be named, but when you search its site, there’s no mention of the viral story. That suggests it didn’t happen. Other times, when you search for the local newspaper or TV station that is named as reporting the story, there is no such newspaper or TV station, though the name will often be suspiciously similar to a real one.

Where Did It Happen?

You can also search the location where a news story is said to have happened to find out what the major newspapers and stations are, then go straight to those local news sites to see if they’re reporting on the same event. If they’re not, again it’s likely that the story was fake.

In some cases you can search Twitter for the emergency (police, fire, and EMT) scanners for the relevant location. Major crimes would be noted in this way, though not every location has twitter feeds for emergency scanners.

Look for Quotes

Is anyone quoted in the article? Many fake news sites quote unnamed “witnesses” or “officials” and that’s a dead giveaway—legitimate news sources attribute quotes to the speaker (only a few national papers regularly allow high-level government sources to be quoted anonymously by reporters who meet with them personally and stake their own reputations on the quotes being real).

When an official is quoted, do a quick google search of the quote to see if it was recorded on video or in a transcript on a legitimate site, such as a major, respected news organization or a government body. The statements of important elected officials are constantly recorded by multiple parties: if you don’t find the full quote with context recorded somewhere with unassailable legitimacy, you should assume it didn’t happen.

When you do find a quote confirmed somewhere, look to see whether there’s more context available, including not only what was said before and after the quote, but where it was said, to what audience, and for what purpose.

The Lamestream Media Won’t Cover This!”

News is often shared on social media with a sarcastic comment about how the mainstream media refuses to cover it. It’s true that the digital revolution can give us access to important information we can’t otherwise get, without editorial filters telling us what we should know. The mainstream media does have a recognized tendency to underreport foreign news, and the kinds of crimes or tragedies that are sadly common but not considered exciting enough to bring in the views and clicks that news organizations depend on for funding. However, one other reason stories don’t make it into the mainstream media is simply that reporters looked into it and didn’t find anything that could be verified. Be especially careful with stories that aren’t getting any attention from established press organizations.

Altered Images

If a suspicious news story comes with images, the first thing to do is to see if the image was digitally altered in ways we can spot. Shadows and light sources should be consistent through all parts of the photo, and people’s limbs should all have natural angles.

A classic trick is to show someone holding a sign with something shocking written on it, because it’s very easy to erase the words on a sign and type in your own using photo manipulation software.

Next, if there are multiple images or different images in different versions of the story, check that they match. Do the people, objects, and background scenery or buildings look like the same location in each photograph? It’s very common for an image from a previous or related but much less dramatic incident to be used to lend weight to a fake story. Is a picture of a group of people surrounding a vehicle about a riot, a traffic incident, or a popular food truck? Are the people in the photo fighting, helping, or just curious? When a headline tells us what’s happening, we project appropriate actions and intentions onto the people in the photograph. When the headline is invented, we can walk away thinking we’ve seen “proof” through this completely faulty mechanism.

In the same way, separate the caption from the image. Often an image that is confusing or open to interpretation is manipulated by a firmly worded caption to seem to depict much more than it really does. Try imagining a completely different caption for the image to see if it, too, could be just as plausible with this image.

You can also check whether an image really depicts what it’s supposed to depict by capturing a screenshot and dragging it into Google Images. The search will find similar images from all over the internet, including what might be (other) fakes. But if you read the sites linked there for background information, you may be able to detect the original source of the image.

But Video Is Proof, Right? (Nope)

Video is harder to fake, but still can’t be trusted automatically. The audio track is the easiest thing to add or subtract from a video, and bits of someone’s speech can be edited into a new order by anyone on a laptop with fairly basic software. Video images that are dark, blurry, or otherwise hard to make out can be manipulated with faked audio to appeal to your senses and make you feel like you’re seeing a lot more than you actually are. Try watching it with the sound muted (or listen to just the audio and look at something else). Video can also be taken out of context, either by editing out crucial portions or taking video from one incident and claiming it is something else altogether.

What This Meme Needs Is a Cat

One further way that fake news gets circulated is through memes. Memes are viral images that usually present a brief, supposedly factual claim superimposed over a disturbing or famous photo.

First remember that the photo and text were put together for effect, but are not necessarily connected at all. When a person is photographed often enough there’s a complete catalog of expressions available to illustrate anything we like. This is how we can get a photo of a movie star making a face after sipping too-hot coffee used to illustrate a bland statement made in a discussion about a fictional character labeled as an “attack” on a supposed “rival” or former romantic attachment, even though neither the photo nor the statement had anything to do with that person.

Quotes by famous people are very easy to fake, but also easy to check. If you search the key words of the quote you will probably find out quickly who said it, although be careful with search results that just lead you back to the same false meme, or another inaccurate attribution. Use Chapter 3 to help you identify reliable sources.

Memes that show data or claim some famous person did something great or terrible are also incredibly easy to fake. You can say George Washington just landed on the moon if you want to, but that doesn’t make it true. It takes only a moment to independently verify what the meme is telling you. Memes from reliable sources will put the source of their claims in small print somewhere on the image. Look up that website or organization (independently searching its name, not following the given address directly) and see if what they say on their own website matches what’s on the meme. See also Chapter 6.

When You Don’t Have the Time

Another, quicker method to check whether a story is fake is to look it up on a number of sites that do the kind of checking described above for you. For viral stories of all kinds, Snopes.com is the most respected site (there’s a fake news story going around about its CEO being arrested, but that’s…fake). Others specializing in revealing hoaxes include TruthorFiction.com and HoaxSlayer.com. GossipCop.com specializes in fact-checking stories about celebrities. These sites should explain the basis of their evaluation of any claim or hoax so you can judge for yourself, so be sure to read their whole explanation, not just the verdict.

One list of sites with a documented history of producing fake news or news satire was quickly removed due to threats against its creator, which should tell us a great deal about how much people profit from deceiving the public and what lengths they will go to to keep that deception alive. Other lists are still available, and are especially reliable when composed by the websites that specialize in tracking hoaxes. There are also browser extensions such as “BS Detector” for Chrome that will alert you when you have landed on a site that shows characteristics consistent with fake news. Facebook has recently announced that it will be implementing a similar feature to identify suspect articles.

Breaking News

Another form of news that often turns out to be false are the very early reports coming from even legitimate news organizations in the aftermath of a major event. Before 24-hour cable news and the internet, people heard little more than the fact that a major event had occurred until some hours or even a day later, by which time professional journalists would have had time to separate rumors from official reports. But today news organizations are under pressure to inform us fully even in the moment that events are occurring. They often give in to rumors and guesswork, and even official reports can be confused in the early hours. The best strategy is simply to turn off the news and give it a day or two to sort itself out.

What if We Can’t Wait?

But sometimes we can’t or don’t want to wait for clarity to assert itself. In that case, the most reliable reports will be the most local ones, and preferably from official sources like police departments. Emergency scanner Twitter feeds or other local official Twitter accounts are a place to start. Sometimes eyewitnesses to an event will tweet photos or comments, but remember that each individual’s perspective is limited to what they can see and hear—they cannot give you a full picture.

You can also search for the local newspapers or TV affiliates, and go directly to their websites. These organizations have reporters nearby who know local conditions, and they are most likely to have an accurate idea of the situation and to not want to unduly panic local residents.

The Lamestream Media?

Professional journalists do, of course, make mistakes, especially during live reporting of ongoing events. The best and most reliable organizations will correct these mistakes on air or in print as soon as possible. Seeing such corrections is a good sign that you’re dealing with reliable professionals (though not a guarantee).

Getting Real News

The first step to find out whether your usual news sources are reliable is to search their website and look them up on Wikipedia for information about their staff and methods. High-quality news outlets pay professional journalists, researchers, and fact-checkers. They have reporters on the ground in relevant locations to get first-hand reports. Their editors should have long experience and relevant educational backgrounds.

Supporting the Good Stuff

High-quality reporting is expensive and slower than being careless, so when you find a good source of news, consider supporting it financially by subscribing or donating, because free internet media has endangered the ability of these professionals to do their work. That endangers us all when fake news is so prevalent. Remember that websites that provide news analysis and opinion rely on the original reporting from traditional organizations like Reuters, the Associated Press, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and other longstanding regional papers, and can’t exist without them.

By the same token, when you see news organizations behaving irresponsibly, avoid clicking or sharing the item, and instead write to the editors to point out the problem. If you feel the “mainstream media” is doing a poor job, tell them what you want instead, giving specific examples directed toward the news organizations that most bother you.

When you see ads from companies you do business with supporting news sites that behave irresponsibly, contact those companies to let them know what they’re supporting (internet advertising is often purchased in bundles and companies may not know which specific sites their ads appear on). Follow and support MediaMatters.org, which is an independent watchdog organization for newsmedia.

Why Is News So Awful, Anyway?

Until about twenty or thirty years ago network TV news divisions ran at a loss, which was easily offset by their much larger entertainment divisions. Networks were happy enough with this situation, since the news divisions lent prestige and satisfied Congressional and FCC requirements about public-service broadcasting.

This began to change, though, as cable entertainment and other new technologies, from VCRs to the internet and streaming entertainment, cut away at network profits, and then print newspaper profits as well. Networks began to demand that news divisions make a profit to carry their weight, and some newspapers and news magazines folded or shrunk while others increasingly pandered to specific audiences to keep people loyal enough to subscribe. At the same time, USA Today brought touches of television’s flashiness to newspapers with success, pushing others to move the same way. The quality and tone of American news changed radically.

Because they profit from their reports according to how many eyeballs they attract, news producers now emphasize drama, play to our emotions—especially fear, which provokes the quickest and most vivid response—and try to make every conversation seem like a fight. These influences have sadly deteriorated the quality of news, but also arguably deteriorated the quality of life for all of us, as well as undermining our ability to base our decisions about policy and politics on reality.

Another part of the problem is that 24-hour cable news networks not only have to turn a profit, they have to fight for our attention all day and night, so that they put even more energy into milking our credibility and emotions.

Finally, since the Fox News channel first showed how very lucrative slanted news can be, it became common for some cable news channels to play overtly to specific audiences, emphasizing stories and angles that deliberately increase divisiveness among Americans. Others use false equivalence to showcase the most extreme views as if they are much more popular or legitimate than they are, in order to shock and worry us into watching them more.

If you have the opportunity to watch television news from a country where news divisions are non-profit, or our own news networks from before about 1990 (on YouTube) you’ll find that it is much more boring, more reliable, and less dangerous and upsetting than what we are used to today.

Getting Independent Confirmation

Another way to approach judging the overall reliability of a newspaper or TV outlet is to experiment with independently confirming some of its stories.

Look up the same story on several other, non-tabloid news websites. Don’t just look for one known for having the opposite point of view. Find a variety of perspectives, and look at different ones each time. Look at sites with an out-of-the-ordinary take like The Conversation, The Intercept, Alt-M (altmuslimah.com) or Foreign Affairs and sites known primarily for analysis like The Economist, Forbes, The Atlantic, and The New Republic as well as outlets that do their own reporting. Try newspapers and magazines known for in-depth, long-form investigations like Mother Jones or The Christian Science Monitor. Compare The Weekly Standard to The Nation.

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A Consumer's Guide to Information: How to Avoid Losing Your Mind on the Internet

We are experiencing the early stages of an information revolution, similar in scale and impact to the industrial revolution. Every day we are confronting vast amounts of information with little context and few reliable filters. In theory it should be an advantage to have more information to base our decisions on than ever before, yet the abundance of low-quality information and difficulty of distinguishing quality has us sometimes making poor decisions, and certainly suffering a lot of stress. Sorting through so much information takes time that many of us don’t have to spare. This book applies basic critical thinking skills to consuming digital information. It teaches readers not only how to spot fake news, but also how to identify problems in real news and weaknesses in articles presenting opinion and analysis. It’s about interacting with people online productively and safely. It’s about not getting conned, and keeping our sanity.

  • ISBN: 9781370527960
  • Author: Katherine Pickering Antonova
  • Published: 2016-12-17 16:05:09
  • Words: 43329
A Consumer's Guide to Information: How to Avoid Losing Your Mind on the Internet A Consumer's Guide to Information: How to Avoid Losing Your Mind on the Internet