BACK UP AN ARGUMENT by quoting something found on a website and, regardless of your intelligence or your research skills, you’ll likely be told, “You can’t believe anything you read on the internet.” My normal rejoinder is to point out that’s akin to saying that you can’t believe anything you read in the library!
Like a library, the internet is a repository of sources for information. Some of it is factual and accurate, some of it is not. You can go into the world’s best libraries and pull books from the shelves that will assure you that:
• Dinosaurs and man walked side by side.
• The Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery.
• The Nazis didn’t kill all those people.
• Bill Clinton had 43 people murdered while Governor of Arkansas.
• We found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
• Michael Jackson sold more records than Elvis and the Beatles.
You can do the same thing on the internet. There are now more than 1,800,000,000 websites: if 99% of them are run by idiots, or careless writers who don’t believe in fact-checking, or out-and-out fake news sites, that leaves almost 2,000,000 sites that are filled with facts!
If someone has a history of publishing fact-based articles, you can probably assume they are going to keep on doing just that.
How these sources are used is up to the reader!
There are sources of information that are based on false assumptions but do not seek to deceive. The administrators of the website truly believe that they are correct, but they’re not. There are also sources of information where the data is outdated and incorrect. 1
These sites should not be considered ‘disinformation sites’ or ‘fake news’ sites—they are ‘just plain wrong’ sites.
Look up everything every time
When you use a website, look up its sources—then look up the sources that those sources used! If you find a source that is consistently factually accurate, trust them until they prove otherwise!
How do you know a source is consistently factually accurate?
You wait six months or a year. When a “hot” news story becomes old hat and the dust has settled and the facts are known, recall the “facts” that your source originally published when the story was hot. It shouldn’t take long to ascertain the reliability of your source.
Here are four things you can do in the here-and-now when looking things up:
1. When you read something newsworthy on a website, copy the statement in full, paste it into your browser, and look it up and see if it’s accurate. If it’s not—if words have been altered or deleted—be wary.
2. If it is news and not propaganda (fashionably referred to as “fake news” these days), the first page of your browser will list at least a few recognizable, mainstream news organizations—such as but certainly not limited to the Associated Press, the BBC, The New York Times, or The Wall Street Journal. If all the sites on the first page are unknown to you, be wary.
If someone has a history of publishing bullshit, you can probably assume they are going to keep on doing just that.
3. While looking up the quote, you will usually see the context in which the original statement was made. If it’s a different context than the one used by the site you are using, be wary.
4. Sometimes the easiest way to verify a statement or alleged fact is to use one of many reliable fact-checking websites. These include but are not limited to (and are listed alphabetically below):
Just follow these few tips and you should not end up being one of those people convinced that we found WMD in Iraq, or that Bill Clinton had 43 people murdered as Governor of Arkansas, or that millions of unregistered voters voted for Clinton in the 2016 election, or that Canada is secretly planning to build a wall 3,987 miles wide along their southern border to keep out illegal aliens and assorted riff-raff.
Prisoners of our assumptions
A rather important issue when doing any research is confirmation bias, something we all do. We unconsciously tailor our research to find the facts that verify our beliefs:
“Confirmation bias occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. . . . Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it. . . . We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices. Thus, we may become prisoners of our assumptions.” (Psychology Today)
The only way to combat this bias is to be aware of it in one’s own self when researching facts and issues.
Bullshit is not inherently bad
Which leads me to “How to tell if what you’re reading is bullshit” by STL Media Works. It addresses the problems of searching credible and reliable news sources on the internet and finding bullshit instead.
“Reading bullshit isn’t inherently bad. There’s a wide, wide spectrum of it, and unless you can read through it all mindfully and discern what’s merely a bad take and what’s an outrageous lie, your brain is going to break—the relationship between consuming media and knowing something true will become watery.
Most importantly, you’ll hamper your ability to engage with what you’re reading, and the whole point of journalism is to make the reader engage with the real-life thing being reported.”
The writer lists five points to keep in mind while reading anything on the internet (and what follows is a truncated version of the much lengthier original article):
Why am I reading to this?
Asking yourself why you feel compelled to click on something provides a few important safeguards against bullshit infiltration: it keeps you from reading junk just to sate some affirmation deficit you have.
Why does this exist?
Good journalism exists to challenge its reader, even if it’s about something they generally agree with. Any journalism that doesn’t do that is likely bullshit.
Who is the person writing this?
If a journalist has a long history of great work, you probably know the thing you’re reading is good too. If they have a long history of bullshit, then you know they’re probably not going to break that habit any time soon.
Who are the sources?
Good journalism tries its best to put sources in context, and you should always be wary of sources that are taken out of context. Even when good journalists source anonymously, they should be as specific as possible and they should always try to reinforce it with as much on-the-record reporting as possible.
Follow the link
The reporting process is now more transparent than ever, and journalists should try to link as much as they can to be as transparent as possible. Readers can use the primary sources to evaluate what they’re reading more thoroughly—if something appears to be good reporting but it links to a bunch of debunked studies or dog-whistle opinion pieces, then you know it’s probably bullshit.
A Wonderland of alt-facts
And this brings us to “How ‘Googling it’ Can Send Conservatives Down Secret Rabbit Holes of Alternative Facts” by Abby Ohlheiser for The Washington Post (May 29. 2018). Including the subtitle, these are the opening sentences:
“Based on the exact words you type into the search bar, Google is giving you drastically different information. . . . Type Russia collusion into a Google search, and the search engine will try to guess the next word you’ll type. The first of those is delusion. Accept the suggestion [Russia collusion delusion], and you’ll find yourself in a conservative rabbit hole.”
Abby is, of course, discussing Google’s autocompletion feature. Because the feature seeks to assist users by offering them popular options based on the keywords typed into Google.
But those options can take on different meanings, as they can apparently be manipulated. Ohlheiser continues (edited for this article):
“Googling it has become the news equivalent of do-your-own-research. But neither Google nor search terms are purely neutral. For Francesca Tripodi, a postdoctoral scholar at Data & Society and assistant professor in sociology at James Madison University, the search results are a powerful tell of a phenomenon she set out to document.
Despite a popular idea that the conservative media’s core audience passively absorbs whatever they’re told, Tripodi’s research found that plenty will Google something they’ve read or seen, often with the intention of fact-checking or challenging their own beliefs.
A liberal and conservative might set out to research the same topic, ‘but based on the keyword, Google is giving you drastically different information,’ Tripodi said.
And, her research indicates, conservative media—along with bad actors and extreme groups looking to amplify their message to the mainstream right—have gotten really, really good at anticipating what their audience will search for and seeding their information to show up, prominently, as a result. The very searches meant to fact-check one’s own beliefs can end up simply enforcing them!”
As for the popular idea that the conservative media’s core audience passively absorbs whatever they’re told, I can vouch that I know one conservative who does, in fact, look things up.
And that is not meant sarcastically: every other conservative I have dealt with—either in face-to-face conversation, on personal email communication, or on the internet—appears to have swallowed whatever bait the vast rightwing conspiracy was dangling in front of their audience that day. 2
I have always assumed they simply refused to research anything because they might find actual facts that cast doubt on their long-held positions. 3
Actually, I still believe that, but Francesca Tripodi’s research now casts doubt on my long-held position.
Coda: the bot problem
“Facebook, along with most other social networks, has a bot problem. From Facebook’s perspective, bots can be indistinguishable from legitimate users. These automated programs can be used to scrape users’ personal information without consent, fabricate influence campaigns, covertly push agendas, spread disinformation, and make scams more convincing.
While automated systems can detect more glaring bot activity, more sophisticated bots can mimic human input so accurately that Facebook can struggle to tell the difference. As a result of its failure to stop bots on its platform, it appears Facebook is instead trying to normalize the idea that bots are just a part of life on the internet. Bots won’t be stopped any time soon.”
The two paragraphs above open the article “Inside a Facebook bot farm that pumps out 200k+ political posts per month” by Paul Bischoff for the Comparitech blog. To read the article in its entirety, click here.
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page is of the interior of the Redmond branch of the King County Library System. Finally, as reading is on my mind, find these articles and check them out: “6 Reasons You Really Can’t Believe Anything You Read Online” and “False Versus Fake: Why no news is true news.”
1 Prior to the internet, it was difficult for writers in the field of rock and pop music to find accurate information about records. Consequently, many well-intentioned writers had to make assumptions or even just wild guesses at things as elementary as the date a record was released or how many copies it sold.
Consequently, many books about rock and pop music that were considered accurate sources prior to the world wide web should be cited with wariness. This includes every book from the editors of Rolling Stone magazine published in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s.
2 For years, talking points that emanated from Grover Norquist’s office could be heard on rightwing AM radio talk shows non-stop.
3 While the overwhelming majority (as much as 90%) of the people that I communicate with regularly are left-of-center, the overwhelming majority (as much as 90%) of literally unbelievable emails come from those contacts who are right-of-center.