Stop Being Intellectually Lazy
A Guide to Help You Navigate Through Disinformation
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be an article on politicians, Russian bots, or a partisan view on news networks owned by those who aim to sway voters, the reason being that disinformation is prevalent regardless of political affiliation.
I wanted to provide some helpful steps you can take to protect yourself from disinformation because from what I have seen from my own colleagues, friends, family, and just the comments section from stories shared on social media (which led me to delete all my social media except for Instagram, which I only use to post my art and get house decor ideas), we have become lax in our research ability, and are relying solely on reporters to give us the facts.
Well, as sad as it is to say, the days of Walter Cronkite are over, and I doubt we will see another journalist be named “The Most Trusted Man (or Person) in America,” at least not until we can actually trust the media again.
Before I go into how you can easily navigate through the barrage of disinformation — more commonly known as “Fake News,” which is a moniker I absolutely loathe simply because of how uneducated it sounds, as well as because of its overuse, becoming part of our daily language — I want to briefly state that mass disinformation and propaganda have been around for a millennia, used by ancient civilizations all over the world.
Even the term “Propaganda” was coined 398 years ago, in 1622, by Pope Gregory XV, albeit with a completely different meaning that changed at the beginning of the 19th century, when the term started being used in the sense we know today.
So disinformation isn’t anything new nor is it just a problem in America, however, since I can’t speak for any other country, the USA will be the primary focus of this article.
But given that the portal to unlimited knowledge lies within reach of, and is frequently used by, 90% of Americans, why are we not using the internet to fact check what we read and what we share?
The answer, unfortunately, isn’t as simple as one not knowing how or where to begin to fact check (although that is a problem for some) and would require a much more in depth and much, much longer article than what the goal of this one is, so that will come later.
However, the American Psychological Association offers some fascinating insight on that topic if you’d like to know more.
So, what steps can you, the average person, take to make sure you are either getting the accurate story, or can at least decipher what the true facts are within the false narrative being reported? It’s actually not very difficult, and only really requires some common sense:
- Check Your Source — This is BY FAR the most important thing you can do, and there are many ways to do it. If there is absolutely nothing else you get from this article, please at least remember this one step. The source of the information is literally its DNA. It will either solidify your argument, or completely destroy it. You need to not only check the website you are getting the information from, but look at the author of the story, check what else they have written. Do they appear to let their political/religious/societal views determine the direction of their articles? What are their credentials? Are they experts in the field they are reporting on? And the website, are there ads all over the place? Look at the URL, does it look suspicious? Not all fake URLs will be easy to identify, so check the way it’s typed, including punctuation (such as instead of the legitimate nytimes.com, the fake site may use: ny.times.com or nytmes.com, or even nytimes.com.co or nytimes.co) What other stories are being reported, does most of their content appear to show some form of bias? And lastly, check the “About Us” section, is there a single gmail email address given to contact them or is there anything inaccurate or suspicious about the information on the About Us page? And if you type this story into a search engine, are other news sites reporting the same story?
- A Quote by Any Other Context — Quotes get taken out of context all the time, especially when it comes to politicians. For example, let’s say Senator John Doe says something like, “People who think the poor should just work harder and don’t realize that they are already working themselves to death need to do some research!” You can guarantee that there will be numerous false-journalists reporting with headlines that say, “Senator John Doe believes the poor should just work harder.” (that was a very simple example, and deliberate twisting of words are often done so in a less obvious way) but what you can do to find the truth is by looking at the full statement. If your source of the information doesn’t provide the full speech or full statement where the quote came from, or doesn’t provide some link to the full statement, then google the Senator, or search the Senator plus the event where the statement was given; find some way to see the FULL speech or statement so you can see just how the person meant it, as well as what was said before and after the quote snippet.
- Statistics, or “By a small sample, we may judge of the whole piece” — That’s a quote by Miguel de Cervantes, author of “Don Quixote,” one of my favorite novels. I think of it every time someone starts explaining a statistic. Statistics, as we have probably seen during this pandemic, are very tricky and always need to be carefully examined for credibility before being believed. A large part of what needs to be examined is the formula that was used to provide the information. For instance, the unemployment rate is something constantly being thrown around. However, “unemployed” is defined as persons who do not have a job and have actively searched within the prior 4 weeks and are currently available for work. By that definition, if the U.S.A. is reporting 3% of unemployment, that could mean that 3% of people with no job are actively searching, while 38% of the population who are unemployed haven’t searched for 4 weeks, meaning the unemployment rate is actually much, much higher than what is being reported.(again, simplified example). Always check to see how the information was gathered and formulated to produce the numbers being given.
- Check your Bias at the Door — This one is probably the most difficult for most people. We all have beliefs and opinions on topics that we use to guide our moral compass and judge our decisions. But quite often, these beliefs cause our perception to become biased to the point that no matter what concrete evidence opposing our view is presented, we’ll discount it as simply, “fake news.” It’s also a big reason why I stopped trying debate people and show them that the information they are receiving from a single, political news network is obviously inaccurate. Any evidence I’d try to present would be discounted simply because it went against their views, their beliefs, and the “facts” they were given by their news network. If you aren’t willing to let go of your prejudices, you are intellectually lazy. If someone presents evidence and — after hopefully doing careful research — you determine that they are correct, then accept it. Don’t actively choose to call it disinformation just because you don’t agree with it.
- When In Doubt, Turn to the Professionals — There are several sites dedicated to making sure we are getting the whole story and accurate information: Snopes.com, FactCheck.org, PolitiFact.com, Propublica.org, are a few sites that I use all the time.
We are exposed by so much information throughout the day from so many different outlets that it becomes difficult at times to know which sources are trustworthy.
I have heard several journalists say in the past that it would be unprofessional for them to discuss support for a political candidate, or give a personal opinion on a subject because they are only supposed to present the facts and remain impartial. Those days are gone.
Hopefully, a day will come when we can turn on the news and be given the same facts, no matter which network we’re watching, but unfortunately it isn’t going to happen anytime soon.
The best we can do is make sure we know how to research and spot disinformation: Check your source, make sure you get the whole story and its context, evaluate the data, don’t let your prejudices get in the way, and know that there are resources you can turn to if you are still unsure about it.
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