UPDATE: I originally wrote this post about a political campaign, but it’s broadly applicable so I’ve trimmed it so it works for information generally.
Does it seem like the campaign season is just people yelling talking points at each other?
In the past this has meant candidates saying stuff that was a bit exaggerated with the occasional whopper. But now it means literal troll farms spreading outright lies, which will be amplified by cable news, and even candidates. The apparent goal seems to be to undermine the very concept of truth, with so much “fake news” that the phrase will be applied to all news.
There are fact-checking sites, but the trolls have done their work so effectively that fact sites are constantly accused of bias. Use them, but be prepared for monkeys screaming “Fake News!”
To make matters worse, new technology called “DeepFake” can create videos of people saying things they never said. That’s going to make fact-checking even harder. What to do?
Here’s my tool kit. These are practical things I do to try stay in the orbit of reality:
- Don’t watch TV news. Once upon a time, TV networks spent 23 hours preparing for a one-hour program. They weren’t perfect, but they took their work very seriously. Now teams of talking heads sit in front of a camera, reacting to stuff. This goes on all day and night. If you had a fire hose that sprayed bullshit, it would be cable news. Avoiding it will reduce factual pollution in your head.
- Read books on factual topics that aren’t specifically related to current news events. As Mark Twain may have said; “History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes”. So reading history will help you spot patterns. And the physical world does indeed repeat itself, so invest some serious time in science and math. That way, when someone makes a claim that seems… improbable, it will stand out.
- Think in terms of probability. The Mark Twain quote above can’t be confirmed, so it’s better to say he “may have” said it. This is a way of keeping an open mind without letting your brains fall out. Is a quote or action consistent with what you know about a person? Then OK, sure, maybe, until it’s confirmed, which means “high probability”. Not consistent? Then probably not. Probability as a proportionate output of consistency, which still leaves room for stuff you never saw coming.
- Follow experts on social media. There are people you can follow today who are real experts in the actual field of study in question. Engineers, system designers, historians, specialist doctors, epidemiologists, geologists, climate scientists, space scientists, physicists… the important thing is that they are experts in a specific field.
- And media people who refer to expertise. For example Bill Nye, a science guy, is a licensed engineer with more authority in engineering than other topics. But when he talks about gender expression or climate science, he consciously lines up with specialist science in those fields. Another example would be Greta Thunberg, whose message repeated like a warning buoy reads: “Don’t listen to me, listen to the science.”
- Follow people who are not like you in some way. You can learn more in one day about the effects of gender law by following a transgender artist than you could in a year of watching cable news. This principle works in reverse, too; you would learn very little about Islam from your Christian legislator.
- Realize that where you are is not the whole world. Is the weather nice where you are? Good. Is your community in good shape? That’s great. How’s the rest of the world? For that matter, how’s the rest of your state?
- Watch out for bots and trolls online. Learn to recognize accounts that fit the profile of a bot farm account. This is a major industry now, with outputs on both sides of the major ideological divide. Their goal is confusion and discord. Check your followers list. When you spot one, block, don’t engage.
- Watch out for logical fallacies. So an immigrant committed a crime, and people with an ax to grind are all over the news with it? Stop to ask yourself what that means for immigrants generally. (Spoiler alert: not much.)
- Check things out, confirm, verify, measure, get out your calculator. Don’t stop with the first thing in print that confirms what you thought. Especially when someone makes a surprising claim that isn’t consistent with what you know. Dig, look up, open books, sit down and do some math. Pay attention to orders of magnitude. When you find out you made a mistake, don’t double-down; edit your post with an explicit correction.
Finally, dial back the concept of absolute Truth. For practical purposes you can absolutely depend on the laws of thermodynamics, for instance, but when you get to talking about anything metaphysical, not so much. When someone’s going on about what God intended, ask how they know.
If you ask a scientist how they know something, they’ll start talking about experimental methodology, data collection, statistical techniques, and correlation with other fields of inquiry. And the conclusions they draw are “highly likely” or “an interesting result, calling for more study” but almost never claimed to be absolute Truth.
There are organized and even state-supported efforts to throw massive amounts of disinformation into the marketplace of ideas. This has the same effect on that marketplace that mass counterfeiting has on an economy, and should be countered with skepticism and scrutiny. Don’t let disinformation go unchallenged, and don’t pass it on yourself.
I won’t lie; this is exhausting work. Spend more time educating yourself than you do engaging online. And give your mind a break; get some rest, enjoy a fantasy story, do something pointless but fun.
Tom Scott’s 59-minute video about social media, lies and propaganda is well worth your time:
You will find disinformation on both sides of the ideological divide, but both sides are not the same.
- Prepare for ultimate gaslighting, by Julio Vincent Gambuto in Forge zine. When the pandemic is over, be ready for a huge campaign trying to make you doubt what you learned from it.
- PBS: One of the largest disinformation campaigns ever conducted. This was a predictable outcome of the death of local news. Is your home-town newspaper still owned in your home town? Are there new websites that sound like a newspaper with your town name, but aren’t?
- InstrumentOfMercy: Why your Christian Friends and family members are so easily fooled by conspiracy theories. Excellent article to give to a Christian friend or family member, because it is written from an evangelical perspective.