Or, Identifying bullshit in the information age
Since the “FW:FW:FW:FW” emails of the late 90s through Onion and Duffel Blog-level satire being shared as fact to the onset of real Fake News being shared as so-called Real News recently, there needed to be shared methodologies for rooting out disinformation, misinformation, satire and fact.
Inevitably this starts with definitions. Fact is noted as inalterable, historically-verifiable truth. Satire, says Dictionary.com, is the “use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule” to craft a narrative of any length on any topic – typically current events – in a critical manner. Misinformation is the sharing of any information where the sharer is unaware of the truthfulness of the information being shared. Disinformation, however, is the sharing of information when the sharer is knowledgeable that the truthfulness is in question, or doesn’t exist at all.
In this example, Misinformation would be similar to the “FW:FW:FW:FW” emails of yesterday shared by the kooky uncle at its best. At its worst, it is lazy journalism or misguided OP/Ed writing. Disinformation is closer to what the digitally-connected are dealing with at present in the form of Fake News and outright propaganda.
Methods exist for discerning which is which.
When presented with a new source of information, there are certain considerations the active reader needs to make, and they deal with Accessibility, Accountability, Integrity, and Transparency. Should the reader’s assessment be that any of those be in high regard at the information source in question, it’s likely that the information source is above-board. Should the reader’s assessment be that any of those be in low regard, then proceed with caution.
Every sentence, every paragraph and every information piece on the Internet was written by an individual. [Note: This will remain true until the algorithms replace writers.] With that in mind, if the information source in question does not list a byline, then the Accessibility of the source is in question. Small exceptions to this exist in the form of governmental reports that can typically be traced to a department, and then a writer; Or, in the case of news services, “Staff Reports” can be noted in the byline area for more mundane topics. However, in most cases, writers want credit for what they’ve produced, so the lack of a byline should indicate a lack of accessibility. In this case, the term byline represents the small phrase stating “Story by Firstname Lastname,” that should either directly follow a headline or follow the conclusion of the written piece.
Accessibility is also provided through direct contact means. If an information source lists a byline, but not an email address or phone number, that is cause for concern and indicates that the writer does not want to be contacted. For certain bloggers and journals this is acceptable. It is unacceptable for any information source promoting “news.” At minimum, a Contact Us form should be in place, although it should be noted that a Contact Us form simply existing is not proof that comments/concerns placed through it will reach a real live person. In the social media world, it is possible that a writer will list their Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram and more, but that is not an indication of accessibility as much as it is a promotion of the brand.
Those information sources that do not provide bylines, email addresses or direct phone numbers are therefore fairly classified as Inaccessible. In these cases, the reader should proceed with caution.
Each of the details listed in Accessibility helps create an atmosphere of Accountability. Accountability is furthered through Mission Statements, Codes of Conduct, and Correct/Retraction Policies. Each of those serve as separate and distinct policy guidelines that allows the reader to know if a bias exists explicitly and if an information source is willing to correct/retract misinformation.
For a local example, North Dakota newspapers are governed by the correction policy set by the North Dakota Newspaper Association, which states that if a correction or retraction must be made, it must be made on or before the page where the incorrect information was originally published. In plain speak, that means that if the incorrect information appeared on page 32, the correction/retraction could appear on any page from 32 to the front cover in a subsequent issue. But, if the incorrect information appeared on the front cover, the correction MUST also appear on the front cover of a subsequent issue. Doing so creates accountability. If a newspaper, broadcast outlet or informational website has a corrections policy, that is a massive step toward accountability. If they employ it, even better. If no such policy is held, then no such policy needs to be followed. Information outlets without these policies should be read with caution, as there is no internal mechanism in place to keep them honest.
If Accessibility and Accountability are created, then a reader can begin to look for Integrity, which can be both subjective and objective. A website that is clearly Pro-Life maintains its integrity by posting Pro-Life stories, which would be a subjective Integrity. An objective Integrity occurs when that same Pro-Life website posts a factual account of the abortion process without editorializing. It is vital to note at this stage that if an information source has both objective and subjective Integrity, then it is relaying truth from its own perspective. It will not necessarily be incorrect, but it will likely be biased. If that bias is noted in a mission statement, then the information source has effectively told the reader upfront what its purpose is or what political boundaries it advocates within.
Other questions to Integrity can be made. Information sources on the Internet regularly link to other information sources. If the links are highly self-referential, then the information source can be viewed as suspect. If the information source relies on linking to politically-similar external sources, then caution is advised. Echo chambers are created from such behavior, and confirmation bias is a prime end-goal.
[Definition: Oxford Dictionaries define Confirmation Bias as “the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.” A more layman’s definition could be that confirmation bias is when an individual makes up his or her mind about a topic, then seeks only evidence that corresponds to their conclusion. Hence, their bias is confirmed.]
While not all articles or OP/Eds need to find true objective, 50/50 balance in their sourcing, those who link purely within their ideological realms should be met with suspicion. Those who link to otherwise nonpartisan or apolitical sourcing regularly can be viewed as having taken large steps toward objective Integrity.
More and more, information outlets are relying on the use of “anonymous” sourcing. While there are exceptions for this to be allowable, they are few. One such instance is when the editorial board has verified the identity of the source in question and vetted the information he/she provides, but allows anonymity because failing to do so would result in credible threats to that individual’s life. Unfortunately, especially in political reporting, more anonymous sourcing is being allowed in the name of keeping agency/departmental access alive. This has clearly been abused in certain moments, although political retribution in the form of job loss to the anonymous source is possible in a divisive political environment. For the most part, anonymous sourcing should be viewed with caution, and excessive use of such sourcing should prompt the reader to inquire as to why, directly to the information source. If no answer is given, the information source could be disregarded with minimal exception (WikiLeaks, by its nature, exists in a grey area. Many reports leaked through it were considered “classified” originally and, as such, cannot be confirmed or denied officially by their associated government. Because of this, fake “classified” information could be construed as real, however unlikely that may be.). Reader discretion is advised when anonymity is overused.
If the reader determines that Accessibility, Accountability, Integrity and Transparency are all high, then he/she may proceed freely. As with all things, new writers and editors may move the needle at any information source, so a “preventative maintenance” approach could help ongoing review of a reader’s information sources of choice.
If there is a low likelihood that these standards have been upheld, then it is likely Fake News, or at the very least, active misinformation. If the information presented could be an emotional appeal, it could also be considered Fake News. If the headline is in ALL CAPS, then it can at least be considered sensationalistic. Fake News will absolutely tell the audience what it thinks it wants to hear.
Information consumers in the 21st Century have access to more information than any other society in human history. While it is the responsibility of the information outlets to present true and factual information, it is also the responsibility of the information consumer to verify whether or not any given information is worth consuming. It takes work, but it can prevent the sharing of the 2017 equivalent of “FW:FW:FW:FW:” emails. Even better, over time it will create a populous more informed by objective reality.
This approach to providing readers with an idea of how to suss out real news versus bullshit has been a longtime coming from this author, and was finally prompted by an associate looking for a review of a new information source they had found. What follows is the initial exchange that prompted this writing.
The following was posted to provide reader insight into the methodology listed above, as put into real-world practice. In doing so, I hope to display both transparency of methodology, and integrity of process. If you have questions about this, or other things, contact me at pmmxii @ gmail dot com
“What do you think of We Are Change as far as their news being not-fake goes?”
The question was accompanied by the link: http://wearechange.org/isis-obama-john-kerry-dont-want-hear-leaked-audio/.
The analysis is below.
“TL;DR: I don’t think it’s Fake News. After a review, it looks like activist journalism with an open libertarian bias that sometimes fails to keep straight news and OP/ED content separate.
In vetting any new information source, I typically check to see if there’s an obvious bias first, and if the information source is upfront about it. I like that We Are Change lists a mission statement and code of conduct, both of which seem on the level. One portion of the code caught my attention. It was the line “We Are Change is nonpartisan and tolerant of all political viewpoints nor does it endorse any particular political group.” I think that may be a stretch here as a lot of the content seems to be geared toward a libertarian worldview. Again, it’s fine if that bias is there, but I would rather that they recognized it and just said some formal version of “Hey, we’re kinda libertarian here.”
I wish that their code of conduct included a Correction/Retraction policy. I typically look for one. I operated under one as a newsman, and I think that’s a good standard to have.
The next thing I look for is whether or not each informational piece (news story, OP/Ed, feature, raw data) has a real person’s name attached to it. If not, then the news source isn’t accountable. We Are Change seems to provide real names of real people, so they’ve at least got some accountability there. Accountability of names can help create a more transparent record and allow for the audience to determine long-term levels of credibility. For instance, it allows you to see where the writer previously worked and such. I haven’t looked into these guys’ histories, but at least they give their names. If an information source does not provide the name of the person who wrote it, stop looking at that information source immediately. The exception can be a public agency doing daily reporting. Many public service writers do not put their bylines on agency news stories or briefs they post to external websites or related blogs. Despite this, members of the public seeking to find who wrote any given information piece could call the agency and quickly find out. Typically, all news releases have direct contact information listed).
Contact is important. I prefer it when information outlets present the audience with direct methods of contact like a direct email address or phone number. During my time in newspapers, I listed my direct line and email address. We Are Change lists a contact form, which is a minimum standard, I think, because at least it’s there but you never really know if anyone’s checking those forms, or if they work properly. A direct email address or phone number provides accessibility, which aids accountability and transparency. The only direct email seems to be for the guy that you contact if you want to start a chapter. The proprietor, Luke Rudkowski, also lists his other social media platforms. That does not imply that he responds to direct messaging requests.
Another thing to look at is the diversity of supporting links. So far, I’m seeing a lot of linkage to predominantly right-wing sites (Fox News, NY Post, Town Hall, Gateway Pundit), libertarian sites (Free Thought Project, Zero Hedge) and even foreign government-run outlets (Russia Today). That implies a lack of objectivity. I will give them credit for linking a CNBC story on a stock plunge, but there’s not a lot of diversity of thought in where they’re getting their news from. That seems to reinforce their libertarian angles.
As for the stories, the one on “President-Elect Trump Endorses Rand Paul’s ‘Audit The Fed’ Bill” was decent until the end. Aaron Kesel writes about the $2.2 trillion TARP bailout, which is incorrect. The initial figure was $700 billion, but was reduced twice, first to $475 billion and ultimately only amounted to $426 billion. Most articles on this fail to note that that $426 bailout/investment resulted in $441.7 billion in revenue to the treasury. So, the U.S. made money on it. Ending that story with a copypasta of Sen. Paul’s press release is lazy journalism. Other bailouts exist, yes, but he’s specifically referring to TARP, which was never $2.2 trillion and never to anonymous banks.
I started listening to the audio from the Kerry/ISIS link you sent, but don’t have the 35 minutes to dedicate. Given Russia’s open support for Assad and the fact that our military is still recovering from Afghanistan and Iraq, it doesn’t surprise me that Obama would keep classified any involvement we have there. It’s fighting by brushfires and we’ve been doing it for a while. I’d like it to stop, but don’t think that’s realistic. I think that story is overall okay, but the writer first calls the Syrians we potentially armed “moderates” and three sentences later calls them “terrorists.” Their lack of editorial consistency indicates a bias against Democrats, because the story links Kerry, a Democrat, with “terrorists.” That bias can be seen elsewhere in all the Hillary Clinton stories. I’m not a huge fan of Clinton, but the writers seem to have targeted her scandals more than Trumps. There was enough on each side to keep it objective and fair.
I’m against calling things Fake News when it obviously isn’t, and this doesn’t seem to be. I think the authors let their own bias through a bit easily sometimes, which is good and bad. It’s bad because it turns otherwise straight news into Opinion/Editorial pieces. It’s good because when they let their bias show you can determine if they’re writing something for purely political reasons. When everyone is pointing around going “FAKE NEWS, FAKE NEWS!” it creates a cesspool to wade through to find out who’s fake, who’s bullshitting, who’s mixing OP/Ed and news, and who’s for real. These guys do some finger-pointing at times, which is disappointing.
The stuff I saw that was straight news (without any hint of editorial bias) was good, but I had to search to find it. I would be cautious of confirmation bias with them because they seem to be sourcing a lot of “friendly-only” information outlets.”
[End note: For the interested, read “On Bullshit” by Harry G. Frankfurt, published 2005. It’s available through places that sell books for less than $10 U.S. The subject looks at the difference between bullshit and lies, and what that says about the person stating either.]