Recently a friend of mine reached out to me in the wake of yet another month of disasters, both natural and man-made.
These disasters are bad enough, but we now live in an age where both newsroom errors and deliberate efforts to manipulate us make it difficult to tell what really happened, especially early on after a big news event. My friend asked: “How are we even supposed to tell what’s real and what’s not?”
This was my response to my friend:
These are the sources I read and trust. For national and international news, The Washington Post, NPR, and the BBC. I know a lot of people will say that those are politically biased, but I have been some of these newsrooms and I can tell you that’s not how they make decisions. There has been a focused campaign trying to get people to not trust the news media, which leads to exactly the situation we are in where we don’t know who or what to trust. Some people benefit from us being really confused about what’s actually going on. I’m going to post a few more things underneath this that might be helpful.
Here’s a chart looking at news sources in the US in terms of their political viewpoint. The labels are funny, but the analysis is serious.
Now for a few tips:
Tip #1: Beware Memes Basically, if you’re looking at a picture with text over it, and the text is trying to get you to feel something, you should be suspicious of it. Note the organizations way on either side of the chart and down the bottom, like US Uncut and InfoW4rs. Both these sites peddle conspiracy theories. There are many like them. If you go to Facebook/explore, you’ll see tons of these memes. Unfortunately, Facebook is ground zero for these kinds of efforts to manipulate people. Check this study out by journalist Craig Silverman: Hyperpartisan Facebook Pages Are Publishing False And Misleading Information At An Alarming Rate. If it says “Like and share if you agree!” – don’t. Manipulators will always be out there. We don’t have to help them do their job.
Some of these memes are just inaccurate, or trying to manipulate your feelings. Some of them are literally Russian propaganda – posing as gun advocates, LGBT rights advocates, or Black Lives Matter – and posting memes to get people angry and afraid of each other. Here’s a reputable news organization showing how foreign countries use Facebook to manipulate US citizens: Facebook’s Russia-Linked Ads Came in Many Disguises. This may sound nuts – why is Russia making Facebook ads?! – but it’s certainly not the craziest thing the US or Russia have done in their decades long Spy vs. Spy efforts to get each other off balance.
Tip #2: Learn how to be a savvy reader of breaking news. Even big, reputable news organizations make mistakes, and in the age of social media, other news organizations share the mistake with everybody facepalm. A good example is that people were reporting Tom Petty was dead when he was actually still alive and at the hospital (though he later died in the hospital). News organizations frequently want to “break” a story - that is, be the first one to report it. But people who work in newsrooms are just like everyone else: we’re more likely to make an error when we’re rushing. If it’s a big story, wait a little bit – even 4-8 hours. The picture is going to be MUCH clearer the next day for a big news event. Here’s a great, simple guide from WNYC on how to read news right after a disaster:
Tip #3: Get off Facebook Lastly, and maybe most important: GET OFF FACEBOOK. You will not see all the news or even a fraction of what’s going on if you depend mostly on social media to show it to you. In fact, what you see is the part of the news that people react the most strongly to – so your feed gets filled up with fear and anger and a few cat pictures. Leave Facebook and go to the actual websites of a news organization, whether it’s local or national. If you think “why isn’t the media covering this?!” and you’re only looking at Facebook, you really don’t know whether they’re covering it or not: you mainly see the news your friends share/like, which is a tiny fraction of the news that gets produced. Be skeptical, but don’t be too scared. You actually already know how to figure out what’s true and false – you are a good judge of people. It’s just a matter of turning on your BS Detector on.
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