The Modern Survival Guide #34
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. However, in this modern age of free information and open communication, my views can very quickly propagate and spread, which has direct relevance to this article’s topic — the pitfalls of the information age.
We live in a golden age of free information. Between the media, public libraries, and the 800 lb. gorilla in the room — the internet — it is not an exaggeration to say that the volume of knowledge available to the average American is equivalent to that available to government intelligence agencies in ages past. This availability of information is one of the great triumphs of the human species, the driver of our modern economy, and a major component of our personal lives. That’s the good news.
However, every great advance comes with the potential for terrible pitfalls, and the information age is no exception. In this case, the issue is that free information also means that bad information is more accessible than ever. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing; a little incorrect knowledge is even worse. A lie can get around the world before the truth has its boots on, and all that.
In this article, I’ll discuss a few of the big pitfalls of an era of free information. I’ve got these in a few broad categories: False Doubt, Fake News, and Propaganda. I’ll walk through each of these, and end by giving some tips for navigating the Information Age without falling prey to them.
I’m going to coin a term here.
False Doubt: When people doubt a fact for irrational reasons.
The Information Age is a golden age of knowledge, but also a golden age of False Doubt, which generates a lot of pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. It is obscenely easy to spread bad ideas — like the flat Earth theory or anti-vaccination theories — and entirely too easy for these bad ideas to find a receptive audience.
Paradoxically, it turns out that a little knowledge is actually worse than no knowledge at all when it comes to making decisions about complex subjects. In other entries in this series, I’ve mentioned the psychological term for this phenomenon — the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The practical upshot of this little trick of psychology is that people with a little knowledge have a tendency to think that they are experts, while people with a lot of knowledge tend to assume they are not.
This explains a lot about the spread of bad information. Unless we are careful, it is very tempting to assume that we can make a major decision based on a fifteen minute Google search, especially for subjects that require almost a decade of schooling to even partially master in real life. We are lulled into the false impression that access to information implies knowledge of subject matter.
This presents a clear target opportunity for people who, knowingly or unknowingly, prey on False Doubt. To return to a prior example, let’s take another look at the vaccination debate.
The crux of the anti-vaxxer argument is basically that Big Pharma is intentionally poisoning children, which causes autism. This is tailor-made for False Doubt, because it relies on a lot of basic assumptions held by a certain percentage of the populace, things like:
- Big Pharma is evil and is lying to you constantly to make more money. Therefore they are lying about vaccine effects.
- Chemicals are scary and unnatural. Chemicals are in vaccines.
- Unnatural things are bad. Therefore vaccines are bad.
- Correlation is causation. Therefore any incident that occurs around the time of vaccination must be caused by vaccines.
Each of these points is a bad argument, but each one has a certain resonance.
We all know that Big Pharma is evil, so it’s easy to make the leap that they might be making amoral choices about vaccine contents. This conclusion isn’t supported by any proper studies, but it’s just truthy enough for people to believe it.
We all know chemicals are bad. Everyone remembers the warnings about mercury from high school, and it’s easy for most of us to remember news reports of chemical truck spills that required cleanup by guys in hazmat suits.
And we all know that vaccines are filled with unnatural chemicals. After all, they have to be created in a lab, right? And anything created in a lab is unnatural and therefore bad, right? These points totally ignore the reality that everything is chemicals, and that one of the most unnatural things in the world is to cook your food before eating it. Chemicals aren’t inherently bad; nor are unnatural things. And yet these concepts have enormous staying power, because they take advantage of cultural assumptions.
Same with the correlation/causation issue. Most of us know intellectually that correlation is not causation; just because two events occur at the same time doesn’t mean they are related. But at the same time, our brains scream at us that all things are linked and everything is connected; the word for this is apophenia, and it’s a major source of logical fallacies. Understanding the difference between correlation and causation takes training; apophenia is instinct.
All of this is illustrative of the false doubt problem: it takes a lot of education, a lot of paranoia, and a lot of self-checking to arrive at a correct conclusion in the Information Age. Specifically, it requires an ability to determine the validity of claims accurately, without believing bad ideas or developing False Doubt of good ideas. This does not come naturally, and must be cultivated in order to avoid adopting ideas peddled by people who really should know better.
Let’s get one things straight: Fake news is news that isn’t real, not news that you don’t like. Fake news also relies on false doubt; getting you to doubt a reliable source of good information is step one in feeding you bad information. But the real trouble with fake news is that it’s nearly omnipresent these days, so even identifying good sources of information is becoming increasingly difficult. To my mind, most fake news is driven by four primary sources: memes, ads, con sites, and false equivalence.
A meme is just an idea, style, or behavior that spreads from person to person in a culture. In modern times, most online memes are composed of a picture with text, usually something pithy, where the picture reinforces the message of the text. Memes are effective because they trigger two different cognitive processes to reinforce a message.
Memes are major drivers of fake news for exactly this reason. It’s very easy for a meme to display an image that reinforces a “truthy” sound bite. And it’s very easy to make a meme; all it takes is a person with a few hours of time and access to photo editing software. This considerably lowers the bar for distribution of information, and consequently lowers the bar for real-looking fake news.
Ads are another major driver of fake news. Go to any reputable website — I’ll wait — and look at the ad bar. I mean, really look at it, since most of us are trained to just ignore them. For example, here’s CBS News. Scroll down to the bottom to view the ads.
See how much that looked like an article from the actual site? And did you notice how each of those ads is pushing a product or a viewpoint? And did you notice how tailored they are to their host? That’s all intentional. Ads rely on looking like a legitimate site to siphon off a bit of the legitimacy. But there’s no guarantee that what they’re selling is real, or valid. It could be the next big thing; it could be snake oil. A casual view isn’t enough to know.
Con sites are kind of like those sneaky ads, but a little more overt. A con site is an instance where you, the viewer, are tricked into believing that a site is representing an actual news source. These tend to crop up around elections and other major events as a way of influencing public opinions. Most of these cons are very sneaky — they rely on just a character or two of difference from the URL of a mainstream news site, which is very difficult to detect from a casual glance.
Fake news also has an insidious aspect: a lot of otherwise reputable networks and shows fall prey to the false equivalence fallacy — giving equal time and space (in the name of fairness) to a viewpoint that is patently, obviously, known to be incorrect. False equivalence produces fake news by inspiring false doubt. It enables otherwise fringe arguments to gain the patina of mainstream acceptance simply because they are aired by an otherwise reputable source as part of a debate.
For example, the global warming debate is one giant false equivalence problem. The correct response to anyone who currently doubts that humankind is influencing climate change is to send them back to science class — not to give them equal time and space to peddle their message on a talk show, where people who don’t know any better might think it’s a valid scientific viewpoint. But instead climate deniers are given time, space, and the appearance of legitimacy. As a result about a third of Americans don’t think global warming is real.¹
False equivalence also produces fake news by simply repeating claims. Repetition of false statements can cause people to believe such statements are true via a phenomenon called the Illusory Truth Effect. This is why the Daily Show can show clips of a dozen politicians saying the exact same phrase — these people are relying on repetition to drive home their argument. People who peddle fake news make use of this phenomenon to simply brute-force their message into viewers’ minds.
In summary, fake news is a major problem in the Information Age, not because this is the first time people have ever had to deal with it, but because there is so much of it out there. Parsing through it is a bear of a task, and it’s one that awaits pretty much anyone who is exposed to media (including, of course, social media) in the modern world.
Going one step farther from fake news, we’ve got straight-up propaganda. This is information that is so tailored, so spun, so tightly crafted to a particular viewpoint that it ceases to be reflective of reality and exists solely to push a narrative.
Note that this is not the same as the false equivalence fallacy — false equivalence mistakenly gives equal credence to two viewpoints, when one is very much wrong. Propaganda doesn’t bother giving time to two viewpoints; it just gives you a narrative to prop up the viewpoint the propagandist wants you to believe.
Propaganda comes in two flavors: partisan programming, and lies.
Let’s start with partisan programming. This is media content that does contain the occasional fact, but has a very distinct spin. A lot of the content on Fox News or MSNBC falls into this category; they report the true facts of the story, but in a way that clearly is designed to shift the viewer’s understanding of the issue.
For example, take a look at the way these two sites report on the recent debate regarding the policy of separating illegal immigrants from their children:
- FOX News: Trump calls for Democrats to end ‘horrible law’ that he says separates children from parents at border. ‘President Trump on Saturday called on Democrats to end a “horrible law” that he says separates children from their parents when they cross the border — and also accused them of “protecting MS-13 thugs.”’
- MSNBC: Trump admin facing tough questions on child separation policy. ‘Rep. Ted Lieu talks with Rachel Maddow about trying to hold the Trump administration accountable for their new policy of taking babies and children from immigrant parents and forcing a change to the policy.’
See the tonal difference there? These sites are talking about the same issue, but the blame is put in different places, the focus is on different issues, and consequently the reader has entirely different experiences reading these articles.
If you view FOX, you could be forgiven for coming away with the conclusion that Democrats were responsible for Trump’s policy choices, and that immigrants are scary. If you view MSNBC, you could be forgiven for believing that Democrats have absolutely nothing to do with poor treatment of immigrants. Neither of these viewpoints is entirely accurate, but both are designed to appeal to and reinforce particular viewpoints.
Partisan programming falls under the “propaganda” header not because the facts in such programming are wrong (although they very often are), but rather because the information content isn’t news. It’s opinion programming, hit pieces, and marketing masquerading as news.²
The other kind of propaganda is just straight-up lies that attempt to confuse, sway, or otherwise influence the target. Propaganda of this type doesn’t bother with facts, but rather attempts to create a world with new facts — alternative facts, one might say — that reflect a totally different reality.
I can think of no better example of this kind of propaganda than the current sitting US President, Donald Trump. According to fact checking sites and news services, Mr. Trump has told more than two thousand separate lies in slightly less than a year. And nearly all of them are designed to convince people that Mr. Trump’s personal reality is the one that actually exists, irrespective of what’s going on in the real world.
Peeling the onion just a bit, let’s take Trump’s assertion that the media misrepresented the size of the crowd at his inauguration. In case you don’t have time to read the link, the media reported one number for Trump’s inaugural crowd, and he disagreed in a very vocal manner, got all his surrogates to promote his viewpoint, and generally attempted to convince his supporters that the media was a pack of lying dogs.
The media was right; Trump was wrong. And yet to this day he has not retracted his statements. This is a clear example of propaganda in action. Trump’s administration attempted to replace an actual fact with a false narrative for the purpose of discrediting a perceived enemy (the media), boosting their own popularity, and increasing the emotional support of their base.
This conforms to the basic patterns of propaganda, which are as follows:
- Statements which attempt to falsely discredit an opponent
- Statements which attempt to generate increased support for a policy through false facts
- Statements which direct the recipient to additional resources, which are also false facts
- Statements which link two events or concepts together through logical fallacies
- Appeals to emotion in lieu of fact-driven decisions
Both types of propaganda are on the rise in the Information Age, since the availability of means to distribute these messages has vastly increased. This has had the effect of increasing the prevalence of self-reinforcing messaging — echo chambers where the viewers or reader is only exposed to false or misleading information.
As a result, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the average person to tell which outlets are peddling false doubt, fake news, partisan programming, or propaganda. And that’s where you come in.
Navigating the Information Age
Fundamentally, navigating the Information Age comes down to education. You need to know which sites are reputable, which are fake news, and which are propaganda. You need to know enough about common issues to recognize blatant lies. You need to be on your guard for false doubt and false equivalence. And you need to be able to do this every day.
Fortunately, this isn’t that hard; you can do this in seven steps.
- Ignore Politicians
- Ignore Memes and Ads
- Check URLs
- Compare and Contrast
- Check Against Reality
- Avoid Echo Chambers
- Search with Neutral Language
First, ignore politicians when they are promoting “news.” It’s important to realize that, no matter which side of the political spectrum they’re on, politicians all have a vested interest in influencing your access to information. Liberals push for MSNBC; conservatives push for FOX News. It’s just the way of the world; they can’t help themselves, but that doesn’t mean you have to fall for it.³
Second, ignore memes and advertisements. They are simply too easy to make, and it’s too difficult to try to track their sources down one by one. It’s easier and safer to just assume that every meme or ad you see is fake news.
Third, if you’re on a website, check to make sure you have the right URL; that takes ten seconds and will help you spot con sites. Also, beware of anything that doesn’t have a .com/.org/.gov address, and remember that government websites should always have a .gov address.
Fourth, as we covered a little bit in #27, compare and contrast information from several sources. Start with the major news outlets — CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, Associated Press, Reuters, etc. — and see who is reporting what information. If three or more sources have the exact same story, it’s probably legitimate. If the story is a major outlier or only appears on one site, it might be fake news or unsubstantiated reporting — check back later to see if other sites have picked it up. If they haven’t, it’s likely fake news. This sounds exhausting, but it takes literally seconds using Google.
Fifth, check reports against observed reality. If, for example, someone states that a crowd at a major event was a certain size, it’s easy enough to check that claim against actual pictures of the event and attendance information. If a report states that an activity is legal or illegal, there are almost always lawyers who will comment on that subject. If a website claims Armageddon will occur on a particular date, check to see if fire rains from the sky that morning. Etc.
Then base your future viewing choices, and belief in information received, on the degree to which information from your sources conforms to reality. If you’re having trouble figuring out what reality is, return to the point on comparing and contrasting mainstream sites and sources.
Sixth, avoid echo chambers like the plague.⁴ You’ll know you’re in an echo chamber if you find yourself agreeing with everything on a site, channel, or series. Real news — real information — does not conform to every part of your (or my) worldview; we will be wrong from time to time. To err is human. Accept it. Deal with it. And then understand that part of being a good person is admitting when we’re wrong and changing accordingly.
You can’t do that in an echo chamber; these sites, channels, and series exist to reinforce viewpoints, not challenge them. This is the difference between propaganda and investigative journalism — real information should make you uncomfortable, should challenge your beliefs, should shake your faith from time to time. Propaganda wants to wrap you in a comforting bundle of reinforced messaging before it feeds you to the wolves.
Seventh and finally, when using search engines and looking for factual information, use neutral language. Search engines are very sensitive to inflection and grammar, more so than most people think, and will absolutely return results that push you into an echo chamber if you ask a leading question.
For example, let’s say you watch the news and see that some people are claiming that President Obama gave Iran billions of dollars in exchange for the now-defunct nuclear agreement. You are curious about this and run a Google search. The search “did Obama give billions to Iran” yields very different results from “how did Obama support terrorism in Iran.” The first brings up factual analysis. The second spits you out into a blizzard of partisan news sites. Remember that search engines give you what you asked for, not what you need.
And that’s enough to get you started. The objective of the information age is to understand the world — not by listening to fake news, not by believing propaganda, but by actually improving oneself through access to an unbelievable concentration of knowledge.
This is a process, not an end point. But if you can keep the monsters of misinformation at bay, you are already walking the path to be a better, more informed, more involved human being. That’s a good thing for survival in this modern world.
¹I know I just lost a certain percentage of my readers, but look, guys, for real… global warming is a thing. Pretty much all the scientists except the ones owned by fossil fuel companies and the Heritage Foundation are in agreement on this. If you don’t think global warming is real, you have been listening to fake news, and that’s simply all there is to it. Turn off YouTube and get with the program.
²There’s a fine tradition of yellow journalism going back to William Randolph Hearst, but that doesn’t mean you have to put up with it.
³It’s also worth noting that there is a deliberate, aggressive campaign going on right now to discredit major media outlets. This isn’t to say they are blameless actors — no major corporate entity is — but CNN really isn’t lying to you as part of a conspiracy to discredit conservative politicians. Certain politicians would very much like you to believe the conspiracy narrative, though, because it benefits them to remove sources of competing, non-alternative facts (i.e., truth).
⁴FOX News and MSNBC are culprits and two excellent examples of echo chambers. If you find yourself on a site or listening to a program where FOX or MSNBC start to look like mainstream journalism, run. You’ve fallen off the map into one extremist camp or another. Alternately, if you find yourself perusing a “news” outlet that never (or very rarely) issues substantive corrections, run. Major outlets make mistakes from time to time, and investigative reports sometimes draw the wrong conclusions; the judge of legitimacy is not who screws up, but who admits it.