We are being played. It's not that we are stupid or gullible, at least not most of us. It's because we have not adjusted to 21st century media. Most of us lead busy lives stealing moments to check the news and keep up on local and national events. But since 1980 the amount of information there is to "check" has been exploding geometrically. We have become more vulnerable to disinformation than we have ever been because we no longer rely upon trusted journalist intermediaries. The era of Walter Cronkite's integrity is largely over.
Though we celebrate the unprecedented ease of access to a worldwide audience, we are largely powerless to selectively tune out deceptive internet communications. This universal freedom of communication is a good thing. The problem comes when open media is exploited to deceive.
In the following paragraphs I offer some basic tools to help readers recognize the mendacity propagated in open source media, or any communication. These are adapted from the book "Credible?" Dr. Susan Mehrtens and I published in 2019.
How to Spot Skepticism Triggers
Let's suppose that you've found an article in the magazine section of your paper that's of interest. You don't recognize the author, and it's not attributable to any institutional source. How can you evaluate credibility?
Every writer has a voice and a style, actually a palate of styles. How something is said may be as important as what is said. Certain features should trigger your skepticism. We should note that skepticism is not cynicism: cynics see no hope and promote despair. Skepticism is also not negative; it's another word for "authentic doubt" for it fosters asking good questions. Honest skeptics are open to authentic, accurate information. Let us use intellect and be curious, hopeful, visionary, and also know what to watch for so we don't get snookered.
Here is my list of signs and signals that herald an argument that is not grounded in objective fact:
1. Extreme or absolute phrasing. (Words like always and never which allow for no exceptions.
2. Characterizations. Adjectives that attribute merit or adjectives that demean without factual support; stereotyping, epithets, smack talk (e.g. lowlife, retard), slurs, sneers, honorifics, cloaking (e.g. famous, notorious). ("Outstanding authority John Smith..." "Discredited activist judge Jim Jones...")
3. Citation of anonymous authority. ("A nationally famous physician states...")
4. Absence of contrary information. (Writer withholds or fails to discuss dissenting opinion and conflicting data).
5. Ad homonym arguments that appeal to feelings rather than reason. (Many rants are passionate and evoke prejudices while lacking factual substance.)