A friend recently shared a Facebook meme loaded with fallacies and lies. Good friends don't let friends lie, so I stepped up to question the credibility of the meme, its source, and the motivation behind it. Not all friendships are strong enough to withstand this level of intimacy, and even the most enduring ones can be tested by such challenges.
His response was civil, but he defended his post saying, "I don't have the time or the inclination to verify each one of these facts" and neither do you."
He's right, of course. We certainly don't have time to start from scratch, checking every single piece of information we see. But have we really lost our ability to detect lies? In an age when material comes at us at such an unprecedented rate, it's hard to keep up. Add in the intentional propaganda, disinformation, and fake news that constantly vie for our attention, and it's clear that we need all the help we can get. We need time-saving tricks - heuristics.
One such heuristic is to remain dutifully aware of the source of the information. Trusted sources like PBS, New York Times, and Reuters deliver reliable content. We all need to make our own whitelist of sources whose words we can generally accept. They're not always factually correct, but when they mess up they issue corrections and retractions. We can know with reasonable confidence that we won't be intentionally misled. My friend hadn't properly vetted the source of the meme he shared - it came from Right Wing News, a site known for its conservative agenda and its carelessness with the truth.
If a story or meme appears to be newsworthy, but fails to make an appearance in mainstream media - MSM - it might be suspect. Really sensational exclusives are almost always found at the extremes - to an increasing degree even on the political left. Sources at the extremes can be relied upon to express opinions that are consistent with the biases of their readers, and that can be useful. But their record of factual reliability is terrible. And what are their motivations?
MSM is a for-profit market. It's all about subscriptions, advertisements, and clicks. And for that they have been widely criticized. But at least we know where they're coming from. If we can discern how Fox News attracts viewers, we can better understand their message. If we can discern how MSNBC and CNBC each cater to their viewers, it's pretty easy to see through their opinion pieces and their selection of features. Big markets, for better or worse, can bring a degree of moderation. And allowing for the context of a capitalist industry, it enjoys a degree of freedom from government interference.
A widely-spread lie has never been easier to detect. I use any of a half-dozen general-purpose sites when I need to verify a fact. My list is: Factcheck; Mythopedia; Politifact; Snopes; Straight Dope; Truth or Fiction; and Web Skeptic. It's a good idea to use more than one on issues important to us - each one comes from a different perspective.
Whenever we run across a source that's new to us - and it happens all the time - we can check them out. Examine the "about us" link on their homepage and look for loaded words and phrases that betray bias. Check the credentials of any persons that might be listed. Most importantly, check external sources like Wikipedia. My most useful fact-checker is Media Bias Fact Check - it rates media sources on the basis of their place on the political spectrum and the factual reliability of their content.
From time to time we may come across questions of fact that are narrower in their scope. They might involve charities, or political contributions, or information technology. There are resources for those too. My list includes VMyths; Charity Navigator; Maplight; Open Secrets; and PRWatch. One site bears special mention, as it tracks the activity of known outlets, agents, and amplifiers of the Russian Federation - Securing Democracy. If you're concerned about Russia and their propaganda, this site is for you!
Even if you're reading something from a trusted source, don't hesitate to use your favorite fact-checkers. They've done most of the work for you!
Not everything on the news is news. A few decades ago, we got our news from a daily paper, or maybe a radio or TV news source once or twice a day. Things have changed! You probably have access to a half-dozen sources of cable news and opinion, and round-the-clock access to Internet news sites. And while it's true that the world is making more news today, it's not proportional to the media time and space dedicated to the stories. Only so much news happens in a day, but the broadcast must go on.