Crazy old people are our entire source of polling information. —P. J. O’Rourke
As long as there has been verbal communication among humans there has been a propensity to exaggerate and distort facts to make oneself look good or persuade others to agree with their opinion. Many mistakes have been made because people chose to believe rumor and conjecture over evidence and reason. This isn’t something we can blame on the Internet. We were already very good at believing stories without regard as to the source of information.
Rumor mills exist in every small community, feeding on the presumption that someone did something wrong or unethical without bothering to check for facts. Such rumor mills were especially strong in the churches we attended while growing up. There was almost always an accusation that some poor soul, who had fallen out of favor with someone else, had been caught “sinning.” Perhaps it was the rumor that the school superintendent had a glass of wine with his meal while attending a conference out of state. Or maybe the idea that Widow Jones had a male friend she would visit over in the next county and sometimes she didn’t come home until the next morning.
Those pushing such rumors were almost always the same few people. As a result, any time such a story made it’s way back to my father, the pastor, he would simply roll his eyes and say, “Consider the source,” and move on. He understood that giving a rumor any attention only helps it to grow.
Welcome To The Internet
One of the great promises of the Internet is its ability to give almost anyone and everyone a chance to make their voice heard. Information is not limited to media or official government sources. When something major happens, there is frequently someone on hand either live tweeting or even live streaming the event. The challenge comes when accounts from official sources differ from pedestrian sources.
A perfect example is the case of last night’s shooting by police of a man in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. If one clicks that link, you can read the account of the incident as reported by the Associated Press, a generally trusted news source. Their story is that a man leaving a convenience store called police after allegedly being threatened with a gun by a man selling CDs. Police arrived, an altercation ensued, and the CD seller was shot.
However, if one looks at all that is on Twitter regarding the incident, including a video that might be disturbing for some, one might come away with a very different opinion. The video alone is enough to sway opinion dramatically. I fully expect this event to explode as the day grows and more people find out about it. Rumors and conjecture will dominate the story. Figuring out which details are fact and which are fiction becomes difficult in moments like this.
Don’t Believe Everything You Read
We were given that instruction back in high school, were we not? At the point that teachers begin assigning projects that require research, we are warned that not every source is reliable. Again, this happened long before the Internet. Just because information is printed somewhere doesn’t make it reliable. An account of an event from Associated Press, for example, was considered more reliable than one from Time magazine. The tendency of the latter source to editorialize opened the door to rumor and supposition that might not be based on evidence.
Unfortunately, we’re now willing to believe anything that comes in meme form and agrees with our own opinions. We’re not even bothered that sources aren’t cited. In fact, I’m frequently alarmed that, despite my continued effort to cite sources in all my articles here, rarely does anyone actually click those links and verify the source. I could be feeding everyone a truckload of bullshit. As long as what I write is consistent with what one normally expects from me, no one questions anything.
How do we know which information is correct and which is a lie? Unfortunately, we can’t always know for certain. However, on major issues, two primary sources have come to bear that are generally more reliable than most. Those are Snopes and Politifact. Between the two, they address the majority of rumors getting the most amount of traffic on the Internet. While they’re not authoritative in getting anything corrected, they at least provide us the ability to check sources. Let’s take a look at some trending topics they’re dealing with today. [Headings are links to source stories.]
This is an example of dozens of other retailer giveaway scams, none of which are valid. In this case, the image that pops up in your Facebook newsfeed claims that Sharpie is giving away a set of 24 markers just for liking and sharing their page. The problem is, when one clicks the link, they are not directed to anything owned by Sharpie at all. Sometimes the links even appear to be random.
While Snopes doesn’t accuse the perpetrators in this case of operating a phishing scam, any time a link takes you somewhere you weren’t expecting to go your information is in danger. Almost nothing is free. Both retailers and manufacturers have found better and more reliable ways of getting your attention. If someone wants to give something away, consider the source. Nonprofits still do occasional giveaways, but major corporations don’t.
Even I fell for this one. With sources such as the Daily Mail and the Washington Post making claims based on their interpretation of Google trend data, it was extremely easy to be taken in. However, it turns out that the headlines were wrong. Journalists who didn’t understand how Google trends work misinterpreted the data. As a result, what the newspapers were printing was inaccurate. Still, assuming that the source was reliable, every other news agency then ran with the same story.
Politifact goes to great length in attempting to explain how the mistake in reading the Google trends data could result in less-than-accurate statements. Turns out, that a) the data is a sample, not the whole search set, b) it is impossible to tell if people were making the same searches before the vote, and c) other more detailed and informed questions wouldn’t be included in the survey set.
Marti Hearst, a professor for the University of California at Berkeley’s school of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, said: “Only the most common (and therefore the most ignorant-sounding) search queries will make it to the top”
Think When You Read
We have an obligation when reading to test the validity of any source. Just because someone says something we like doesn’t make it true. Richard Harrison of Pawn Stars is not dead. When we share and perpetuate such false and misleading information, we contribute to the problem. How does anyone know what to believe? If even the Washington Post can be fooled, how do we ever know which source is reliable?
The answer is that we have to examine the evidence ourselves to the extent possible. We’re not always going to get everything correct, but we can minimize the amount of dishonest and misleading information we share. Don’t take anyone at their word. Not even me. Any time you see text in a different color, that’s a link to a source. Chase them. If I’m wrong, let me know.
We are all part of the information system now. We have an obligation to get it right.