These Days, Trust No One

In a Pew Research Center press release basically announcing that over 1,000 tech experts surveyed are split on whether people and technology can conquer online misinformation, Janna Anderson, director of Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center, said: “Many of these experts said that while the digital age has created countless information sources and magnified their potential influence globally, it has simultaneously reduced the influence of traditional news organizations that deliver objective, verified information.

"They said the information environment can’t be improved without more, well-staffed, financially stable, independent news organizations whose signals are able to rise above the noise of misinformation to create a base of ‘common knowledge’ for the public. They also urged far more literacy efforts to help people differentiate fact from falsehood.”

I am not sure that throwing money and people at the "misinformation" problem will really work, since there is already a ton of reputable news to be found on the internet. More and better is not the answer -- especially if someone is willing to pay for Google and Facebook ads that promote their cause.



Nor does the answer lie in tasking the big platforms to ignore "fake news." The battle is way too nuanced to ask a group of censors to decide what is "appropriate" and what is not.

That half of this country was conned sufficiently to put that idiot in the White House shows that the problem lies in the individual's ability to discern bullshit from fact. You cannot ask the platforms (or the government) to protect you from misinformation when you are too stupid to at least be wary of it.

Here are some basic truths:

1) If it is sounds too good to be true, is probably is.  How often have we all fallen for the cheapest price, only to get what we deserve: a cheap knockoff made in China that performs well under its sales promises? Do you blame the deceiving copy on the website, or kick yourself for being conned? Thanks to various feedback loops, if you take the time, you can generally find the fraud before you buy.

Similarly, you shouldn't believe too-good-to-be-true campaign slogans or press conference sound bites that promise easy solutions to complex problems.

2) Things are never what they appear to be. This is quickly proven by comparing the photo in that fast-food ad to the burger you were just served. Just as ad photos and videos present products in enticing ways that can never be replicated in the real world, proponents of points of view do as well. Rarely do you get both sides of the story, so when you read or watch something that sounds urgent and important, take the time to find the opposing POV.

Sadly, cable news networks, which strongly purport to be "unbiased," pick their stories and present them in ways that leads viewers to agree with a certain conclusion. More troubling yet is that the folks to whom those POVs appeal, tend to watch only certain news networks because they reinforce a particular worldview. That's a serious trap as our nation continues to polarize.

3) There is no absolute truth. If you read enough revisionist history, you know there's always a huge difference between how history records an event and what really happened. Knowing this should naturally make you suspect when you are promised "a first draft of history." 

Try this: Tape two of the networks' evening newscasts and watch the other live. Then watch the recorded ones. You will see essentially the same top stories, but what's emphasized in each will be totally different.  You then come to understand that if you want a more complete picture, you have to read about the same story from three or four sources.

Even the best-trained, most experienced journalists do not always escape their personal biases, which can infect the slant of the news they cover. This has become even more problematic as news and "entertainment" have blended together in an effort to appeal to the lowest common denominator (i.e., the biggest audience).

4) Trust no one. Were Walter Cronkite and Ed Murrow any more trustworthy than, say, Lester Holt or Diane Sawyer?  Probably not. Because you didn't have the internet at your fingertips or 500 cable channels, you didn't bother yourself with how "true" the news was then. You could only compare Cronkite's reporting to the two or three newspapers that landed on your doorstep every morning.

It takes considerably more time to "research" the news than it does to just believe what you are fed -- especially if you happen to agree with it. 

Now you rely on the internet for your news. Can you think of a less unstable news source in which to place your trust? I can't.

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