Being a responsible information consumer in the Information Age

While this isn’t specifically a drug policy post, it’s something I wrote for my friends on Facebook that I wanted to share…

How’s your bullshit detector?  In today’s world, you really need a working one, and you need to keep it well-honed.

Before the Information Age, there were editors and curators to manage the flow of information, cull out the obviously false or crackpot, and present the consumer with somewhat carefully vetted digests in the form of the nightly news, the daily newspaper, or the museum. While certainly not perfect, these systems at least provided a filter.

All that changed when the internet made all information, regardless of validity, available equally to consumers. Individuals were then required to become their own editors — something we absolutely failed to teach — and some succeeded, while many have failed miserably. Every crackpot idea, conspiracy theory, and false story can now find an audience ready to believe, simply because they’ve seen it ‘on the internet.’

First it was the viral emails that were circulated by your grandfather, and organizations like Snopes had to come forward to provide a repository for debunking them. Even then, it was amazing how few people seemed to have the capability of taking a phrase and typing it into Google to see if it had already been determined to be a hoax. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Now a wider range of organizations and businesses are actually finding it advantageous to prey on the gullibility of the internet audience and purposely disseminate misinformation for political or financial profit.  

A primary tool these organizations is taking advantage of is “confirmation bias.” Everybody has it, although they may not be aware.  Confirmation bias makes you believe information that supports the opinion you already hold (despite contrary evidence) and to disbelieve even verified information that opposes your opinion. Someone who believes President Obama is unfit to be President is likely to believe any stories that he’s a Muslim, or not a citizen, or has some other defect, regardless of the lack of evidence. Similarly, someone who honestly (and correctly) believes that a group is being treated unfairly, for example, is likely to believe (and share on Facebook) any stories that support that belief, regardless of how far-fetched or untrue.

I had a very bad moment personally with confirmation bias. Years ago, there was a politician I didn’t like, and I heard online that this politician was hosting a horribly racist event. I was outraged (almost gleefully so) and wrote about it everywhere I could on the web, and even contacted local media to tell them about it so they would report the outrage. But I never verified the story. It was fake – a plant by someone to discredit this Congressman. I believed it without checking… because I wanted to.

That experience made me feel horrible, and I vowed never to let it happen to me again. Sure, I still despised that Congressman, but I was determined to use the truth and not be used by lies.

These days, confirmation bias is used in a variety of ways. A simple example is The Daily Current. While The Onion has established itself as a funny parody news site, the Daily Current instead prefers stealth — writing outrageous things that people would like to believe are true while subtly disguising the parody status, thereby getting people to share it and increasing revenue from links.

However, there are much more insidious approaches to misinformation. Advocacy groups of all kinds have discovered that they get more Facebook shares, more followers, and better fundraising the more that they are able to outrage their supporters. So, many of these groups exaggerate, manipulate the data, leave out key information, or repeat debunked points in order to motivate us. While probably the prime example of this technique is a lot of what you see on Fox News, it is also heavily used by mainstream advocacy organizations and websites across the entire political and social spectrum.

Some of this is going to get even worse as we approach the election cycle. Both parties know full well that the best way to motivate their base and stimulate fundraising is to find ways to get people outraged at the extremes on the other side. There’s nothing better than the boogie-man in the opposition — “If you don’t vote for us, people like THIS will be controlling your life.” Fear motivates, and it also keeps the party from having to actually defend or explain what it has done.  Irrelevancy and misinformation is part of the bullshit coming from both parties.

Now, I write about drug policy. Because I care about writing accurately, when a new study comes out, I don’t just read the reporting about the study, I track down and read the study itself, which means I had to learn how to understand science writing. That’s all very time consuming and a lot of work, but it’s important to me to be accurate with what I share.  I’m very careful not to share positions when I don’t have good information. That doesn’t prevent me from having a strong position.

I know, you can’t do that kind of work all the time on every subject yourself. But you can try to find the sources who do.

There’s no perfect source – you might think that a professional reporter would get it right, and yet I’m in the position of contacting reporters weekly to correct false information that they’re printing related to drug policy issues. And you certainly can’t necessarily trust the government – the drug czar, for example, is required by law to lie (true, check it out).  There are false data points that have been repeated so many times in the media that they have developed a life of their own (human trafficking figures are a prime example).

So how can you detect the bullshit?  It’s not easy. The first step is to be aware of your own confirmation bias — be suspicious of any information that automatically outrages you and makes you think “Yep, I knew it.” Before sharing it, try to find out some more – see if more than one site is reporting it, and find a source that you trust.  

If a political or social “fact” has been photoshopped into a picture for easy sharing without links to verify it, it’s probably an exaggeration, out of context, or outright false.

If you’re getting nutritional science information from someone who calls herself The Food Babe, or an anchor on a television morning show, rethink it.

When a source of information you normally trust fails you even slightly, call them on it; if they fail to provide links, ask them for it.

Finally, if you care enough about a topic to share it with people, have the integrity to actually find out what the arguments are on the other side, and I don’t mean how your side characterizes the other side’s arguments, but what the other side truly believes and why. Actually try to step in their shoes. If your position is right, you shouldn’t fear this due diligence.

Be a good and responsible editor of your own information. Use your bullshit detector liberally.

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