It's stunning to live in a world where saying "the pandemic" is tied to a real experience we've all shared—not a history lesson, not a movie. "The pandemic" was a disease that ended lives, affected lives, and restricted lives. But the "pandemic" was also a context in which lives were distracted, divided, and fooled. I think this is due in part to the fact that we're also living through an infodemic.
In the same way that a virus needs to be understood, deciphered, directed, and contained, information can (and has) negatively impacted our lives when allowed to be transmitted unrestrained.
You Have More Information Than You Can Trust
Social Media and News Provide Information Faster Than the Speed of Critical Thinking.
The infodemic doesn't just infect us with unhelpful, deceptive, or patently false information about COVID. It can also create distortion and division about gun violence, abortion, religion, science, racism, sexual abuse—everything in our current discourse.
Much of this is due to the fact that...
...opinions, reports, and headlines are created more rapidly than ever
...it follows that rapid may create more discrepancies (not necessarily, just likely)
...we access this information through ever-narrowing, customized delivery systems (we get more of what we already read / viewed / liked / shared)
But information mismanagement has led to the worst polarizations and politicizations in recent history.
So what can you do to protect against this infection? Or, in other words, how can you get news, statistics, and other information to serve you instead of enslave you?
5 Ways to Know What to Trust.
Here are five of the most common suggestions:
1. Check the source. I know this seems obvious, but it’s a sorely under-used discipline. Always begin with where the information came from and its veracity. Bots instantaneously procreate fake social media accounts that, at first glance, look legitimate. Look for how long the profiles have existed. If there's a website or blog, investigate the "About" information, how many other sites reference it, and the diversity of perspectives that endorse it. Deep fakes are improving quickly. You can check the trustworthiness of images and videos now (e.g., by using Google reverse image search tools). Don’t count on any news source to promote their corrections as much as their scoops. Early information is so often unsubstantiated or incomplete.
Don’t count on any news source to promote their corrections as much as their scoops.
2. Assume the headline is manipulative. Many (maybe most) headlines are designed to get you to click (think about the title of this blog post!). The easiest ways to grab the attention of humans is fear or anger. What you’ll often discover if you actually read the article or blog, actually watch the video, is that the details of the story aren’t in line with the lightning bolt of the headline. I’ll add this here (and you don’t have to agree with me), but social media is almost never adequate for understanding. It’s short, filtered, and emotional. Not the best ingredients for reliable conclusions. Real events are typically nuanced and don't perfectly make a black-and-white, open-shut case or a meme.
3. Demand supporting evidence. A true story can easily back up its claims with facts—facts that you will likely see appearing in plenty of other sources. If there’s an “expert quote”, web search the quote and check the context. Search for the qualifications of this “expert”. If there are statistics, search the question that reveals the statistic (e.g. “How many cats does the average American own?”). I recently saw a statistic brandished on social media (from an account I’ve generally found credible). The statistic was a smoking gun for the point the person was making. When I searched for “Who votes for X?”, I found nearly every source, every study—every source but 1—come up with the opposite conclusions (now, they could all be wrong and this one study was correct, but it’s unlikely). What made this particularly helpful was that the numerous studies didn’t support a conclusion I wanted to believe. Which leads me to…
4. Question your biases. The brain loves nothing more than being right about something it already thinks. It loves it more than sex, more than heroin. It has reward mechanisms for certainty that are difficult to resist. A bias is “a mental leaning or inclination; partiality; prejudice; bent.” Tell yourself every single time that your bias affects what you’ll initially believe, what you’ll overlook, what you’ll interrogate, and what you’ll give a pass to. A fool never questions this. A wise person asks, “What do I want to be true of this headline or story?” Ask, “Why do I care so much about this?” Or “Why don’t I care about this?”.
A wise person asks, “What do I want to be true of this headline or story?”
5. Use fact checkers—especially when you want to believe it. Snopes isn’t bad. But there’s more available to you. For instance, I’d recommend the International Fact-Checking Network. Another conversation partner would be global news outlets focused on debunking misinformation. The Associated Press and Reuters are, at least in principle, two potential places to look for measured reporting. I’ll add this observation: I’ve noticed that many people who claim something like “You won’t find this in the mainstream media!” generally mean “popular media sources ideologically opposed to me” when they say “mainstream media”. It feeds our biases and our egos (a deadly cocktail) to believe that we have “secret knowledge” or that other perspectives are “sheeple”. I see this claim from people representing every angle of the political spectrum, so the term “mainstream media” is, in my estimation, meaningless.
Never Be Fooled Again?
Yes. I wrote a headline that I hoped would get your attention. Is it possible to regularly apply these 5 principles and still be fooled? Of course. First of all, I don’t regularly apply these principles (I like being right and unchanging!). Secondly, even when I apply these principles, I get fooled. I can’t possibly know everything I could know about an event—even when I was there to experience it! I can’t possibly know all the motivations and biases that created the reports and studies I use to form my own opinion.
But I will make this bold promise as I close. If you implement these 5 principles, you will reduce the amount of times you believe something untrue. And, maybe even more importantly during this life-destroying infodemic, you will not be a super-spreader of toxic, divisive, and misleading information. And that just might change the world.
Or, at least damage it a little less.