Discerning The Internet: Misinformation, Media Bias, Conspiracies, and Fake Quotes
Like never before, human beings have access to an unfettered amount of information, and they also have the freedom to contribute to that unfettered amount of information. And human beings are lazy fuckers. Oh yes, yes they are.
I think this is a HUGELY important topic among spiritual people for one reason: for people who are allegedly so concerned with finding the Truth, they sure do circulate an awful lot of bullshit.
That being said, it is of the utmost importance that each of us takes responsibility for detaching ourselves from what we want to be true, and get off our lazy asses to find out what actually is true. Hold onto your hats, kids… this is gonna be a long one.
The Death of Journalistic Integrity
Generating content on the web has become a huge money-maker, because the more content you have and the more it gets shared, the more people visit your website and the more money you can charge your advertisers.
But creating content costs you money as well, because you had to hire people and pay them to create that content for you. So someone came up with a solution to that problem: allow anyone to contribute to your website, for free–in exchange for “exposure”!
As someone with a degree in journalism, this is one of the most horrifying things about the current internet age. Major news websites, such as The Huffington Post, CNN, etc., allow practically anyone to contribute to their website.
That means your racist neo-Nazi neighbor Larry can effectively become an arm-chair journalist and contribute to CNN.com as long as some interwebs editor in a back room thinks what he is writing about will generate clicks to their website. All CNN will do is tag it with really tiny text up in the corner that says, “Not verified by CNN.”
Why does my story say “NOT VERIFIED BY CNN“?
Stories submitted to CNN iReport are not edited, fact-checked or screened before they post. So we mark all iReports with the label “NOT VERIFIED BY CNN” to let you know that this story hasn’t been both checked and cleared by a CNN editor.
Not verified effectively translates to: “We haven’t put forth one ounce of effort to fact check this, nor will we, so it could be completely fabricated, but it doesn’t really matter because we put a disclaimer on it, which means it’s your fault if you believe everything you read on the internet.”
The Huffington Posts’s submission guidelines are a little more stringent in that you at least have to pitch them the article first, it ha to be well written, and you need to convince them as to why you’re the best person to tell the story. The problem with this is that people who are good writers, but still with no journalistic training about how to produce a balanced and unbiased story are able to submit opinion pieces which run side-by-side with hard news, and the average reader does not know the difference.
So what, exactly, does this result in? It means that stories from completely farcical news sites, such as the Onion, can occasionally make it into the mainstream internet news mill, and because nobody bothers to actually be discerning about what they’re reading on the web, many people will actually end up believing it. And it means that the American people, who love a good echo chamber, end up reading opinion pieces which they think are factual, reinforcing their own confirmation bias.
- the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.
Fake News Websites
One time I saw a story circulating from the Huffington Post about a UFO sighting. I thought it was interesting that a national news organization was reporting on a local UFO sighting (because they normally don’t) so I started doing some digging.
I checked out the site that was cited as the source in the article. One look at the related stories on the website made it obvious that nothing on this website was real, and a quick look at the about page confirmed it:
Empire News is intended for entertainment purposes only. Our website and social media content uses only fictional names, except in cases of public figure and celebrity parody or satirization. Any other use of real names is accidental and coincidental.
Arm chair journalists aren’t the only ones guilty of falling for fake news stories. The New York Times and The Washington Post have also run stories based on information collected from 100% fake news stories. It takes FIVE MINUTES OR LESS to figure out if this stuff is real, and today’s trained journalists can’t even be bothered to do it in many instances. And don’t even get me started on Fox News, which is literally the worst source of information in mainstream media.
How to wade through this bullshit: Always ALWAYS look at the “about” page of any alleged news site you are reading a story from. If it’s for entertainment purposes only, it’s definitely bullshit, but there are other sites who offer no disclaimer at all, so also take note of some of the other news story titles surrounding it. If one of them is something along the lines of, “Mother Gives Birth to Three-Headed Bat Baby,” it’s probably bullshit.
NOTE: An ARTICLE is called an article because it is fact-based. If something is not fact-based, it is not an article. It is an opinion, also known as a column. And this means what is stated in it is not unbiased, fair, or balanced, it’s someone’s personal point of view. Similarly, much of the content that appears on political news websites or on cable news network channels like Fox News (Carlson, Hannity, etc.) is actually opinion-based speculation and political commentary, not actual news.
A good representation of what is “fake” and what is not:
The Rise of Sensationalism
Sensationalism: (especially in journalism) the use of exciting or shocking stories or language at the expense of accuracy, in order to provoke public interest or excitement.
In addition to the completely farcical news sites out there (you can find a list of the top offenders by doing a simple Google search for “fake news sites”) there are also several sites that allow you, the people, to contribute your own “news.”
As we discussed previously, this doesn’t necessarily work out well because of the whole no journalism training thing, bias, lack of fact checking, and being lazy fuckers.
People seem to fall for these types of new stories fairly often as well.
A largely biased “news” site–and I say “news” in quotes because most of them are just some person who created their own “news” site so they can basically write whatever they want, regardless of how biased it is, or let anybody who is an arm chair journalist write for them–picks up a story that is based in truth, but adds their own not-so-true spin to it and changes the context slightly to make it a little bit more… exciting.
One of the more popular trends I’ve noticed in sensationalism these days is using the word “EXPOSED!” If you read that in a headline… just keep on scrolling. It’s most likely clickbait.
I surely don’t have to explain everything that is ridiculous about the above example… and if I do… God help you.
One that keeps being regurgitated every few months is some form of this one:
1,500 Year Old Bible Confirms That Jesus Was Not Crucified. Vatican In Awe.
So what is actually true about this? There was a 1,500 year old bible found and the contents of that bible were not confirmed. The original story broken by the Turkish newspaper mentioned nothing of the Gospel of Barnabas.
Some other new site picked that story up and speculated that it COULD be the Gospel of Barnabas, a book not included in the bible. The Gospel of Barnabas is not new, it’s been known about for quite some time, so discovering another copy of it is newsworthy and exciting from a historical perspective, but hardly a revelation.
So, some other asshole on the internet who wants this to be proof of whatever they might believe about history takes that story, omits the word “could,” writes up a sensational headline that portrays all of this as factual, shares it on Facebook and then it gets picked up and perpetuated by all of the other sites who do exactly this same thing and suddenly the Vatican is in Awe–or really pissed off, depending on which version you read.
It’s not exactly the truth. But boy did I see lots of people in spiritual circles sharing it like crazy… because they want it to be true. It confirms their beliefs and they saw it on the internet, so it must be true…
It blows my mind that a lot of the same people who are in the “you can’t trust the mass media” camp will turn around and put their blind faith in some random internet website, simply because it’s talking about a subject that they happen to agree with.
Just because you want it to be true doesn’t mean it is. This bible confirms nothing, the Vatican is not in awe, and you have been DUPED.
You may not like what the mass media reports to you, but stuff like this from sites like this are full of just as much shit:
Before Its News
Before It’s News® is a community of individuals who report on what’s going on around them, from all around the world.
Anyone can join.
Anyone can contribute.
Anyone can become informed about their world.
Yeah, anyone–including your racist Neo-Nazi neighbor Larry–can contribute to this site and “report” on what’s going on around them… or just regurgitate something they read on the internet that has no basis in reality what-so-ever. And anyone can become completely misinformed about their world. It’s whatever…
How to wade through this kind of bullshit: Once again, check out the about page and see who is allowed to contribute and what the editorial approval process is.
Check for sources! Check for sources! Check for sources! If there are no sources linked within a “news” article or attributed to the facts being published, then it is unverifiable. If the source is another site that is similar to any of those that we’ve already talked about, then it’s probably not true. Google the subject matter yourself and look for other articles from credible news sites, or non-news related information such as books, encyclopedia entries, etc. Google the names of people being quoted. Who are they? What are their credentials? What is their reputation in their field?
If an article is citing scientific evidence, it should link back to the original, peer-reviewed scientific study published in a reputable scientific publication or at least quote the lead investigator. If it doesn’t, it’s suspicious.
If they say something along the lines of “Russian scientists” but don’t list any names of said scientists, or only refer to them by their last name, don’t trust it. You can’t verify it.
Oh, and by the way, Examiner.com? Same deal. Some writers on there are decent and source their articles well. Others, not so much.
The vast majority of websites and blogs out there are, for all intents and purposes, biased.
Bias: Prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.
Any site that only focuses on one side of an issue without giving the same amount of “unbiased” coverage to the other side is biased. Fox News. Biased. MSNBC. Biased. In5d. Biased. Spirit Science. Biased. Natural News. Biased. Yep. All of them. Biased.
Why? Because they were created by people who wanted to share their own point of view.
Some of the stories they publish are great, helpful, and insightful. But some of them are extremely one-sided. And this one-sidedness, even if it is meant to combat the “dark side” as they see it, does nothing but drive us into further separation and make the gap between us larger and larger, and the rise of “fake news” is sitting in the driver’s seat.
Just like the spiritual saying says, “Take what resonates and leave the rest.” Well, what resonates isn’t always what’s true when it comes to reporting of factual reality–sometimes it just fits your belief system, so in that case, you have to learn to recognize the bias in these articles.
How to Wade Through The Bullshit: If an article title shows a clear and present hatred toward some subject or thing, it’s most likely biased…
Article #1: What’s wrong with this?
- Sensational photo with quotes “Liar! Liar!” shows clear bias.
- Attempts to connect two negatives together to smear the character of the subject in question (this is a combination of a non sequitur argument and an ad hominem, because you are led to believe that the prior incident automatically casts doubt on the new one even though the two are not necessarily related, and that’s only assuming that either of them are actually true).
- Additionally, it is very clear that the person who wrote this not in favor of abortion, which makes it biased. Which is fine, but you, the reader, have to recognize that this information will come through a somewhat slanted filter.
Article #2: What’s wrong with this?
- Sensationalism is present once again with “chopping up human babies” as well as an obvious bias against abortion.
- “Office Depot says chopping up human babies is not hateful”–this is what is called a Straw Man fallacy.
Article #3: What’s wrong with this?
- Once again, “Shady Libertarian front group” is an ad hominem which attacks the character of the organization and not the subject at hand.
- “Industry shill” is also an ad hominem.
Article titles such as these rely on eliciting an emotional response from readers rather than presenting factual evidence, for the purposes of increasing click-throughs and shares.
This type of sensationalism preys upon people who are not self-aware enough to look inward at their emotional reactions and actually counts on the readers simply responding from an emotional reaction rather than a rational one. This is point-blank manipulation.
The secondary result is that it creates an ever-widening chasm in communication and understanding from people on both sides of the issue. This type of irresponsible “journalism” is literally tearing people apart and keeping them apart, pitting the people against one another.
Whether or not you agree or disagree with abortion is not the issue, but rather, the fact that they are using your emotional attachment to the subject to manipulate your behavior. The sad thing about all of these is that they could have been represented in a very fair way and still make their argument. But instead, they’ve chosen to completely dismantle any shred of credibility that may have existed in favor of smear tactics.
If the premise of an article begins with an assumption and the remainder of that article is spent attempting to prove that assumption by using circumstantial evidence, then the article is most likely conjecture, at best and you should not place much stock in it.
What do I mean, exactly?
Look at it this way: In a criminal investigation, the police typically cast a wide net and look at any and all possible suspects. They then narrow down those suspects based on evidence.
The articles we just talked about (as well as conspiracy theories) do the opposite: they pick one person or group and immediately begin building a case against that person or group without looking at any other possibilities.
In a criminal investigation, more credence is given to direct evidence than circumstantial evidence.
Circumstantial Evidence: Circumstantial evidence is evidence that relies on an inference to connect it to a conclusion of fact—like a fingerprint at the scene of a crime. By contrast, direct evidence supports the truth of an assertion directly—i.e., without need for any additional evidence or inference.
On its own, circumstantial evidence allows for more than one explanation. Different pieces of circumstantial evidence may be required, so that each corroborates the conclusions drawn from the others. Together, they may more strongly support one particular inference over another. An explanation involving circumstantial evidence becomes more likely once alternative explanations have been ruled out.
Therein lies the problem with many of those articles similar to the ones we just discussed as well as conspiracy theories: they do not take into account the fact that much of the evidence being used to support them is circumstantial, and could in fact be explained by something else. These other explanations are generally not ruled out using a scientific process, but rather flatly denied or largely ignored and other circumstantial evidence is often used as “proof” that the others are true. This is also a combination of several logical fallacies we already discussed above, such as a non sequitur, straw man, and even begging the question.
Here’s an example of two national news anchors using every tactic we just discussed above and being blatantly called out for it:
Once again, it doesn’t matter where you stand on any of the issues being addressed, sensationalism and propaganda are being used manipulate your behavior based on your emotional response, even going so far as to flat out deny empirical evidence.
Propaganda: Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.
This is a classic public relations tactic. How do I know? I’ve worked in advertising and public relations for ten years. Public Relations was founded on the principles of crowd psychology, by Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud. In other words, it was created specifically for the purpose of controlling your perception and was developed based on the psychological principles behind the way humans think.
Does this mean that there is a central entity out there deciding what will be reported in the news? No. It means that people who like making money have figured out more ways to make money when they’re in constant competition with one another for that money.
Does this mean that everything the mainstream media is reporting is fake or overblown? No. It means that the media is a mirror of the society on which it reports and reflects the same inherent subconscious biases held within that society (In this instance, when I say bias, I mean the kinds that people aren’t always aware of: racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) because the reporters themselves are a part of that society.
And before attempts to question, “Well, what is a fact, really? Everything is subjective, anyway and science is really based on a bunch of educated guesses anyhow,” you need to first understand these things:
Now, moving on…
Who Said That?
Lastly, but not least, fake quotes. Oh my god…. the fake quotes.
There are so many blatantly false quotes floating around on the internet, it will make your head spin.
Sorry folks, Pope Frank did not say this. Not even close. I saw a “news article” touting similar misinformation that also came from the same site I noted above who was floating the 1,500 year old bible article. There’s plenty of shit to read there, nearly all of it fabricated, because remember? It’s being written by your racist Neo-Nazi neighbor, Larry. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Snopes it, people! SNOPES! DO IT!
And by the way, it’s also pretty hilarious to look at Pope coverage from Before It’s News as a whole, because half of it is all “Pope Frank is the greatest Pope Ever! He says everyone is saved!” and the other half is “Pope Francis is a child molesting member of the Illuminati. He says Christians don’t exist outside the Catholic Church.”
I implore you, good humans of the internet, PLEASE STOP READING AND SHARING THESE THINGS! Do your part to prevent misinformation. Be responsible media consumers.
Buddha is another one of those poor religious figures who is constantly being misquoted. In fact, there’s an entire website dedicated to clearing them up called Fake Buddha Quotes.
Of course, they’re not always quite as obvious as these, which were clearly created sarcastically–at least I hope.
While we’re at it, Facebook and your privacy…
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but pretty much every website, social network, and smartphone app that you use uses your personal data in some way, shape or form, mostly for marketing purposes. How do I know? In some instances, I have worked for those companies and helped write those terms and conditions.
If you don’t like the things that you gave Facebook access to when you joined it, you have one option: stop using it. Same with pretty much every other site on the internet. Or…OR… you can just not upload anything to the internet that you wouldn’t want anybody else to know about…
No, Facebook is also not a part of some conspiracy to censor yours or anyone else’s UFO photos, holistic news articles, or whatever subject matter you happen to be posting about that you’d like to paint them as a villain for…
Why? Because the 2.6 BILLION monthly active users (that’s 33% of the world’s population) of Facebook are uploading more than 75 BILLION pieces of content (that’s almost ten times the world’s population) to Facebook every. Single. Month. No company on the planet has the man power to moderate that amount of content. NOBODY. That is why Facebook uses AI as its first line of content moderation, and you–its community–is the second line. You, the user, are given the ability to flag content that you deem inappropriate. That reported content then goes to one of the 15,000 moderators who work for one of several companies that Facebook subcontracts and that person will make the decision to remove it or allow it to stay based on the rules of use outlined in the Terms of Service that you never read…
…Unless its 2020 and we’re in the midst of a global pandemic and people are posting fake or incredibly misinformed health information that’s getting people killed, or they’re spreading a foreign disinformation campaign meant to radicalize everyday Americans and turn them into your Neo-Nazi fascist neighbor, Larry, in which case, Facebook should absolutely be yanking your content and I 100% support them.
If your piece of content violates those terms of service, it will be removed and you will be notified by Facebook that your content has been removed, and which specific section of the Terms of Service were violated. Are there exceptions? Yes. Because your flagged content is at the discretion of the individual sub-contracted moderator’s interpretation of Facebook’s guidelines.
So the next time you see a picture or video (that doesn’t involve pornography, misinformation, or hate speech of some type) that says, “Share! Hurry up and get this out! Facebook is trying to remove it!” you can safely continue scrolling. (but you do realize that people do use the fear of censorship as a way to manipulate you into spreading their content, right?)
YouTube works exactly the same way. So does Twitter. So does every other social network.
You Are Responsible For Your Media Consumption and Perpetuation
Here’s another fun social media statistic for you. A study by Columbia University found that 60% of the news articles that social media users share are NEVER ACTUALLY EVEN CLICKED.
That means that users of Twitter and Facebook never even read 60% of the news links that they shared–they shared them based on the headline alone, without ever reading the article itself for context, to ensure that it wasn’t propaganda, or a sensational headline. That means that they don’t actually care what the article says, as long as it reinforces your existing beliefs.
That means that they are likely not self-aware enough to recognize that they are enabling the spread of misinformation and allowing themselves to be polarized and radicalized in the process.
Thanks for being here,
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Ash, you’ve done a great job educating us about all the madness that’s out there on the internet! Poor mouth-breathing Larry gets picked on far too much, I think. Maybe that was in his soul contract?? Seriously, it is absolutely insane the amount of BS, as you put it, that’s spewed hourly from all the many so-called online “news” sites. For the sake of my spirituality and sanity, I finally stopped reading it all.
The era of “anti-intellectualism,” as I prefer to call it, is in full swing. It’s pure “Don’t confuse me with any facts, or ask me to verify if it is EVEN a fact, or expect me to THINK rationally when I can just react from my gut emotion because it’s sooo much easier…”
Now, I must go and hate on Hillary because more “news” just came out that the FBI Director has disclosed that there are more shenanigans afoot to do with emails from Anthony Weiner and somehow related to Sec. Clinton, and you know, this must REALLY be important as to whom we elect as our next president, especially since the FBI Director apparently hasn’t had the time to READ the emails yet. My partner shared this bit of “news” with me; I didn’t read it myself. Maybe I WILL vote for Trump after all, because what we know nothing about yet COULD be really terrible! 😛 Have a great and safe trip, Ash! You can watch the mayhem from afar, lucky you, and see others’ reactions to the Great American Election of 2016! 😉