We live in the age of social media.
As the utter defeat of public support for war in Syria last year demonstrated, the easy transfer of information to friends and family can be an extremely powerful source of political capital. Indeed, the Internet itself has brought about a large measure of opposition to war, with only 47% supporting the U.S. invasion of Libya in 2011, the lowest in 30 years, and only 9% supporting war in Syria in 2013. Even as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Daesh, or ISIS) is being touted as the greatest threat to America in history, polls place American support for ground troops at anywhere from 38% to 52%. Even 70% of active duty troops oppose boots on the ground once again.
In contrast, before the dominance of the internet and social media, 90% of Americans supported the invasion of Afghanistan, and 76% the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It seems that the easy dissemination of information makes it extremely difficult for a government to maintain the moral high ground on a war footing. Indeed, a state is typically terrible enough at propaganda that, as author Naomi Wolf points out in The End of America, one of the actions required to close a free society is to maintain control over the flow of information.
But that great power wields a double-edged sword. As evidenced by the astronomical rise of satire sites such as the Daily Currant or National Report, both in the top 10,000 websites in the U.S. for doing nothing but spreading completely contrived stories, disinformation, and misinformation, is at an all-time high.
However, as dangerous as some disinformation can be, it can be doubly dangerous for activists challenging the status quo. As the principle of cognitive dissonance is well documented, anyone challenging the status quo must ensure their arguments are airtight, as they will be crosschecked far more often than those parroting already established beliefs.
A great example occurred recently, when VICE News interviewed a 41 year old from Devon, England who tricked tens of thousands of “chemtrail” activists by posting a video taken during his flight from Beunos Aires to the UK. On the way, his plane had to make an emergency landing, and dumped fuel to lighten the load. Chris Bovey took a video of that fuel dump and posted it online, captioning it “I filmed this on a plane, what the f*ck are they spraying from the airplane wing?”
That video now has over 1.7 million views, and 20,000+shares. And counting. If a glance over the shares is any indication, it will continue tricking people for a long time to come. At one point, someone even sent it to me as evidence of chemtrail spraying.
Chris Bovey’s video, meant as a prank, was a primary source, and, as you will also be able to see in comments on that video, several people successfully identified it as an emergency fuel dump. Other sources, however, make much more effort to look credible. For example, Sorcha Faal of Eutimes.net and Whatdoesitmean.com, the latter in the top 36,000 websites in the U.S., lets us illustrate how to check primary sources, a New York Times article helps us identify article bias, and finally we’ll examine the author of NDAA: One Of the Most Dangerous Laws in Over a Century to find author bias.
Step 1: Test primary source information
We’ll use Sorcha Faal’s “Pentagon Warns To Expect “Radical” Change In US Government Soon, shared over 114,000 times, as an example of testing primary source information, because as the National Director of People against the NDAA, I had this article sent to me dozens of times by pretty well-read people. Here’s how to test primary source information:
1. Identify primary source information within the article. This is any information that the article itself brings to the discussion, such as interviews with parties related to an incident, poll data, reports, pictures, or video first released by the publishing of that article. You should also verify primary source information as reliable by asking these questions.
- Has the primary source been reliable in the past?
- Can you understand the information?
- Does any third party (not related to the source) back up parts of, or the entire story itself?
- Are there any challenges to the information? Are they credible based on the above questions?
In her article, Sorcha’s primary information is “A highly troubling “urgent bulletin” issued earlier today by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs” warns that the Pentagon will implement a radical change in the US government soon. Let’s run it through the test.
Remember that the “source” is not the website, but the writer. Has Sorcha been reliable in the past?
Not at all. This step takes digging into the author’s latest articles, but a quick sample entirely eradicates Sorcha’s credibility. Here’s a sample: “Obama Ordered To Denver Bunker By US Military, ”Russia Reports Nuclear Explosions Hit Vast US Military Tunnel Network, “British Leader Warns Russia ‘Time Of End’ Has Come, “US Oil Giant Exxon Mobile Flees To Russia Over Obama Fears.” The last one misspells “Mobil” as an added bonus. The article we’re looking at now is the most credible of them all, and that’s a bad sign.
Can you understand the information?
A common tactic used by con artists is to source information that you cannot understand, and have to trust the author to explain. In this case, the primary source information leads to a Russian home page, not a report in .pdf form, just the home page of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It appears that many people who read the article simply assumed she could read the information. Don’t make that mistake.
Does any third party back up parts of, or the entire story?
Again, it is very important to identify source information first. If we didn’t, Sorcha provides plenty of links to other, non-primary information, which can be verified by third-party sources and make the article seem legitimate. The source information is the alleged Ministry of Foreign affairs report, and there is no third party information backing up the contents of, parts of, or even the existence of, that report.
Are there challenges to the information?
Though the results of the last three questions should throw up a horde of red flags for experienced activists, it is also important to look for challenges to the information. Snopes, Politifact, and others are excellent sources for a litany of links to challenge her work. And as always, run your fact-checking sources through the same process as above.
Steps 2-3: Identify the bias
Next, identify the article’s and the author’s bias. Unbiased journalism, though a Holy Grail, is usually impossible. When you read a piece, understanding both the author’s and its bias can help you separate fact from opinion. We’ll use the NY Times hit piece on the Free State Project and Fee Keene, Libertarians Trail Meter Readers, Telling Town: Live Free or Else as an example of article bias, and NDAA: One Of the Most Dangerous Laws in Over a Century as an example of author bias. Here are a few questions to ask to find this out:
Step 2: Identify article bias
2. Identify the article’s bias:
- Does the title itself create a feeling for or against one subject of the story?
- Does the writer use a lot of sarcastic indicators, such as “quotes” around unspoken words?
- Does the writer paint a positive picture of one subject, and a negative picture of another?
What feelings does the title bring us?
The title “Libertarians Trail Meter Readers, Telling Town: Live Free or Else,” at least in America, immediately elicits negative feelings toward the libertarians in this article. In our society, whenever someone says “do x or else” we are inclined to look at them as evil, corrupt, or somehow wrong, simply because we don’t like being told what to do. Many articles, including this one, use the title to paint their subject in a certain way, and, in this case at least, the bias is clearly negative.
Does the writer use a lot of sarcasm?
The tone is evident. Freeing a city that “didn’t know it was in bondage,” sarcastic quotation marks on phrases like “the state” and “violent monopoly,” and condescending notes throughout, such as where the author spouts this drivel:
“In one notorious instance, a grandmotherly crossing guard smacked at their camera with her stop sign placard.”
You can almost hear the sarcasm in his voice. You will also note that I intentionally biased my examination here by using the phrase “spouts” and the word “drivel” both of which are derogatory terms in place of words like “said” and “writing.” Biases are everywhere, and learning how to identify them will help you dodge their obvious, and sometimes not so obvious, attempts at manipulation.
Does the writer paint a positive picture of one subject, and a negative picture of another?
In this case, there are three subjects; The Free Keene activists, parking enforcement officers, and the “STOP Free Keene” group. How does NYT writer Dan Barry characterize each group, and what does each group consist of, according to the article? Free Keene consists of about “two-dozen” activists, there are “two parking officers” and the STOP Free Keene movement is a “facebook page.”
As a journalist, my job Is to accurately portray each movement, and one of the key factors is how big, and how much influence, it has. The Free Keene movement has two dozen on the ground activists doing street protests, a website, and more. The Stop Free Keene movement, prior to the NYT article, was a Facebook page with no visible on the ground activism Only one woman is pictured holding one sign, and though there are supposedly pamphlets being handed out, no pamphlets or pictures of the activity are to be found. The parking officers are in the middle of the two sides.
Yet beyond the sarcastic language and ridiculing statements, all aimed toward Free Keene, Dan portrays the Free Keene group as a “small band” of activists, while describing the Stop Free Keene Facebook group as “local residents are speaking out” and a movement that has “inspired many to take up activism” against Free Keene. Since for this author Facebook is the guiding factor on the growth of a movement, at the publication of this article the Free Keene Facebook page has 5,905 likes…the STOP Free Keene page has 196. If the bias weren’t evident before, the author’s mischaracterization of group sizes and influence throughout the article is a huge red flag.
Step 3: Identify author bias
3. Now, identify the author’s bias:
- Has the author written any articles for or against a subject of the article before?
- Does the author have a conflict of interest?
- Does the author have an announced political bias that fits the profile of someone who would take one side or the other on a subject (Ex. A self-described conservative may have a bias against environmental regulation)?
Has the author written any articles for or against that subject before?
I’ll confess I’m decently familiar with the author of NDAA: One Of the Most Dangerous Laws in Over a Century, because it’s me. But anyone who wanted to find out my bias could either click on the twitter link at the bottom of the article, look at my bio, or google my name and organization, and they would find several previous articles I had written on the subject. I will not write an article in favor of the NDAA as the founder of a group called “People Against the NDAA” any more than an anti-GMO activist will write an article praising Monsanto. That is specifically why, in any article I wrote on the subject, I sourced as much as humanely possible. I want people to be skeptical of my writing, so I provide them a way to find the information for themselves. But in any case, it’s obvious based on previous articles I’ve written such as Six down: Another city unanimously votes to block NDAA detention provisions, BREAKING: Supreme Court Denies NDAA Lawsuit, and (Re) Setting the Record Straight on the NDAA: How to Respond to A Congressman that I will not be writing any pro-NDAA articles anytime soon.
Does the author have a conflict of interest?
Absolutely. In most cases, as well as mine, you should either click on the author’s name to look at their bio, or google that author to try and identify if they are truly neutral on the issue. In my bio at the bottom of the article, it clearly states that I am “Founder of PANDA (People Against the NDAA)” and a quick search will confirm my huge conflict of interest. You can do this for any author to help determine whether the article they wrote is a unbiased piece, or an editorial. Running this quick 30-second test will help you pick which information to challenge.
A conflict of interest doesn’t mean the author is wrong, but it does mean you should fact-check their statements with other sources to make sure you’re getting the right information
Does the author have an announced political bias that fits the profile of one side?
Again, absolutely. This requires a general knowledge of what Democrats, Libertarians, and Republicans advocate for and against, but by simply reading the word “constitutionalist” in my bio you can tell I am biased towards one side or another in this article.
For sake of identifying bias, I will classify people in the U.S. as liberal, conservative, and libertarian. If the phrases are used in a positive light, here’s a handy cheat sheet to identify those biases in the body of an article:
Conservatives – often use terms like illegal immigration, U.S. Constitution, strong America, 2nd amendment, gun rights, god, tea party, government debt, fight, destroy, often call their opponents insults based on intelligence (stupid, clueless, bleeding heart, etc) call democratic politicians by first name or nickname, and insert patriotism and nationalistic terms in most of their language (e.g. do it for America, instead of do it for the world).
Liberals – often use terms like environment, green, peace, social justice, global welfare, human rights, collective, corruption, inequality, occupy, the people’s _____, often call their opponents insults based on emotion (heartless, racist, misogynistic, uncaring, etc.), call republican politicians by their first or nicknames, often attribute big problems to corporations, wall street, and banks, and use global terms and emotions in most of their language (e.g. As a citizen of the world or the people are suffering).
Libertarians – Look for announced neutrality, or a separation from “the system.” They often use terms like (this is significantly tougher, because many libertarians will use any or all of the terms used by liberals or conservatives, but there are a few) voluntary, liberty, free society, two-party system, the system, wake up, philosophical, always, never, individual, nearly always attribute problems to government intervention, while also not usually putting corporations on a pedestal, tend not to respect any politician but Ron or Rand Paul, and characterize most of their speech by nonconformity (e.g. unlike everyone else, unlike they want you to believe, I am an individual, etc).
Bonus: Apply Occam’s razor to any new conclusions
After you’ve tested the primary sources and looked for bias, there is a final way dis and misinformation gets through: conclusions. An author could lay 5 facts in front of you, and even after you’ve identified their bias, tie two facts together to create an incorrect conclusion.
Occam’s razor, a problem solving principle devised by Franciscan friar William of Ockham, states that among competing hypothesis, the one that requires the fewest assumptions should be selected. The longer answer may be correct, but until new evidence appears to remove those assumptions, stick with the simpler answer.
Chris Bovey easily took advantage of every activist who forgot this principle when he released his “chemtrails?” video. In order to accept his premise, we have to assume that the entire process necessary to get those chemicals on the plane, including a coverup of the chemicals entering the plane, silencing the workers who added the poison, the silence of the pilot, and the silence of the chemical supplier, among other things. The only thing a fuel dump would have assumed is that it was necessary to do, as proof can easily be provided of it being done.
When faced with multiple hypotheses, always choose the answer that requires the least assumptions. If it’s different than your belief, find ways to eliminate assumptions by proving them. Follow the way of the razor, and you’ll avoid the final manipulation trap used to damage your credibility.
In the age of social media, disinformation and misinformation can spread like wildfire. Even high-profile people with large staffs, such as Congressman John Fleming who took an Onion article about an Abortionplex seriously, routinely fall for it. These three steps can help you avoid their mistake. Once you understand these steps, you can run any article, video, and piece of media that comes across your desk through a credibility test in seconds.
You can keep your most valuable asset, your reputation, intact. Just remember: test the primary source, check for article bias, and check for author bias. As a bonus, apply Occams razor.
The simplest, best sourced, and most objective answer is usually right.
Dan Johnson is the President and Founder of the Solutions Institute. Want to discuss this topic more? Invite Dan on your radio show, to your group, or just send him an email at thesolutionsinstitute [at] gmail.com.
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