I started law school twenty years ago this week, in the fall of 2000. During that first year, where they program you to “think like a lawyer”, I realized that the practice of law was never going to be compatible with who I am, so I chose to pursue a dual degree with a master’s in public policy.
Our very first class was on the evening of September 10, 2001. The next day when the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, our curriculum was changed from learning the details of social and financial norms in policy to a new focus on homeland security and domestic surveillance. The syllabus and readings were changed, guest speakers rescheduled. It was a somber awakening to a new, grim reality.
One of the most useful classes I ever had during that program was “Analytic and Critical Thinking Skills for Public Policy”. We were given a topic to research and for each resource we used to form our opinion, we had to analyze the bias that it provided and journal about how we reacted to discovering that bias. We had to walk through the steps of how we analyzed this information and why we relied on it to form our opinion. We had no choice but to brutally encounter our bias, admitting when we saw a shift in our thinking.
The point was to recognize the how and why of the information we were reading and the policy positions we were taking. I learned how to research funding sources for think tanks, patterns of bias from academic researchers, and truly had to pick apart the logical fallacies of the evidence I used to recommend certain policy positions. Nothing could be taken for granted, especially our own confirmation bias (our tendency to interpret new information as confirmation of our existing viewpoint). And while I am known for my intuitive approach, the scorching scrutiny of real life pubic policy has given me an analytical framework that I continually evaluate and improve upon.
I say this now because over the past several months I’ve seen an alarming influx of misinformation coming across my daily feed. Often it’s positioned as “truth” with wording that often aligns with “do the research” without any guidance for what that might entail or how to navigate the sources found. I often keep an open mind to new information and have a history of changing my position if I find evidence that is compelling or challenging enough. Yet, when I read these theories most of these sources just don’t pass muster for how I professionally analyze information.
Media Literacy Basics
I am grateful that a few of you have reached out to ask my opinion on some of the more concerning and mysterious theories out there. I feel flattered to be seen as the intellectual Dana Scully to your “I want to believe” Fox Mulder. And while I could sit here and tell you what I personally think about each pet theory, my goal is to share how I do this, so we all become better at drowning out the noise and clarifying the truth.
As part of my heart-centered leadership practice, I help emerging leaders understand how to solicit and evaluate evidence to become stronger, more resilient voices for their communities. However, media literacy is one lesson I am offering free for anyone who comes by here because it’s so important now between COVID19, the election, and climate change, to recognize reliable information. It is important that we’re working from at least a similar set of facts and concepts to create a better world without further victimizing one another. This is my mission.
Just like pilots need to do a pre-flight check to make sure there isn’t anything they overlook or take for granted before launching nearly 500 tons of aircraft and hundreds of lives into the air, our public policy decisions, if enacted without proper research and analysis, have the potential to be just as dangerous as a plane crash. These are some things on my own checklist – this is my starting point:
Check my biases. Before falling down any rabbit holes of internet research, it is vital that I am aware of and I check my own biases. I know the temptation here is to skip this step by saying “I have no biases” and “I’m the least biased person I know”. But these statements are red flags because there is no one on earth who is so objective that they have become the sole arbiter of truth, even judges get it wrong (and rarely admit it). Everyone is just a little biased because we cannot be all things at once, none of us are perfect. So I admit them, stop avoiding accountability for them and seek to really identify and understand them.
Be critical of my own beliefs. We ALL have blind spots, but unless we consciously bring them to the surface for examination, we run the risk of that steady little current of inner, ego-based darkness influencing how we read/hear, interpret, and share the information presented to us. And worse, if others obtain skewed information through us, those people run the risk of acting on that bad information in disastrous ways. So I am critical of my own belief systems. I seek out a diversity of resources, including and especially ones that are critical to my general point of view. I reconcile why I believe what I believe and how it influences me, including who I follow on social media.
Good information requires responsibility. We are responsible for doing our own work. This includes holding ourselves accountable for actually reading the articles we are passing on, engaging in a continuous process of addressing our own biases, and recognizing when we are wrong. It requires self-honesty without meager excuses or rationalizations. It also means being a responsible curator of information, providing context when necessary, and not emotionally lashing out at others from a displaced loyalty to the source or subject matter. We all live in difficult times so aim for your presence to elevate, not escalate.
This is a continual and ongoing process, which needs to become a habit in our lives. It means honesty with myself and really seeing who I am and what I prioritize and why without judgment, but with transparency which helps me better separate the noise from the substance. From there I can move on to the actual work listed below.
1. Consume information with healthy, curious skepticism
Information comes in many forms: news reports, opinion pieces, peer-reviewed research, and so on. Some things are just here to entertain us, others are here to persuade us, some to inform us, and some to deliberately mislead us. And part of the problem I see that we often fail to recognize the difference.
No matter how well-intentioned we are, if we haven’t been trained how to do this research, how to watch for certain key details, it is easy to fall down an echo chamber of a rabbit hole that could lead to a dangerously hollow and narrow mindset.
The best default here is to consume everything with a healthy sense of disbelief and curious skepticism. That doesn’t mean we pose as interrogators criticizing every minor mistake, but we instead take on the intellectual curiosity of a child who asks “but why?” It’s especially important that we do this not just with information that is counter to our belief systems, but those that are supportive of them as well. We view the publication as a whole in the array of information, knowledge and understanding we have without attaching to it.
2. Consider the Source (and its sources)
For the primary resource you are reading or watching ask yourself:
- Where is this information coming from? What do we know about the website? Author? Sources they credit?
- Do the linked sources actually match the descriptions/support the point the publication is making?
- Does this source have a reputation for providing verifiably accurate information?
- Does this source answer to a higher power (such as a corporation, owner, donors, bishop, government, etc)? What are their reputations and agendas? Funding sources and corporate political donations can be helpful here.
- What is the quality, longevity, and history of this source?
- How does the source treat the counter-arguments? Is there a fair, balanced approach to differing viewpoints or is one viewpoint praised while another is demonized?
- Is it marked as “opinion”? If so, what is the background, influence, and agenda of the person providing that opinion?
- Are there other credible and reliable sources that confirm more than scant details of the story? (Safety in numbers)
Remember too, that bias itself isn’t a deal-breaker because eventually someone needs to use that information to present a course of action in a persuasive way. When we recognize where that bias is coming from, how transparent it is, and how it is incentivized for both the publication and the reader, we are better empowered to discern it. Here are some tools I keep in my toolbox to research more about the source itself:
3. Spot check the facts
This is where it can get kind of fun. Basically, pick a few random facts to double-check on our own. When it’s a video, I find it useful to take notes on anything that raises question marks or seems plausible but I want to double-check my own knowledge (“I should refresh my own memory before making a judgment”).
This is especially critical if you don’t have a strong basis of knowledge in the subject matter. For example, I’m very weak in analyzing financial information – it just isn’t how I’m wired – so I also need to do some extra research in the basic terminology so I at least have a small baseline to understand what I’m reading.
Some things I do:
- Check to see if the information has already been debunked. Some resources that have been reliable for me:
- Google key phrases from the source to see what others are saying. It can often reveal nuance and information that is missing. Even if you’re distrustful of mainstream media news sources (not all of them are bad, not all of them are good), this at least shows you what the general viewpoint is. This is especially useful if the publication claims “mainstream media isn’t covering this”. When i spot check this claim, it’s easy to tell if it’s false or just opinion.
- Double-check facts you might otherwise overlook to refresh your own memory. For example, the publication says, “At Reagan’s inauguration speech in 1988 he said…”. We might be reading quickly and our eyes might overlook it because we might read the 8 as a 0 or because we think we already know the fact.
- A quick search shows that George Bush was elected in 1988 and therefore there was no Reagan inauguration speech that year. This constitutes an error of some kind, could be a typo, a misquote, or even potentially a misleading statement depending on what that fact was meant to support.
- Seek out at 2-3 sources that are critical/challenging to both your own individual viewpoint as well as those of the publication. It is a tough pill to swallow, but quite worth it. Purposely challenging your perspective can help you better recognize what truths different sides have in common. This helps you better understand and frame the arguments and information.
- Compare it to its contemporaries’ treatment of this issue – does it elevate our understanding or just restate it? Does it sow confidence or doubt? Is it deeper, more detailed, or broader and more generalized?
- Follow up on at least 3 links/resources. Do the links/citations add to your knowledge or understanding? Does it even say what it asserts (try it out with my blog post)? Or it is an example of clever SEO marketing?
4. Notice the details
Look at the article itself from its syntax down to its font and we can find some obvious signs:
- The page is difficult to read with inconsistently sized fonts or poor graphics
- Small print at the bottom of the site says “Satire site”
- Links take the reader right back to the same article or something entirely different than expected/quoted
- The sources they’ve quoted are widely discredited or demonstrably false (see the caption of Mr. Lincoln here)
- Misspellings of basic words or names; lots of typos or a noticeable lack of basic journalistic standards for accuracy
- Lots of claims but no links to other sources and no independent confirmation of those facts
- Links to Angelfire sites (That’s my own bias there – that’s always going to be a no-go for me)
- Aggressive pop-ups and ads that show clear bias or alarmism
- Quoting “experts” without any other details about who they are or why they’re considered experts
- The information is out of date
- The author is fake (cannot find anything else written by them)
5. Read Between the Lines
The most difficult stage of inquiry in my opinion is reading the totality of the information and digging deeper into what is presented before us. It requires us to process the big picture meanings and consistency of what we are seeing. But even more importantly, we need to look for what they aren’t saying.
Look for nuance, detail, and tone here. Look for consistency and how the logic truly plays out. Go beyond whether it makes sense and look at how complete it is.
Does the publication:
- Leave out significant and relevant groups or timelines?
- Characterize opposition or criticism as “evil” or portrays them with stereotypes and caricatures?
- Assert its own power and authority by using emotionally abusive tactics and language such as gaslighting and isolation such as positioning itself as the “the Truth”?
- Generalize the facts it relies on for its conclusion or use absolutes? (“all people agree…” but do they, like, really?)
- Leave out historical context, comparisons, or counter-arguments?
- Utilize tone arguments and fallacies to color their conclusions or manipulate emotions?
- Contradict itself in later paragraphs, pages, or posts? (Example: Complaining that schools are “indoctrinating kids” but later saying how keeping kids home because of COVID is a conspiracy to create generations of mindless “sheeple”)
- Throws doubt onto any other sources or fact-checking by seducing the reader into believing they have access to hidden knowledge?
6. Examine the symbolism
This is where my education in sociology is finally useful (just kidding, it’s always been useful!) – Look at the mixture of images, video, narratives and phrasing used for how they associate certain images with certain ideologies/biases/calls to action. This is where it’s especially important to be discerning of caricatures, stereotypes, and dog-whistle phrasing. Notice how accessible the language is, from phrasing to how it talks about marginalized groups and its opposition.
For example: Do they use violent, exaggerated imagery to portray their critics or certain groups? (Would they use that same image for themselves?) Does it have to rely on stereotypes to prove its point or can the point stand without it?
7. When someone shows you who they are, believe them
Understanding and examining motivations is a bigger conversation, especially when we have literal fake news out there. It is layered, nuanced, and requires a lot more time and depth than most of us have when looking at Facebook during a work break. But suffice it to say that when someone signals their intentions, believe them.
Likewise, recognize when there are overt themes and familiar phrasing to the narrative, such as populism, patriotism, Christianity (whose version of it?), antisemitism, it is signaling its bias to us. Again, bias doesn’t have to be fatal, but it needs to be considered as part of the whole.
However, most of these publications can be exposed by how they call us to action. Using terminology like “they’re coming for your guns” is pretty transparent that the intention isn’t to add to the national policy conversations about gun control. Instead, it’s signaling the fear it thinks we should feel as a result of its statement/news.
Which brings me to my last point….
Truly understand your gut reaction
This final step is critical before sharing anything: Sit with yourself for a moment or two and just scan for how you’re feeling after what you have seen. Use your words. “I’m feeling angry”, “I feel betrayed”, “This is just so overwhelming” are all valid responses when you’re hit with challenging information. But just because the information gives us an authentic gut reaction, doesn’t mean the information itself is true or that our beliefs are either. It might mean instead that the publication was good at getting us to feel something…just like a good movie, a good ad, or anything that moves us. Examine why it moved you to feel something.
And that feeling is useful feedback for us if we know how to discern it. However, all of us bring in our background, experience, and unresolved issues into our daily lives. We need to pause for a minute to make sure we don’t just fall for a new type of programming that could obscure the guidance of our own ethics, experience, and learning. We need to have a conversation with the gut. What is it actually responding to?
Are we reacting out of our own embarrassment over not knowing this information before?
Are we overwhelmed by the size of the information, the depth of the conspiracy, the resemblance to movie and media references?
Are we quick to reject information because it doesn’t align with our own predisposed belief systems?
Is there a fear of missing out or not belonging? “Everyone in my circle believes this so if I don’t I’ll be rejected…” is powerful programming that literally everyone utilizes, except when it’s paired with “think for yourself”, it gives extra credit for “being brave enough to believe THE TRUTH”.
Examine too how you might be inadvertently curating this exact content with your likes & shares – How much do your social media choices influence what you see?
Finally, take a step back from the emotion itself and look at how our emotional reaction serves the intentions of the publication? Is it just click-bait fueled by our dark desire for gossip or our deeper need to feel special? Often these stories are created specifically to get our attention, to take advantage of our own biases and emotions. Is it adding to the noise and confusion or is it clarifying it with practical, useful, and actionable information? What is the endgame and what part do they expect you to play in it?
Trust requires discernment
In a world where the lines between commerce, politics, justice, entertainment and personality are becoming more blurred, friends and family becoming more polarized, and seeing once sacred institutions and services endangered with visible demonstrations of authoritarianism and politicization it is hard to know who and what to trust. Even though we have access to more information than ever before, we have fewer guideposts on how to use that information. And when confronted with “problematic” information or people, we often just want to block them to alleviate the anxiety it provokes instead of actually unraveling any of this.
Yet, in the end, we need to know what our own standards and boundaries are and continue to challenge our comfort level by evaluating them as we grow and change over time. What code of ethics do you follow and why? When was the last time you examine those? What do you expect out of our news? What do you expect out of our leaders? How will you know when you’ve found “the truth”? I can’t answer these questions for you, but if we are moving through life mindless of our own biases and boundaries, we might fall for anything.
The reality is that to fix our world’s problems we will have to have reliable ways to synthesize a complex array of wisdom, evidence, and ethics. We cannot, nor will not, all believe the same thing and yet, it is inevitable that we will need to find a way to trust one another and our information to enact lasting systemic change. If we engage with discernment, consistency, and transparency, I have faith in the power of compassion & common purpose.
- How to Combat Fake News and Disinformation [Brookings Institute]
- Danger in the Internet Echo Chamber [Interview with Harvard Law Professor Cass R. Sunstein, author of #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media]
- The Mainstream Media Won’t Tell You This [The Atlantic]
- How to Talk to Conspiracy Theorists and Still be Kind [MIT Technology Review]
- How to Debunk COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories [The Verge interview with John Cook, cognitive science researcher at George Mason University, one of the authors of the Conspiracy Theory Handbook]