It gets harder by the day to know if what you just read is accurate, especially when political campaigns actively try to muddy the waters and Internet rumors get shared on Facebook without bothering to check if they are true.
I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty foolish for sharing a post about the death of a celebrity who is, in fact, very much alive and well. With a national election nine weeks away, it’s only going to get worse.
Here are some great resources you can use to do some simple fact-checking:
• I start each day by visiting Snopes.com and seeing what new hoaxes are being circulated on social media. The website is especially great for examining outrageous claims made in social media memes, those wonderfully simple and often humorous graphics that may combine two otherwise unrelated images to form a new thought. The top half may show a woman telling her boyfriend “Go ahead and hang out with your buddies” while the bottom half shows Admiral Ackbar from 1983’s Return of the Jedi warning, “It’s a Trap!” Humor can disguise dangerous propaganda.
• Politifact is a great one for fact-checking politicians because the website’s “Truth-O-Meter” ranks their claims as true, mostly true, false or “Pants on Fire”.
• FactCheck.org also looks into claims made by politicians. The “Viral Spiral” tool lets users ask about things they see on the Internet to determine if a claim is spreading false information.
• The Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog turns the magnifying glass on what’s actually “fake news”.
• FlackCheck.org deals with false claims made in advertising, as well as science and healthcare messaging.
• It can also be illuminating to learn who is donating to which candidate (since they don’t wear sponsor badges like NASCAR drivers), how much money groups are spending on lobbying, etc. OpenSecrets, from the Center for Responsive Politics, and the Sunlight Foundation use public data to track campaign spending and bring more transparency to reporting.
These politicians assume you’re too lazy to fact-check. They don’t want you looking too deeply. They know most of us will simply click that ‘Share’ button and run with any juicy burn to demonize their opponent. That’s a bit insulting to your intelligence, no? Google “logical fallacies” and you’ll recognize how candidates attempt to distract viewers during televised debates.
Seeing things as they actually exist requires us to possess enough self-awareness to confront our preference for (or aversion to) a person or group of people. We use the term “implicit bias” to describe when we have attitudes towards people or associate stereotypes with them without our conscious knowledge.
A fairly commonplace example of this is when white people automatically associate criminality with black people without even realizing they’re doing it.
Most of our actions occur without conscious thought as a sort of mental shorthand that allows us to better function in an extraordinarily complex world. We tend to search for, interpret, favor and recall information in a way that confirms or supports our prior beliefs or values. This is why two people can be exposed to the same evidence yet one may resist changing their views even after the evidence is revealed to be false. The effect is strongest for desired outcomes, for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.
Maybe the truth is over-rated and the ends justify the means. Does someone deserve power if they have to mislead voters and cheat instead of doing the hard work of building a case for why their actual policies are better than the other guy’s?
It’s arrogant to presume that only the other side deceives their followers. I consume a wide variety of news sources, understanding that some will lean to the left, others to the right, so the information must be “taken with a grain of salt”. Flipping channels is a useful exercise in seeing how one news station beats a dead horse while another pays virtually no attention to that scandal at all. Sometimes it feels like they are broadcasting from different planets.
I encourage you to do your due diligence as an informed citizen and take a moment to check out the veracity of what somebody has said, tweeted or posted before passing it along to others.
— Steven Stiefel is a staff writer at the Times-Journal. His column appears in Saturday editions. Email: email@example.com.