Become more savvy news consumers

Brace yourself. It’s an election year. I’m not here to tell you who to vote for. I’m here to give you all of the relevant information you need so you are a fully informed voter.

Once you sit down and start penciling in those bubbles, I want you to know who the candidates are and their stated policy positions – not just whose name is most familiar or which guy left a slightly less disgusting taste in your mouth based on negative TV ads aimed at “low information voters.”

I once wrote in this space that if you are walking into a voting booth uninformed, you are doing a disservice to yourself and others in your community, possibly voting against your own self-interests.

This is a very dangerous time for our country because people can no longer agree on a common set of facts, which is fundamental to the operation of a democracy. In decades past, we had the Walter Cronkites and Edward R. Murrows to tell us what was going on in the world – and we trusted them.

Social media, lazy journalism and blatant propaganda have eroded that trust. Legitimate newsrooms understand that trust is currency and put in place systems for fact-checking. Running a correction when something erroneous has been reported is about as appetizing as licking dirty ashtrays, but we swallow our pride and do it because the truth is sacred.

Contrast that with someone who creates a slick-looking website with a URL that looks suspiciously similar to one that is legit; the entire purpose for existing being to deceive. Readers rarely check if an article is true if it has a juicy headline that’ll make the other guys look bad.

This behavior won’t stop until we make it so embarrassing to be “called out” for posting old or misleading articles on Facebook that users think twice before doing it.

Content blurs the line between objective news that aims to present unbiased truths vs opinion pieces intended to persuade. News and entertainment have also merged in a dangerous union. Pages 4-5 of this paper are unambiguously dedicated to opinions.

Information has been weaponized as newsrooms have hollowed out, investigative reporting abandoned because it costs money to invest time in doing it right.

Consumers of media have found ourselves in silos, with only the information we agree with and seek out finding its way to us. Algorithms, bots and propaganda machines are targeting us, and it’s only going to get worse.

We must go into this election year more skeptical and guarded against swallowing only that which tastes good.

Remember Cambridge Analytica. Fake news spreads prolifically through sponsored posts, advertisements, bots, adversarial accounts and –– unfortunately –– unwitting users. Russia used digital tools to spread misinformation during election cycles, running around-the-clock efforts to spoon-feed lies to the gullible. They sure fooled me a couple of times. It’s so easy to get conned! It’s embarrassing. And it’s not just the Russians anymore. Hello, Iran.

I encourage everyone to broaden your sources of information so you get a more complete view of what’s actually happening in our country and around the world. There are two sides to every story, and you do a disservice to our democracy when you only watch or read stuff you agree with instead of the content that might make you mad but may also cause you to think a bit more critically.

Understand that MSNBC and Fox News are both packed with a partisan slants, working every day to push all of your buttons so you stay in a perpetual state of outrage, motivated to actually show up at the polls. When you have some free time, watch how both of those channels cover the same stories -- or mostly ignore any news that they don’t want you to know. It’s easy to see why Americans are walking around in different realities, affected by that which is served up to us: brain candy.

I don’t know who’ll win the 2020 elections, but I can assure you that between now and November, you and I are going to be molded like clay, bombarded with memes, misleading articles, false promises and outright lies.

Don’t be a sucker. Do some research. Use your brain before you use the “Share” button.

— Steven Stiefel is a staff writer at the Times-Journal. Email: steven.stiefel@times-journal.com.

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