Thoughtful content from Dr Gary Shogren

“I don’t believe it!” Part II

[You are encouraged to read the original post at Dr Shogren’s blog.]

More Thoughts on Truth and Social Media

Dr Gary Shogren

In Part I I began a long rant against internet disinformation. I’m against it for two reasons: I don’t like false information; I don’t like to look foolish when I fall for it.

Here are other areas where we need to show some healthy skepticism:

Echo Chamber Effect

In 2015 the social media were packed with people reporting that Pope Francis had announced that Islam and Christianity were the same and that the Koran and the Bible were basically the same message. “Jesus Christ, Jehovah, Allah. These are all names employed to describe an entity that is distinctly the same across the world.”

"I'm the pope, but I'm broadminded!"

“I’m the pope, but I’m broadminded!”

People were outraged! The Vatican denied it which, for some of us, was evidence that it must have really happened. It appeared on the bogusWashingtonpost.com.co, conservativebyte.com, also civictribune.com(which altered the story, so that the pope supposedly said this at the White House). So, I have seen the same exact story, usually quoted verbatim, on four websites. Does this mean there are four “sources”? No, only one, and that original source (National Report again!) said they were just joking! But the echo effect means that the reader senses that, “It must be so, because everybody is talking about it!”

For the Christian there is a special sort of news source, the Prophetic Site. If one blogger says he, I don’t know, saw four grim horsemen riding around in the field ‘back of his farm, then the story will spread far and wide within days, if not hours.

Tabloids

Ah, for the days when tabloids were clearly labeled and placed at the supermarket checkout. Then you could give a quick glance and find out when Elvis was spotted with what Venusian or how a Wolf-Boy was loose in the Maine woods.

Here’s one you won’t soon forget:

wtf tabloid headline

Now you just have to click on and find tabloids online, for example,WorldNewsDailyReport.com. Read all about it!“Man who spend 57 Years Counting the Bricks in the Great Wall of China.”

Of course, there are real – or partly-real – tidbits about your favorite celebs.

Group source

Group-sourcing is a terrific tool for gathering data – people can send in pictures or information. Then the people in charge always verify information before they use it.

Except when they don’t.

There are websites where no-one is actually running the show, and people can basically upload their own articles. Beforeitsnews.com is one such fount of disinformation. You don’t have to be a reporter or even check your facts, just sign up. I signed up with a fake name, just for kicks, and I am now a cub reporter for (cue echo effect!) – Before…Its…News! I was sore tempted to make up a phony news story, just to see how easy it was to get it out there, but I felt that it’s ethically a gray area.

You want to be an official reporter for "Before It's News?" Easy!

You want to be an official reporter for “Before It’s News?” Easy!

Disinfo.com is another of these sites.

And sadly enough, the Christian site Charismanews.com is borderline. I wrote a bunch of reader responses, complaining about their poor journalism, and it only hit me later on that there is very little journalism, at least not in the Opinion section. People apparently just write news articles and post them, and that’s that. So it’s a mixed bag between real stories, weird stuff about prophecy and other themes (this week: the 2016 blizzard and the stock-market drop are predicted in the book of Revelation).

Sad to say, real newspapers are pruning their budgets by cutting way back on investigative reporting; this is hardly news, it’s been happening for decades. CNN is one of the few major news outlets that does some of their own research: much of the material you see on Fox is reporting or offering commentary on news that other people dug up. In December there was a rumor circulating that drug lord El Chapo had in effect declared war on ISIS. Fox retold it as truth; so did the New York Post; meanwhile, the Washington Post – which does its own investigation – easily figured out that it was just a hoax, from a satirical websiteThugLifeVideos.com. In this age of 24/7 news, outlets need a lot of material, and a lot of stuff slips through. SNL, by the way, has a great joke about how the posts of a popular morning news show have to pause every few minutes to run through a list of mistakes they had just made.

Outdated Info

If a website breathlessly gives you a scoop on some new fact, make sure you check the original date! Here’s an article from Before Its News: “Critics of Bible Silenced Once Again: Archaeological Discoveries Prove Old Testament to be Accurate.” But you have to read a bit in order to find out that this is not, well, news: “The discovery of the Ebla archive in northern Syria in the 1970′sconfirmed that the Biblical records concerning the Patriarchs are spot on.” And in typical fashion,Before Its News claims way too much when it says that the biblical records were proven as spot on. The Ebla tablets were of great help in some things, but give us no proof of most of the events of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The story we mentioned above about Noah’s Ark has to do with a discovery that took place in 1959!

Here’s a story that is outdated (it came out in 1997 but is still being posted as “news”) and in the main incorrect: Black People are about to Lose the Right to Vote! 

Silly Announcements

I had to create a special category just for this popular rumor that circulates by word of mouse:

Capture

And no, Apple is not giving away free laptops, and Applebees will not send you a $50 gift certificate if you pass along their chain letter. Nor Honda, nor M&M candy:

Capture

Now, back to our regularly scheduled topic:

Serious but (in my opinion) badly unreliable sources

A whole lot of what you see on YouTube: that massive, round UFO that hovers just over the North Pole (there’s a scientific reason, which I won’t go into here). Videos that prove that Obama or whoever is a lizard from outer space. Bible prophecy videos on YouTube are a genre in themselves. How the meeting with Pope Francis and the head of Google Eric Schmidt is found in Bible prophecy. Why the New International Version is a New Age plot. Enough said.

What other sources are unreliable? This determination depends on one’s own set of prior beliefs, which leads to confirmation bias. In my opinion Mad World News, which states that it “is firmly devoted to bringing you the truth and the stories that the mainstream media ignores.” But remember, even if you don’t like the mainstream media – and Fox News is top of the list of mainstream – doesn’t mean they are accurate. Even the broken clock is right twice a day, but basically undependable. I would put Breitbart.com in the same category, as well as PatriotAction.net

VeteransToday.com is according to some a satirical site, but they come across as so earnest it’s hard to tell. In my opinion, the ever-popular Alex Jones and WorldTruth.tv are crackpot sources.

MadWorldNews’ headlines are pure clickbait. From this month: “Woman’s Itchy Birthmark Explodes, Doctors Horrified To See What’s Beneath It” or “Do You Wear Shoes In Your House? Experts Warn About What Will Happen.”

And their articles tend to ranting:

The thing about red-blooded Americans that no liberal will ever understand is that being told what to do isn’t really in our rebel blood. We stand up for our rights and our freedom no matter how long liberals spend crying about it in their safe spaces. History dictates that the time will come when one will have to choose being a whiny crybaby in a liberal campus, learning the lessons of Stalin and Marx and complaining about capitalism, or grab a gun and protect yourself and your way of life.

So – you still in favor of background checks for gun purchasers, or are you a crying, Marxist, whiney liberal!!??!

And, to round it out: Biased Media

Rule 1 – Beware of Media Bias.
Rule 2 – All media outlets have a bias.

No, don’t tell me that THEY are biased but YOUR source is not. If they are run by human beings, they have a bias, although some are slantier than others.

Fox is clearly very conservative. No, it is. MSNBC is clearly liberal. And CNN, which I think is more objective than some other sources, is hardly righteous. It was– correctly, I think – been heavily criticized for taking a pro-war stance under the Bush administration, and over the past year or so it spoke in favor of gay marriage. CNN news anchors regularly articulate approval or disapproval of events or opinions.

Conclusion: How to Check the Truth

How can you tell is something is news? First of all, if your website tells you that the ruins of a city were found on Mars, or that the Planet Nibiru is about to collide with the Earth, or that scientists have cured leprosy with green tea, and it’s not found on major news outlets, then you’ve probably been had. No, never mind that the mainstream media always “hushes up” stories like this – they don’t. They absolutely suck up stories like this, so long as they are verifiable.

Second, there are websites that help out. I use:

Snopes.com
Truthorfiction.com
Politifact.com
Factcheck.org
Urbanlegends.about.com

I’m not saying that I trust these sites; I don’t. As I said earlier, I doubt everything I read online! However, they usually provide the non-echo chamber sources of their information, which rumor-mongers typically do not. Now. If you have heard ofSnopes, you have probably heard the rumors that the rumor-debunker it ITSELF a front for liberal Democrats, the Obama administration, or funded by that popular internet demon, uber-liberal George Soros. All this due to, as far as I can tell, just oneSnopes article that just one person objected to. A certain Bud Gregg claimed that a Snopes article on him was a lie – although when other groups followed it up, they found out that Gregg was out to lunch after all. This happened in 2008, and the one anecdote has been used to discredit Snopes ever since, for the reason that Gregg had criticized Obama.

The trouble is that, once someone has an established confirmation bias, it will alter the way one views, for example, Snopes.com. So when someone sees on Snopes that this picture is a fake

obama salute

or when they show that Obama really was born in Hawaii, then immediately that is taken as proof of what was believed all along – they are pro-Obama!

We all have confirmation bias, which we can at least tamp down if we do more homework. In this case, one merely has to do other searches, where Snopes is found debunking that George W. Bush accidently voted for Obama in 2012 (Duh, because he couldn’t figure out the machine!), or that picture of him holding the phone receiver upside-down. Or the rumor that Reagan once described George W. Bush as a “shiftless ne’er-do-well.” Or that Rick Scott adopted a rescue dog because he thought it would make him more likable and get him elected. All these anti-conservative rumors debunked on Commie liberal Snopes. Actually, a few people have also claimed that Snopes is run by right-wing whackos.

Yes, the supposed Leftwingers on Snopes exposed this as a fake!

Yes, the supposed Leftwingers on Snopes exposed this as a fake!

Here ends my rant. To apply the philosopher’s words, a bit out of context, “Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect.” Let’s resolve not to give it away to just anyone.

RECOMMENDED LINKS:

My articles:

“‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ has its 50th Anniversary”

“Did a NASA Supercomputer Prove the Bible?”

“Christians and Myths”

Did They Discover a Giant Skeleton? Well, No.

“Christian Urban Legends”

Other sources:

http://skeptoid.com/blog/2013/03/16/trusting-the-internet/

http://www.relevantmagazine.com/culture/handy-rundown-internets-fake-news-si


Copyright Gary Shogren.

Gary has a PhD in New Testament Exegesis. He serves as Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San Jose, Costa Rica.