“Well, I don’t mind someone with a phony personality, but I gotta draw the line somewhere.” – Seinfeld
I got a message at work this morning about how disinformation is a real problem these days. I’m pretty sure it was always a problem, but at least people are thinking about it now I guess. I will now present the list of ways to spot and spot disinformation that was presented to me with my thoughts.
- Always be skeptical.
- Is this information presenting facts is it trying to cause a strong emotional reaction?
Advocating skepticism is good, sort of, but the second part it essentially meaningless. Most facts are presented with the intention of causing a reaction. To me this is the biggest challenge, it’s pretty rare that anything is communicated without an agenda attached to it. This statement seems to be implying one or the other, either facts or emotional manipulation, when I feel reality is that it’s usually both.
Conclusion – not helpful
- Check the website address
- Fake sites look real and use real sounding addresses, but if you look closely are incorrect
Maybe? If you see something from CNNN.COMM that’s probably something you shouldn’t trust, but when someone is repeating that the thing they read there as totally true and says it’s from CNN there’s nothing for you to check. I never really send people links but maybe other people do. Regardless I’m not sure that using phony websites is the way that disinformation is spread on a large scale so I’m not sure how much this helps anyone.
Conclusion – partially helpful
- Read past the headline or tagline.
- Does the headline relate to the body or is it written just to catch your attention and get you to click or forward?
This one I like. I’ve seen some articles lately about how here’s going to be a DOUBLE pandemic once flu season starts, but then when I actually read the article there’s nothing in there about why there would be a flu pandemic. I used to do this with my blog all the time because I thought it was funny to pull the old bait and switch, what a fool I was. I guess other people heard about it and started doing it so this whole deformation thing is my fault. Sorry guys.
Conclusion – Helpful, or maybe useless because if you need to be told this you’re probably not going to do it anyway
- Validate the source of the information
- Is it usually reliable? Can you verify that it is legitimate?
I hate this one so much. Validate it how? People crow about this one endlessly – don’t believe everything you read until you validate it. How? How am I supposed to do that? By going to another stupid fake website? By asking my conspiracy theory friend Jimmy the Exploder? This one particularly annoys me because people invoke this to claim that old media was better. Newspapers and magazines were (and are) used for propaganda just as much as online news is. There’s some kind of weird old timey nostalgia that print journalists had integrity and did the right thing – I call bullshit on that. Making stuff up because you have a deadline and want to get more attention is a long and sacred tradition in the newspaper business. People seem to talk about fake news like its some new thing invented by social media – as soon as news existed so did disinformation.
Usually reliable? How would I know? Can you verify that is it legitimate? No, in large part I can verify no news story. Is Donald Trump really the president? I can’t verify that. Certainly seems like he is but I didn’t count any votes. Nor did I see him get sworn in personally. How would you even prove that you were the president if you needed to? They should get a badge or a sash or something that says “president” and is hard to replicate. Like it’s made out of moon rocks or something.
Conclusion – I HATE IT SO MUCH!!!!!
- Check the dates
- Is this truly new information or is it recycled information made to look new?
Mildly helpful. This is basically what the internet is. Have you ever tried to track something back to its source. It’s like a six degrees of Kevin Bacon situation. I get some security alert about a new phishing technique and they say they got it from some other security site. Go there and they got it from SANs. Go there and they got it from the FBI. The FBI reports they were told it by some other security researcher. And on and on. Usually the information is a few days old by the time I get it. Does that make it wrong?
This one is a bit odd, because I do see from time to time people trying to make a big deal about something that happened months or years ago like its new information but if it actually happened does it matter if it’s not new? Hard to say.
Conclusion – Meh
- Check the author
- Is the author credible?
This is the same as #4 and I hate it also. In fact it’s worse because basically it’s asking “do you trust this person?” which flies in the face of #1. If I decide that I trust some fringe lunatic and I think they’re credible then all their stuff is also credible? Or if I want to be nice maybe what they’re saying is if the author is not credible then you can discard the information right away, if you think they are credible still do all this other stuff. Maybe.
But the problem is the same, how do I know who’s credible? One really eye-opening thing that happened to me in bygone years is when I saw an “expert” on the History channel talking about ancient Egypt and I recognized him as the author of a book I read where he claimed that aliens live in Antarctica. So obviously he’s a loon. Not sure why I thought the History channel was above presenting a loon as an expert but I did until then. Although the joke is of course that maybe despite his other insane belief he IS an expert and he does know a lot about ancient Egypt and what he was saying was completely right. How the hell would I know?
Conclusion – Worthless and stupid
- Check the facts
- Are all the facts accurate or is this disinformation with some legitimate facts sprinkled in to make it appear legitimate?
Also the same as #4 and equally as useless. I feel like this happens a lot with “advice”. The “advice” is to just solve the problem stupid. How do I fact check something? I’ve heard that you should verify something with two other sources – which doesn’t seem terribly helpful because of what I mentioned in #5. Most of the internet is the same information being passed around by dozens of sites. If not hundreds. To borrow and misuse a legal term it’s fruit of the poisonous tree (the fruit is also poisonous FYI). The second part is especially annoying because as all good liars know the best way to lie is to mix your lies with the truth. How do I ferret that out?
Conclusion – Worthless and annoyingly repetitive
- Check the images
- What is the source of the image and has it been altered?
This is kind of something but not for the reasons they say. An altered image is one thing, but what does the source matter if it’s legit? What I see in terms of images is just using an image that has nothing to do with anything. There will be a story about how sugar gives you diabetes and the picture will be of Tim Hardaway Jr. And you’ll think to yourself does Tim Hardaway Jr have diabetes? Averaging 16 points a game for the Mavs is decent, but it becomes a lot more impressive if you have diabetes. But no, it’s just a picture for no reason.
Conclusion – Decent
- Check the quote
- Was this something actually said, and if so, was it said in the context implied?
I have mixed feelings about this one. Misquotes are rampant and have been forever. But they’re probably talking about a politician (or whomever) being quoted in an interview rather than if Buddha ever said that the key to existence is passing beyond fear, which is a little more easy to untangle. Unless you’re talking about a deepfake video or something I think the second part is far more common. Pretty much every political ad on the TV right now is an attack ad based on taking something out of context.
In real life this happens all the time and I don’t think it’s even malicious usually – it’s a product of people sucking at listening and remembering. Someone will say something like “In this unusual scenario we should do this thing one time and then fix it later” and three quarters of the people there will run off saying that it’s the new thing to do all the time because such and such said so, not because they’re being jerks but because that’s what they think was said. Communication is impossible, give up and just sit and stare at the wall.
One of my favorite things is when someone tells me an idea I came up with like it’s theirs either because they forgot I was the one who told them or he’s been all the way around the horn to them through others and they don’t know I was the original sayer. Internally I laugh and laugh.
- Check the comments
- What kind of comments are others making? Do they think this content is misleading or invented?
At first I thought that this was the worst advice ever – “just go with the crowd” but after thinking more about it’s actually fine. Firstly because the wisdom of the crowd is better than you think. Sure there are problems with “herd mentality” and “groupthink” but those usually happen IRL because people are cowards and morons – hiding behind a keyboard actually helps in this situation. There is research that I’ve chosen to believe based on nothing that indicates “crowd-sourcing” helps move things closer to the truth by limiting the influence of outliers.
But the second reason this is a good idea is because here’s the secret of why all these steps are pointless anyway – it doesn’t matter if something is true, all that matters is if people believe it. Whatever thing you’re looking at, if the comments indicated that most other people believe it you better get with the program. It’s easier than you think to make yourself believe things.
Now let’s try these techniques a real not true thing. A while back the popular fake news on the internet was that Japanese people were licking each other’s eyeballs and getting a eyeball weird disease. This was not true. Let’s apply what we learned.
- Always be skeptical. I was
- Check the website N/A – it was everywhere
- Read past the headline I did, the body matched
- Validate the source CBS News, CNN – I think I’m supposed to believe them
- Check the dates It was not old information
- Check the author See above
- Check the facts N/A – I couldn’t fly to Japan to look around, I think my friend’s wife has relatives in Japan maybe, I guess I could have asked her
- Check the images They were real pictures of Asian people
- Check the quote I think all the doctor’s saying that eyeball licking is bad were quoted correctly
- Check the comments All the comments indicated belief
Based on this I think I should have concluded that it was true? I didn’t because I usually stop at #1. I assume most everything anyone says is false. It doesn’t make me a fun conversationalist but . . . . huh, if there’s an upside I don’t know what it is.
The eyeball licking lie is a good example of how to get people to believe a lie though. Start by making it in another country, this helps in several ways. One, it’s less likely to be repudiated. Two, everyone likes hearing about how everyone else sucks. Three, everyone knows that foreigners are insane. Japan is a particularly good choice because we’ve already been socialized to think of it as a weird place full of weird people who do weird things. Germany is another good choice. Is it a coincidence that the two enemies of the US during WW2 are known as the freak countries? Unlikely. Japan is better though because then you have racism working for you also.
Another important factor is to make your lie pointless. If lie about something that has a goal it can be more easily disproven. I say that the Republican Party wants to feed our schoolchildren rat milk there’s going to be opposition to that, people are going to look into it. But, if I say people in Zanzibar gamble large sums of money on certain Twitch-streamers playing Fortnite that falls into the “why would anyone make this up?” category. That really gets people to believe something, which is odd because attention-seeking behavior is pretty common and well understood. I’m doing it right now. Want me, love me, shower me with kisses!
So you have an innocuous lie about someplace far away, but the key of course is to make it interesting. The Zanzibar Twitch thing isn’t going to be as popular as the eyeball thing because even though Twitch and E-gaming are popular they haven’t achieved a high degree of cultural penetration. My aunt Bedelia isn’t going to use Facebook to spread that lie because she doesn’t know or care what Twitch and Twitch-streaming is. It has to be something that people can grab onto – like saying that air conditioning is spreading covid.
Since we’re on the subject I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a British documentary I saw once about how horrorcore rap is the most popular form of music in America. You probably know that it is not. But if you watched that documentary and were not an American or regularly visited America why wouldn’t you believe it? I mean they made a whole documentary about it. Why would they do it if it wasn’t true? The real question is why did that British dude make such a documentary? Probably for attention, but I like to pretend that by some bizarre set of circumstances he really believes that horrorcore is endemic in the US and he’s very concerned about it.
I don’t think the Japanese eyeball licking was EVERYWHERE because this is the first I’ve heard of it.
Also, whenever I read the comments I’m sorry. “Snowflake!” “Troglodyte!” “Sheeple!” “Nazi moron!”