Do you remember a time when we could turn on the television to catch a rundown of what is happening in our towns and around the world? We called that news. Back then, news stations and papers still tried to maintain some form of journalistic integrity. Today, news broadcasts and articles aim to grab your attention in the highly saturated world of information. Unfortunately, too many opinions are currently being endorsed as facts, which has led to the growth of an uninformed and under-informed public. Okay, here’s the situation…
Honey and I were listening to a Sirius station during our return from the gym. The topic at hand was SCOTUS nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, and the latest allegations against him for sexual misconduct. I was astounded by how many uninformed people had no shame in calling into the station and expressing their ignorance for the world to hear. One caller (with no relevant evidence to back her belief) stated that Kavanaugh was clearly guilty while Bill Cosby was definitely framed. By the way, the caller named Brett “Kevin Kavanaugh”. Click.
Providing a Platform
Unfortunately, media, particularly social media, provides a platform for ignorant people to spread misinformation. People come across poorly sourced articles, which reinforce their beliefs and opinions, and disseminate them through reposts, retweets, etc. Not once do they stop reacting with their emotional mind and turn to critical thinking in order to evaluate the legitimacy and/or relevancy of the information they are passing along. They inject their opinion simply because they have been afforded a podium from which to speak.
Why don’t these so-called news networks cut these people off?
“Ratings” Honey chided me for not seeing the obvious. In fact, I asked the question rhetorically. Or possibly I had asked the question aloud in order to voice the investigation I intended to explore silently in my mind during the remainder of the drive. I knew that his answer, however facile, was partly correct. Fox “News” knows that their viewership will remain high or climb if they parade a bunch of so-called experts on stage spouting off the latest inflammatory attacks against democrats and liberals. Cable “News” Network, aka CNN, understands that their viewers stay tuned when their controversial commentators attack republicans and conservatives, because they reinforce the ideologies already adopted by the viewers.
This cycle of only providing a platform to reinforce viewers’ personally-held beliefs and opinions creates an echo chamber that magnifies those beliefs and opinions regardless of contradictory facts. As a result, the viewing public internalize these broadcasts as confirmation that their viewpoints are right. They fail to consider that the news stations are appealing to their emotionality rather than their rationality. Thus, viewers do not take the time to investigate evidence which contradicts what they already believe. Why would I go looking to prove myself wrong when so-and-so already told me that I’m right? Everybody wants to be right. Right?
What about social responsibility?
“That’s crap!” I retorted. They know that what they are putting out isn’t news, yet they claim no social responsibility for the negative ramifications of their actions. Honey again laughed at my naiveté and explained that he had long ago relinquished the hope of any company or corporation doing “the right thing”. He believes that the only goal is the ultimate bottom line. As long as the company is maximizing profits, its operators could not care less about how they are destroying the society in which they exist.
I tend to have a less cynical opinion of large organizations. Yes, every for-profit company strives to earn as much as possible. At the same time, the organizations’ executives surely understand that a parasitic relationship between a business and the society that supports it can only exist so long before the host is destroyed. It is in their best interests to fuse a symbiotic bond with the people they intend to serve, so that there is always an audience to keep their ratings up and ad money rolling in the doors. They must know that a polluter can only emit toxins so long before no one around is healthy enough to run the factory. A news network can only dumb its audience down for so long before no one in their viewership is able to form a coherent thought that isn’t first spoon-fed to them. Or is that the point? You’d better break out that aluminum foil hat, Friend.
Conspiracy theory aside, businesses, like Facebook, tout themselves as egalitarian organizations that empower people and allow them to share ideas important to them. Zuckerberg gives tens of millions of dollars (possibly more) to humanitarian efforts that promote social and medical wellness. Doesn’t Mark get the importance of social responsibility? Social responsibility is your whole brand, man. Damn!
Not only is it a major connotation of the Facebook brand, social responsibility is spelled out in the form of anti-hate regulations and guidelines by which each user must agree to abide. However, Facebook has been utilized by factions of communities around the world to disseminate hateful rhetoric aimed at people of various racial and cultural groups, religions and political affiliations. For example, Reuters reported in March that Buddhists in Myanmar had been using Facebook as a platform to promote hate and violence against Rohingya Muslims for years. However, according to Associated Press, Facebook did not ban the accounts of some of the most prolific hate mongers until last month. Does it really take five months to remove an account? Here’s a hint, you might want to hire people who speak Burmese to monitor activity BEFORE you promote the shit out of your platform.
Are these platforms reinforcing or reflecting?
It is unfair to blame Facebook for the actions of seedy individuals. I know that. However, there are cultural and societal considerations that every organization must address when seeking to infiltrate new, especially foreign, markets. At the very least, I expect Zuckerberg to have the common sense to know that he would need people who speak and read the language to monitor content. How else would he be aware of regulation violations and breeches in the contractual agreement? (Not that anyone ever reads those things.) At the very, very least someone at Facebook should have known that there are people who will abuse the social media platform to advertise nefarious rhetoric.
Earlier I argued that news outlets are creating echo chambers instead of invoking critical thinking. Is the same true of user-controlled social media? One could counter-argue that the latter acts as a mirror to reflect the collective psyche of the population utilizing its services. The media is not reinforcing hate. It is simply broadcasting the hate that already exists. If that is the case, the full social responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of the public creators and consumers of hateful content. Of course, this completely excuses the organization’s obligation to inform its users of the psychographic profiling that occurs once a company, like Cambridge Analytica, gains access to you and your friends’ private information without your permission. Let’s just say that we all need to do better. But what does that look like?
Seeking Credible Sources
Okay, Friend, be honest. Do you keep up with what’s going on through your news feeds and Twitter trends? So do I. It’s an easy and digestible means of weeding through the barrage of information to get down to that which interests or affects us. However, I never count on them for factual integrity. If I am interested in the topic, I will seek other sources. I also keep in mind that not all opinions are equal.
Broadcast and print news have adopted the practice of inviting guests to provide commentary or op-ed pieces through their media platforms to elicit strong emotional reactions. When they are called out for providing an audience for ridiculous postulations or outright lies, they hide behind the cover of the blanket phrase “the views of our guests and our contributors in no way reflect the views and opinions of the network/ organization”. Riiight. Meanwhile Average Joe and Jolene have picked up the false information and spread it like wildfire, because they saw it on CNN or Fox. Alternatively, there will be a panel of average citizens cherry-picked to appear in segments that are supposed to be a thumb on the pulse of what America is thinking about a particular topic. The panel largely agrees with the viewers of that show, save for one token dissenter who is made to appear ignorant or shamed into conformity.
If you want to find news sources that provide a more balanced relaying of facts, turn to Reuters, Associated Press, C-Span (boring as hell but mostly accurate), Factcheck.org, The Economist, Investopedia, JStor Daily, Ballotpedia, and TruthorFiction.com. Obviously, these sources are meant to be referenced for different reasons, but I think you get the point. You can even start with Wikipedia and go from there. One caveat– if you scroll down to the bibliography and see Trump Institute or oreilly-sucks.com cited as sources, keep it moving. If you are curious how your favorite news source rates, check out mediabiasfactcheck.com.
We have already addressed the dangers of relying on social media for truth, but it bears repeating. Operate on social media under the assumption that everything you see and read is primarily focused on gaining your attention. That means that you must be especially critical of any sensational, outlandish, tear-jerking, invocative stories you encounter. In other words, question everything.
Other Online Sources
I am fully aware of the irony of me telling you to consider the source. After all, most blogs, this one included, are comprised of commentary and written by people who may or may not have any credentials to dole out advice about the topic in the first place. Merriam Webster describes commentary as something that serves as illustration or explanation; an expression of opinion. That’s exactly what AnthroNegra.com is. It is social commentary, or my opinion, about current events in American society. I have a right to my opinion, but take it with a grain of salt. I am not even a practicing anthropologist.
If you are questioning my ability to advise you about journalistic integrity, good. Congratulations! I have absolutely no background in journalism (save for one or two undergrad classes). I have a Bachelor’s in Anthropology and a Master’s in Adult Education (both verifiable facts). You have no reason to trust anything I write or believe any of my opinions. In fact, please don’t. This blog is for entertainment purposes. If you want facts, go to one of the aforementioned sources and figure it out for yourself.
That same idea holds true for other blogs and online sources. Always, Always, ALWAYS consider the source. Is it a well-known, credible source? How long has it been around? What are the writers’ motivations?
5 Questions that promote critical examination
Everyone wants to be right. Right? Instead of being wrong and finding erroneous sources that uphold you in your ignorance, isn’t it just easier to get it right from jump? If that is your goal, ask yourself the following questions before you repost or retweet that message.
- Who is providing the information? Again, look for credible people who are known and/or experts in their fields. I’m not saying that everyone has to have written peer-reviewed material to be deemed credible. I’m just saying that you may not want to repeat the raving words of your lunatic co-worker who heard from a cousin’s friend that knows a guy who overhead last year that… You get the point.
- What are the facts and sources from which the author draws? Where they get their info is as important as who is providing the info. Have other credible people referenced the same information? If they point to unnamed sources or make comments like “I have it on good authority…” your red flag show go up.
- Is there obvious bias in the tone of the message? Most good journalists know that they must strike a nerve in their titles to spark the interest of potential readers. However, if the entire article is riddled with divisive and slanted language, it is probably not the most factual writing you can find. The author is playing on your emotion rather than stimulating your rational mind. Move on.
- What is the alternate viewpoint? Be sure that you not only believe what the source says is the alternate point of view. Seek it out yourself in communities of individuals that espouse those opinions. I am not saying that you should travel down the rabbit hole of giving brain space to every troll who has an opinion. I am suggesting that you find other credible people and sources with a different opinion than yours. That way you will not fall prey to the trap of cognitive bias and divorce yourself from social reality.
- Am I angry or upset? Nothing good ever resulted from words I wrote from a place of fear or anger. As a matter of fact, I was humbled by my own complete fumbling of facts and spreading of half-truths on two separate occasions. From those experiences, I learned that it is easier for me to sit with the new information than it is to have to apologize for and clean up after my mistakes. This gives me the pause that I need to clear my mind and possibly find some more information that supports or refutes the initial message. Take a deep breath. Calm down. If you are still inspired to write that post when you are feeling less emotional, go for it.
That’s it, Friend. Now that you are equipped with a few tools, you will never again serve as any pundit’s pawn. Go out there and start spreading your critical thinking juices across the web.