Trust no one, verify everything

Information integrity is beginning to be rather scarce. We have direct, outright lies from the White House and government agencies doing its bidding. We have media large and small who are reporting erroneous information whether maliciously or accidentally. We have people panicking on social media and distributing unverified, inaccurate, confusing information. Because the sprawl of information is so vast, and so complex, it’s difficult to begin to source things, to figure out what is coming from where.

Which is why two things are extremely important in the current political climate:

  1. Trust on one.
  2. Verify everything.

I include my first in that one. Don’t trust me. If I can clearly document what I am claiming with reliable sources like articles from peer-reviewed journals, archived data from Obama-era government sites, interviews with the parties involved, sure, cut me a break. But don’t assume that what I am telling you is necessarily correct even then.

It may be outdated. I may have a bad piece of information. Even a small thing could become a snowball effect. I say that Senator So-and-so supported such-and-such a thing when she actually didn’t, and I just misread the press release on her website. Someone else repeats me saying that because although I link to the press release, they don’t bother to check, assuming I reported it accurately. It grows and grows, because another journalist picks it up and includes it in an article. Within a day, a simple misreading has turned into a flurry of furious phone calls directed at the senator for something she didn’t do. That’s how fast these things happen.

It’s not just me you shouldn’t trust. I think we have established that you should not trust the government and you should instead seek alternate sources of more reliable information. If you’re not sure how to do that, there are a ton of resources available, but one of the best may be your local librarian. Pop on by or pick up the phone and say: ‘Hey, I would like information about climate change, can you help me?’

You also shouldn’t trust the media, even your faves. Every single progressive news organisation has fucked up on basic facts repeatedly in the last few months. Partially that’s a volume/information overload problem, and partly it’s a misinformation campaign problem — journalists (including myself!) did not dig as deeply as we should have to verify claims, repeated them, and in doing so, validated them. When you’re judging the veracity of stories, look at the publication’s editorial standards, which are sometimes available from the public editor or a staffer — a quick shortcut is to look at the submission guidelines, which should include detail about things like sourcing and how the organisation fact checks. (For example, both Pacific Standard and In These Times are extremely fastidious about research, sourcing, and fact checking, which I can tell you from experience — but you should still seek out their guidelines for yourself!)

Look at where the information is coming from within the article, too. Does it cite a scientific study? Does it actually link out to the study? Were the researchers interviewed? What are their conflicts of interests? Was the study peer-reviewed? Is it actually published or is it a working paper? Who and what is the journalist using as sources? Transcripts of Senate proceedings are more valuable than ‘what people said was happening as they watched on Twitter.’ There’s a lot more to think about here, but the bottom line is: Just because you like a news organisation’s slant or explicit bias doesn’t mean it’s accurate.

But it’s social media that I really want to talk about here, because this is where I see some serious problems arising. The issue is that it is super easy to fire off a message, but harder to walk it back — and many people post or repost without verifying. I see someone on Twitter saying ‘martial law ordered after hurricane’ and I think ‘huh, okay, that’s scary but maybe not unrealistic given the current climate’ and retweet. That’s a bad thing to do. Where did that information come from? Is the person a government official in the area involved? A resident? Why didn’t they publish the documentation in the form of an order?

This has been really frustrating me lately — I see wild claims on social media and they are incredibly easy to disprove by doing something as simple as checking a bill’s status in Congress, or checking the press release feed of an official or agency, or picking up a phone and calling someone. And I know that everything is terrible right now so everything also seems pretty believable, but you can’t wildly repeat information without verifying where it came from. If you see something that you want to share, do the homework. Check the source. Look it up. Confirm that it is actually true. And when you DO share it, share your work as well, e.g. ‘Yup, found EO here: http://www.whitehouse.gov/terrifyingpressrelease RT: @coolperson Woah, prez just ordered teachers to sign loyalty oath.’

And when you see something that is NOT accurate? You need to push back on that too, even if it seems like splitting hairs. Don’t let exaggerations build, because they turn into snarls of lies and they obscure actually important information. You can head a lot of misplaced panic off at the pass, e.g. ‘No, only passed House, Senate hasn’t considered yet. http://www.govtrack.us/HR101 RT @coolperson Holy shit Congress just banned Cheetos.’

Things are terrible enough as they are. Let’s not make them worse with misinformation, okay?

Image: Trust? Trust!, Jan Mennens, Flickr