Avoid falling victim to BS by carefully considering (1) the source of information, (2) the information context, including the kinds of authority that are valued in different contexts, and (3) how delivery platforms affect you, and your information consumption psychology.
When you encounter any kind of source, consider:
- Authority - Who is the author? What is their point of view?
- Purpose - Why was the source created? Who is the intended audience?
- Publication & format - Where was it published? In what medium?
- Relevance - How is it relevant to your research? What is its scope?
- Date of publication - When was it written? Has it been updated?
- Documentation - Did they cite their sources? Who did they cite?
The Library's Fake News Guide is designed to help you distinguish real journalism from intentionally misleading information—such as hoaxes, propaganda, and disinformation—and to help you recognize editorials, satire, sponsored content, press releases and other varieties of content, that is often mistaken for journalism.
In addition to considering the source itself, bear in mind how certain kinds of authority are valued or undervalued by academic institutions, journalists, scientists, and others. The DataCenter Research Justice Toolkit explains:
"There is an inequity in the way research is practiced in the world. Community knowledge and people’s direct experiences with day-to-day injustices get dismissed by decision makers. Yet, knowledge produced by mainstream institutions through scientific means is often seen as legitimate, regardless of whether it reflects the community’s truths and realities."
DataCenter differentiates between the following three spheres of knowledge:
- Cultural & Spiritual Knowledge: Cultural practices and wisdom passed down from our community (i.e. elders, neighbors, family, friends, etc.). This knowledge is often shared through cultural and spiritual traditions (i.e. food, celebrations, ceremonies, etc.).
- Experiential Knowledge: Lived day-to-day experience; what we learn and know from living and dealing with issues that impact our lives.
- Mainstream or Institutional Knowledge: Consists of published facts and data produced by research “professionals” usually from outside of the community (i.e. university publications, government documents, school textbooks, etc.).
Two other key components to consider in every information exchange: the delivery platform—whether it's Facebook or a library catalog—and the receiver of the information (e.g., you!). The following concepts and strategies will help you consider the pitfalls of our own information psychology, as well as the increasingly bold attempts of platforms and bad actors to game you.
Attention - Platforms, companies, campaigns, and individuals (including hackers, trolls, and propagandists) spend considerable amounts of time and money to design information and systems that will attract and hold your attention.
Bullshit - "Language, statistical figures, data graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener, with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence." (via Callingbullshit.org)
Clickbait - Media organizations, including major mainstream news outlets, have significantly changed how they write headlines based on what gets the most clicks online. Some common elements of clickbait: lists, personal anecdotes, animals, food, pop culture, and/or shocking news (e.g., 7 Shocking Panda Encounters!).
Confirmation bias - "The tendency to test one's beliefs or conjectures by seeking evidence that might confirm or verify them and to ignore evidence that might disconfirm or refute them" (via the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology).
Content farms - Websites that aggregate and churn out high volumes of low-quality information, in the interest of attracting page-views to sell ads. They often game search engines by way of black hat SEO or manipulate social media algorithms to distribute their links.
Disinformation & misinformation - Intentionally misleading information, or disinformation, is often used by governments and political organizations to deceive portions of the population. Misinformation is a catch-all term for all false information, regardless of the author's intention.
Echo chambers - A situation in which certain ideas or voices are amplified by virtue of a closed communication system. This occurs in the media when particular viewpoints are reported and republished without representing opposing viewpoints, and it's especially common in online communities where users can block or un-friend others who post content with which they disagree.
Fake news - A category of disinformation popularized following the November 2016 presidential election, fake news initially referred to false content, usually outrageous stories, distributed on social media in order to make money from ads. The term was rapidly adopted by commentators and politicians to apply to "mainstream" and "left-wing" media sources.
Filter bubble - A limited perspective that can develop when online platforms create personalized views of information based on your online behaviors, networks, purchases, and likes. By displaying content that the platform suspects you want to see, you may be less likely to encounter alternative viewpoints, leading to political or cultural isolation.
Information cascades - Individuals are easily influenced by the stated beliefs of others. As we begin to conform our own behavior and beliefs to those of a perceived crowd, certain false messages can be amplified and begin to "cascade." False information takes on a sheen of reliability as more individuals share it online, regardless of its actual value.
Information overload - When an individual (or system) encounters more incoming information than they can process, they may show symptoms such as a "general lack of perspective, an inability to select out relevant information, and increasing 'distraction by irrelevant and interfering cues'... which lead to cognitive strain and stress and a feeling of lack of control." (from The Oxford Handbook of Organizational Decision Making)
Memes - Internet memes are often platforms for wrongly-attributed quotes. See, for example, the supposed Gandhi quote that both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders posted to social media: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win” (Snopes).
Native advertisements - Many major news outlets are increasingly including "sponsored content that mimics the look and feel of news reports," on their websites. This content can be difficult to distinguish from real news content, though it's often labeled as "sponsored content" or "promoted post." (via the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism)
Sock puppets and Twitterbots - As early as 2014, Twitter noted that as many as 23 million of its users, 8.5% of the total, were automated accounts, or bots (via Quartz). Many governments (including the United States), have been found to use fake online identities, sometimes called sock puppets, to spread propaganda and disinformation.
Trust - When an article is posted to Facebook under the name and photo of a Facebook friend, your trust (or distrust) for the individual who posted the content may confuse your evaluation of the source itself.