Calibrating for Fake vs. Real News

Document and consider sources for reliability

I teach between 300-400 students every year and one of the most frequent concerns expressed by them is source reliability.

Welcome to the era of mass gaslighting. Infowars. Trump. Putin. Bin Salman. Fox News.

My advice to those inquisitive students is to consider following or subscribing to at least three sources and making them ideologically different from each other and note the difference in coverage, the contrasting frames and facts.

Then, for particularly close questioning of gnarly issues, check with factchecking sites like Snopes or the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s factchecking site. By the time the curious citizen has read from liberal, conservative, and mainstream sites, and gone to reputable factchecking sites, that citizen is operating with a fairly high degree of reliability, and when you cantilever that over years of experience, validity threats are minimized.

So, for instance, when I read extreme lefty distress over the link between the Trilateral Commission and “chemtrails,” I can (eye)roll my way past that fairly quickly. Reading rightwing hysteria over George Soros paying protesters may take an extra few minutes, but I can now confidently say that the gasp-reflex rightwing rage on this is needlessly combustible, as many social movements routinely cover activists’ traveling expenses and, for potential resisters, even bail money, as we learned in the Civil Rights era. Of course, all the gains from the Civil Rights era are pretty much what many of the Soros traducers seek to roll back.

This is not to claim that no nefarious schemes, even conspiracies, exist, but it is to note that they should be thoroughly investigated before declaring them convincing. That investigation may come from independent journalists, independent government investigators, or even from opinionated but sincere sources.

The key is to document and cite actual evidence, not to cite Alex Jones or Snoop Dog or anyone at all from the Trump organization, Mohammed bin Salman, Kim Jong-un, or Vladimir Putin. Sorry, no cred for you.

After some years of engaging in information verification at a sincere and non-ideological level, and after applying the principles of critical thinking and common sense to the admittedly massive raw data stream coming at us 24-7, a person can develop a decent sense for authenticity.

But I still caution that the need to (in the words of Ronald Reagan) trust but verify never evaporates. I like Rachel Maddow but on some issues I follow up to check. I like Anderson Cooper—same thing. Jake Tapper—him too. National Public Radio is my go-to daily news but I factcheck them before I make a claim based on their analysis and I often listen with chagrin as they miss seriously important strands of argument and analysis.

In short, yes, I hope we can at least avoid the spectacle of a bitter partisan debate over whether the sun rises in the east, but let’s at least allow for some context and nuance when judging our opponents’ views.

I believe Trump is a peerless disgrace, but I get his survival techniques and can let them just roll into the dustbin of lies without letting them catch my hair on fire.

Dr. Tom H. Hastings of Portland is director of PeaceVoice and on occasion an expert witness for the defense in court.