Over 3.2 billion people accessed the internet in 2015. With the continual expansion of accessibility comes incredible volumes of information and misinformation. Fifty years ago, a vast majority of today’s users would have never been afforded the luxury of unbridled knowledge. For many of us, that access is not limited to a café, library, or school; we carry devices which allow for continuous connection. And while globalization has enabled widespread distribution of legitimate information, it has also given anyone with access the ability to manipulate or falsify facts with incredible ease.
As we are bombarded with information, the ability to distinguish reliable information from unreliable is of the upmost importance now. A Stanford University study found that “many high school students couldn’t tell a real and fake news source apart on Facebook.” Sam Wineburg, the head author of the study, reported that “They didn’t ask where it came from. They didn’t verify it. They simply accepted…as fact.” And the problem of distinguishing the reliable from unreliable is not just an issue for the youngest consumers of social and conventional media; it is an issue that spans all demographics. There are many cases of news outlets convincing adults that the information there are receiving is unbiased and true when just a couple minutes of research reveal neither to be true. The result of our real time information addiction is the incredible pace at which misinformation is spread and the subsequent challenge to invalidate the incorrect information to that same audience.
Some suggestions to help understand the bias and reliability in news and electronic information include:
- Look for professional polling firms like the Pew Research Center or Gallup Poll attached to polling numbers and compare their results.
- Realize that online and television news programs can often be partisan and may have a slight or extreme political bias or agenda. Look for news outlets with a history of politically well rounded, reliable journalism. Get your news from a variety of well known and accountable media sources that span the spectrum from conservative to liberal. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC are some of the most well respected journalism outlets. Compare what they each have to say on the same topic.
- The manipulation and interpretation of statistics can interfere with reliable information. Articles often manipulate statistics to the advantage of the article and the argument. To help sidestep this, look for first person accounts or click on links that take you directly to the published, peer-reviewed study so that you can read and distill the statistics, analysis, and conclusion yourself instead of an article interpreting data for you.
- Research the background, current and past projects and mission statements of other news outlets, research institutes, colleges, and other politically involved groups. This will help understand the inherent biases of their platforms and allow for more informed decision- making when you decide to accept or reject information.
The last few months has seen some of the most polarizing articles and news reports. It has brought to light the incredible ability of the media and online sources to manipulate facts to cater to the audience they seek to inform and influence. Questions of information authenticity plagued not just this election season but continue to be a challenge every day. Those great swells of information which overwhelm us must continue to be viewed with an increasing level of skepticism.
This article was written by Erin Benton, a writer for dusk magazine.