How to separate fact from fiction in 2018

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When there is so much conflicting information broadcast by different mainstream media outlets, one wonders how an average voter can come to an informed opinion about important national issues this day in age. A prime example of how vastly different interpretations can emerge from the same set of facts involves the recent release of some 400+ pages of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court documents that were used to establish surveillance of Carter Page, a minor player in the Trump campaign for President. Arguments on one side or the other have either justified the surveillance of Mr. Page due to the relevant national security concerns or blasted the release as a biased effort against a particular political campaign.

More generally, the issue of how a responsible citizen can find accurate, unbiased information is critical towards breaking through the political propaganda. But the path is not easy, having to sort through all the different opinions from so many voices in the media.

To be fair, most of the fact-based news reporting from the major outlets provide correct, truthful information, generally allowing readers to form their own opinions. In theory, the “news” reports the information available, while “commentators” tell you what you should believe, either directly or with subtlety. However, the viewpoints from news “commentators” are increasingly becoming mixed together with the news itself, making it more and more difficult for viewers and readers to see past political talking points.

Technology is part of the problem. The benefits gleaned from the growth and accessibility of news through various internet, television, cable, radio, and newspaper outlets have a downside: we are overloaded with information. No one person can keep up with all the different  opinions. These media businesses, in the search for an audience, develop a personality on a defined end of the political spectrum, their livelihood dependent on creating enough excitement, controversy, and conflict for their audience.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite was known by many as “the most trusted man in America.” He would be considered a failure today for choosing to focus on a simple description of the facts.

Technology also has given us aggregated news feeds, which are a mixed blessing. When I first started using this tool, I was impressed by all the articles about actress Katie Holmes. “She must have a really good publicist,” I thought. Eventually, I realized that one simple click on an article about Katie Holmes had triggered an algorithm that assumed I wanted to see more information about her, and the process began and expanded. The news feed was not providing “the” news, it was providing “my” news.

No wonder the American public is in separate silos, being fed information that the robots have decided we want.  (I now rely on Memeorandum, a political news aggregator that doesn’t care what I have viewed in the past.  And of course, this website’s “Around the Web” section is hard to beat.)

Facebook and Twitter are among the worst platforms for gaining political insights (with limited exceptions). Yet many Facebook and Twitter users love these sources for gossip about the government, because accuracy is not as important to them as political titillation.

One can hope that enough of the public values facts, solid information, and informed opinions to overcome these technological handicaps. There are some Internet sources that can help.

Legitimate fact-checking websites, such as Snopes, FactCheck, Politifact, and several others can also help to separate truth from fiction. These reputable sites make an honest attempt to state the facts clearly and can evolve in their thinking as more information becomes available (as was the case with Politifact regarding President Obama’s claim that “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it”).

Since the American public is being pushed into silos by all the diverse media sources, it can also be helpful to understand which bubble you are in. MediaBiasFactCheck provides an assessment of whether a news outlet is extremely or moderately liberal or conservative.

Additionally, a useful chart by attorney Vanessa Otero places news sources on a scale of liberal-to-conservative and identifies those that have consistently included inaccuracies and fabrications. With these tools, you can see whether and how a news source leans left or right and whether it provides misleading information.

Recognizing which bubble you are in provides a first step toward understanding that there are other viewpoints. Buying into misleading propaganda from the edges of the political spectrum is the road to anger and divisiveness when what we need more than ever are peaceful coexistence and reasonable harmony. This doesn’t mean we will all agree, but at least we should be relying on correct information as we form our opinions.

So my suggestion is to bookmark one or more reputable fact-checking sites on your Internet browser and frequently check them for what is true and what is not. In addition, be willing to take a look at other media voices outside your own bubble in order to understand what other Americans are thinking. Many of the ideas on the other side are held as strongly as your own.

If you simply think the other side is wrong about most everything, well, they think the same about you! The result of ongoing divisiveness is either political standstill, where important issues never get solved, or “ping-pong politics” where government policies bounce back and forth between left and right every few years. Neither of these is a good thing for our country.