Wrestling With Your Sources: A Historian’s Guide to Dealing With “Fake News” and other Epistemic Trash

December 11, 2016 § 3 Comments

Almost every major American media outlet has recently published an article decrying “fake news” articles that spread over social media.

 

Unfortunately, a lot of these outlets’ own offerings are little better themselves.  As funding for genuine investigative reporting has dried up, a lot of their articles just recapitulate officials’ rumors and announcements or other sources’ stories.  Some, like cable news channels, have given up any pretense of crafting their own narrative, and simply invite representatives of America’s political factions to give their own version of events.

 

So, functionally, a lot of news content is bullshit of one variety or another.  Fortunately, wrestling with misleading, empty, and actively dishonest sources is the heart of the historian’s craft.  I’ll share some tools of the trade for cutting through the crap.

 

1: The Hermaneutic of Suspicion

“Hermaneutic” is just a fancy academic word for “way of interpreting.”  Using the Hermaneutic of Suspicion means being skeptical of what you read.  Don’t blindly trust your sources.

 

2: Seeking the Silences

Omission can conceal as much as deceit.  Think about what issues a writer is carefully avoiding.  Also, think about how they selected the evidence they cite.  You can tell a pretty misleading story by cherry-picking un-representative anecdotes.

 

3: Metatextual Analysis

Think about why a given piece of writing was created.  Who benefits from it and how?  Politicians and officials tell stories which advance their agendas and make them look good.  Clickbait sites want to draw your attention and stoke your outrage so they can pull in ad revenue.  Traditional media outlets tend to flatter their subscribers’ worldviews or maintain a reputation for neutrality, even when doing so means ignoring the facts.  Institutional representatives will support the company or organization that employs them.  If you’re not sure what a writer’s interests are, look at the language they use for signs of their ideology, and use search tools to figure out what institutions they own or work for.  Following the money is always a good start– knowing that Russia Today is sponsored by the Russian government, Al-Jazeera is sponsored by the Qatari royal family, and the Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos tells you quite a bit about the interests those publications will advance.

 

4: Probabilistic Thinking

How unlikely is the story that you’re reading?  How many strange or difficult things would have to be true for it to be accurate?  How many people would have to keep a particular secret?  Who would need to act against their obvious interests?  This is an especially useful filter for conspiracy theories.  It’s totally plausible that the CIA might put a finger on the scale in a foreign country’s election by spreading rumors and using blackmail, but much less plausible that the world is secretly ruled by a cabal of lizard people acting in harmony to pursue their mysterious goals.

 

5: Considering Your Source’s Sources:

How does the source claim to know about what they’re discussing?  Did they actually investigate the issue thoroughly, thoroughly documenting their claims, or are their arguments a patchwork of rumor, hearsay, and wild conjecture?  If it’s the latter, you should be more skeptical.  Also, a source that just parrots another is no more reliable than the original source itself.  Trace stories that you want to evaluate back to their origins.

 

6: Remembering Your Cognitive Biases:

Your sources might be lying to themselves, and you might be too.  There’s extensive scientific evidence that humans privilege sources that confirm their existing worldview or make them feel better about themselves.  You and the sources that you read might be falling into the confirmation bias trap.  Seriously consider this issue as often as you can, and try to take your biases into account when you’re putting together your own understanding of what happened.

 

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