Thursday, November 17, 2016

Distrusting "the media"

Most people I know, on either side of the aisle, "distrust the media."  However, they don't distrust all media.  Everyone's selective about what they dismiss as "the lamestream media" or "the right-wing noise machine."  And unfortunately sometimes media which confirms a person's preexisting worldview gets accepted uncritically.  But, I mean, you have to trust something, at least a little bit, or how would you know anything?  I have yet to hear someone say, "I'm not sure who won the presidential election; it's true that the media says it was Trump, but we all know the media can't be trusted."  So we make a choice to trust some sources, and sometimes we choose the wrong ones.

We've all been seeing it a lot recently, as Facebook erupts with stories that are disproved by a two-minute factcheck, or false "facts" get quoted at us by people we thought of as intelligent and skeptical.  For instance, in the past few days I have read that Trump really did win the popular vote after all (he didn't), that three million illegal immigrants voted in California (there is no evidence for this), and that Steve Bannon is an open white supremacist (the most that can be verified is that he does not appear to mind profiting off of white supremacy).  But rather than just seeing sketchy links that proclaimed these "facts," I heard them cited as common knowledge by people who I don't think of as dumb.  So clearly the purveyors of misinformation are getting really good at what they do.

My first idea to combat this was to compile a list of reputable news sites and junk news sites, so that people would stop sharing stuff from Infowars and thinking that made them look knowledgeable.  But the trouble with that is, any list I could possibly compile would appear biased to someone.  If I criticized a site you trust, rather than take my word for it, you'd mistrust me.

So instead, I'm going to offer some tips for assessing a story that you see shared online.

1.  Scrutinize the website.  A site crowded with intrusive pop-up ads is a bad sign, while a paywall or free-article limit is a good sign -- their content is good enough that they fully expect people will pay up for it.  Poor site design is a bad sign -- if they can't afford a web designer, it's unlikely they employ a fact-checker either.  Look at the other headlines featured on the site -- are all of them stories that seem reasonable or credible?  Boring stuff like "Trump meets with foreign ambassador" or "Paul Ryan considers tactics for next year" are good signs.  Outrageous headlines like "Trump in the pay of the Russians" or "Chemtrails increase in 2016" are terrible signs.  If there is even one headline on the site that you know for sure is false, the site itself clearly is untrustworthy.

In general, sources that are not only online are more professional and therefore more trustworthy.  If it's the online version of a TV network, radio network, or (best of all) print newspaper, then it has a reputation to lose which it will very carefully protect by hiring factcheckers and going over the information carefully.  Otherwise, it risks a lawsuit or a loss of subscribers.  An internet-only source is more likely to be short-lived and operated on a shoestring, perhaps without any factcheckers at all.  Local papers are often very professional, but you want to be careful to make sure that's a local paper you're reading and not something deceptively named to trick you into thinking it's the hometown paper of Omaha when it's really a junk website.

2.  Read the article.  Keep in mind that the body of the article is where the facts are -- the headline is written by an editor afterward and may be misleading.  Ask yourself: what sources does the article cite?

Best: "Joe Schmoe, assistance secretary to the chairman of the board, said..."
Acceptable: "A source close to the official said ..."
Worst: "Dan Whackadoo, president of [organization you've never heard of that clearly lobbies for a certain point of view] said ...."

There should be multiple sources quoted in the article, and they should not all be anonymous.  When I was interviewed by the AP for their article on my boarding school, the journalist urged me to go on the record by name if at all possible.  She might throw in a quote by an anonymous source (provided, of course, that she knew who it was), but she couldn't base the crucial facts of her article on those.  Good news readers give the most credibility to named sources who can be proven to be close to the story.  Even within a single story, when a fact is tied to a named source, it is more likely to be true than facts supported only by anonymous sources.  And quotes from the spokespeople of lobby groups are there only for flavor and opinion -- they aren't close to the story so they are in no position to know.

3.  Consider bias.  Here, it helps if you know the slant of the media outlet you're reading.  Most of the most popular professional outlets in America are slightly left-of-center.  They try to be balanced, but no one really is.  So if you can guess at the direction the bias is coming from, it'll help you interpret the story.  Ask yourself: what facts are not included?  What facts might completely change my interpretation of this story if they were included?  A reputable paper will be very careful not to include any facts it can't verify, but they are a lot sneakier about leaving out details that make their side look bad.  Or they'll slip in bits of interpretation or opinion here and there -- can you identify them and mentally set them apart from the actual facts described?  Ask yourself: what actual verifiable facts are in this article?  So if the article is about Steve Bannon being a white supremacist, throw out anything that smacks of hinting or generalizing and dig for the actual facts used to support the opinion that he is a white supremacist.  What can we verify that he said, wrote, or did?

4.  Check multiple sources.  The simplest way to do this is to simply copy the headline, paste it into Google, and see what you get.  Google ranks its search results based on the credibility of each site -- more linkbacks from other sources mean higher pagerank -- so the links on the first page are probably as good as it's going to get.  Are there any sources on the first page that are reputable papers you've heard of?  If so, go there first -- preferably picking one each from the left and the right.  If both accept the story is true and offer sources, then I think you can safely say, it probably happened.  If not, pick a couple and look at all of them.  If the story seems outrageous or incredible and it isn't being covered by the "mainstream media," there is probably a reason.  Major news outlets love their clicks as much as anyone and if there were a story that exciting, they would either post the story or post an answer or rebuttal of the story.  Unless, of course, they looked into it and couldn't find any evidence it actually happened.

If you're in that boat, try adding the word "factcheck," "hoax," or "snopes" to your search.  If it's really a scam, these usually appear within 24 hours of the original story.  But don't jump to conclusions!  Just because a factchecking site covered it doesn't mean it's a hoax.  The factchecking site should go through the evidence for the story and assess whether it is credible.  Usually they will include outside links for you to go look for yourself.  So that should help put to bed the idea that "Snopes is biased so I can't trust it when it debunked this story."  Maybe it is biased, but if it provides sources or good reasons to disbelieve the story, you should take that into consideration.  Sadly what most people mean when they say "Snopes [or whoever] is biased" is, "It debunked one of my pet conspiracies, and I'm just so sure it's real."  If you're so tied into continuing to believe what you already believe, you will never succeed at wading through the media to find the truth.

5.  Finally, if you don't have time to do all this, or you've tried and you still can't find any strong evidence to be sure about the story ... don't share it!  Or, if you want to mention the story in a discussion, make clear that you are uncertain about it.  Say, "I heard that x, but I don't know whether to believe it," or "Have you heard the rumor that y?  I can't find a good source for it, but maybe you should do some research if you're interested."

Nothing drives me crazy like people trotting out rumor as fact, who, when called on it, say, "Well, sorry, I hadn't looked into it yet!"  Yeah, okay, then don't tell people it's true!  You all know I have issues with people standing as witness for things they haven't honestly looked into.  What happens then is that other people repeat the story, convinced it's true because Bob, who is such a smart honest guy, said it was.  You trust that people checked their sources, when often they did not.  Which is why I would advise doing this same diligence on a story even if your best friend who is in Mensa told you it's true.  They might be a bit lazy and didn't check.  Don't be another link in the rumor chain.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Calmer thoughts about the election

I am happy to report that my initial distress following the election didn't result in a downward depressive spiral, as I had feared. Instead, two friends came over Wednesday afternoon and cheered me up. John brought chocolate after work.  I woke up Thursday with a lot more optimism.  Sure, this election is bad news and bad things will probably happen as a result of it.  However, I can create enough distance for myself to live my life, and I don't need to feel guilty about doing this because it's not like my distress was helping anyone.

Facebook has been nastier than expected; I thought this would happen if Clinton won (because Trump supporters would be livid) but I did not think that I would see so much anger and mockery from Republicans if they won.  Clinton supporters, too, have been very upset and not all of them have been trying as hard to keep civil as I have.

So I've been turning from the immediate fears I have to reflecting on deeper trends.  What does it mean, that nationalist movements are gaining steam around the world?  How exactly would one even define these movements?

Fitting this into my usual frames of reference, I would say that Trump-ism is, first and foremost, zero-sum.  All his rhetoric and his policies support this: he feels America is losing and other countries are winning, and he wants other countries to lose so America can win.  A good deal, to him, follows not the ideal of Adam Smith and Milton Friedman, that everyone walks away feeling like a winner, but that you win and the other guy loses.  His trade policy is, "Other people are doing better than us out of our trade deals, so we should stop trading."  His foreign policy is, "Other countries are getting more out of alliances than we are, so we should stop honoring those alliances."  In short, America first.  The same attitude is common in nationalist movements in other countries, such as Brexit.

Now I have admitted in the past that some conflicts really do have zero-sum solutions.  Land ownership for agriculture is a big one, which is why I've grudgingly abandoned agrarianism.  But trade and world peace are, in my opinion, perfect places for non-zero-sum thinking -- and it's exactly that sort of thinking that has made the world as prosperous and peaceful (comparatively) as it currently is.

The second thing I would point to comes more from Trump's followers than himself -- it's placing the unit of mattering on a culture rather than an individual.  That is, they don't simply value the human rights and happiness of the people they live alongside, but also the preservation of their community in its current state.  If, for instance, they come from a dying factory town, they don't just want to be retrained for new jobs, or move to a different state where there are factory jobs available. They want to bring back their town the way it was, factory jobs and all.  And this is often the same sentiment that is interpreted as racism -- a desire to keep their culture intact, rather than changed by immigration.  I don't have a lot of sympathy for this, personally, because I am primarily an individualist.  But I don't think those who feel this way are necessarily just "racist" or "xenophobic."  Perhaps a better word would be "nostalgic"!  Because of course change happens, regardless of how hard you fight it, but it's happening particularly fast at the moment and I understand if it feels very unsettling.

The Better Angels of Our Nature discusses this divergence between individual rights versus cultural and communal values.  The author comes down very hard on the side of individual rights, pointing out that liberal democracies which consider themselves to be defending the rights of whichever individuals happen to live there (America, Canada, modern European nations) do a lot better than countries which see themselves as preserving a certain kind of culture (Nazi Germany, Islamic democracies, ethnocentric Balkan states).  But then, that sort of depends on your measure, doesn't it?  It's true that individual rights are preserved more in the individualist societies, but it's also undeniable that social change has tended to be rapid, including the decline of religion.

And the third major issue is a mistrust of global elites.  In our increasingly globalized world, it is very hard to draw the line between "there's a global conspiracy pulling all the strings behind the scenes in order to rip off the little guy!" and the actual truth, which is .... that in fact there are a lot of wealthy people, both in politics and business, who wield an undue influence, buddy up to each other, and don't care very much about you.  It's not so much a conspiracy as a situation in which the incentives don't always line up for decent behavior.

Thus, if you've read at all into the details of any political question -- as I have, on the topic of food and farming -- you reach the part of the story where elected representatives get together with the owners of massive corporations in a back room and work everything out between them.  And guaranteed, it's not what you or any ordinary person would have wanted.  I don't actually believe that all elites, or all multinational corporations, or all politicians, are as corrupt as all that.  Sometimes they deal with each other to actually make the world a better place; sometimes they aren't really working with each other at all because they're a diverse gang that wants different things.  But it's not unreasonable to be untrusting of these people.  The only unfortunate part is when people start to demonize anything that goes along with being "elite," such as expertise, and only trust people who are complete outsiders and thus totally clueless about the complexity of the system.

The really miraculous thing is that Trump managed to pass himself off as not a part of this untrustworthy crowd.  But once he had done so, and so many elites (for good reasons) expressed their dislike of him, that seemed like proof that he was a good guy -- on our team, not the elites' team, because if he were one of them, they would like him.  Which would work better if the global elite really were a massive conspiracy with a single set of goals rather than the messy tangle it really is.

The second question is, why now?  What has caused such a sudden backlash, when a short time ago it looked like the world was on one long march in a progressive direction?

1.  Economics.  I am not convinced by the narrative that Trump was elected by poor factory workers who lost their jobs -- because all the evidence is that Trump supporters were mostly middle-class.  However, I think there's a good argument for a broader kind of causality.  The whole developed world was doing very well in the early oughts, and suddenly we had our recession in the US, along with similar issues around the world.  That led a lot of people to feel that they're doing less well than they once were, or than they expected to be, and to blame global elites (some of whom absolutely were responsible).  And I think it also caused people to lose faith in the capitalist/democratic system that's been working so well up to now.  If it can't prevent recessions or austerity measures, what good is it?

2.  Islamic terrorism.  While xenophobia always finds something, real or imagined, to latch onto -- inventing global Jewish conspiracies or Catholic immigrant mafias -- in this case, the feared outsider group actually does contain some people who will literally kill you.  So it spurs a panicky backlash as a single terrorist attack reverberates around the world, leaving people thinking, "What if that happens here? We must block these scary outsiders from entering or it will happen here for sure."  Repeated attacks increase the fear, and also drive further reduction of faith in democratic pluralism.  Democracies get along really well with one another, we know this, but are they equipped to handle radical Islamic states and terrorist groups?

3.  Enlightenment values have been a victim of their own success.  Just as vaccination rates for a disease drop when people have never seen the disease -- imagining that polio could never come back or that diphtheria can't have been so bad, because no one has ever seen either -- faith in democracy drops as people lose familiarity with the alternatives.  Europe has been at peace so long we imagine it will always be at peace and can never be otherwise.  Human rights have been defended so long that many people have been telling me that we really don't need to worry about racism any longer, no matter what racist things some leaders say, because it's just dead and won't come back.  And I think that's a dangerous assumption.  There are reasons for the level of peace in the world right now -- stuff like free trade and alliances -- and if you axe those things, there is no reason to assume the standard level of peace and prosperity the developed world enjoys would continue.

4. Putin????   Okay, this one is more of a conspiracy theory than a reflection.  But I have been quite shocked lately to hear of how many  of these nationalist parties have been sponsored or supported by the Russians.  There have been cases of the Russians hacking into news networks before elections to display fake ISIS propaganda, or leaking juicy details about establishment candidates to help nationalist ones.  I can't be sure of this; my only source was in TIME magazine and they put all their best stuff behind a paywall.  (I read it in the doctor's office.)  But it's something worth thinking of.  If Putin himself is a nationalist, and he feels threatened by the united strength of Europe and the US, might he not wish to fracture that unity by encouraging go-it-alone attitudes in each country?

* * *

So that's what I think is going on.  I don't think it really matters that Trump is a playboy millionaire with a history of general skeeviness; I don't think that's why anyone voted for him.  Honestly, it may have helped, by getting Trump a lot of free coverage in a primary field where it was hard to get noticed.  Rather, his win is a triumph of anti-Enlightenment forces: zero-sum over cooperation; nationalism over globalism; culture over individual.

But that doesn't mean, of course, that we will now see a world or even a nation run by only these forces.  Half the country -- well, more than half -- never agreed with Trump in the first place, and many of those who did support him did so simply for partisan reasons, as our two-party system encourages.  It may be that he screws things up so bad in his first two years that he loses the Senate again, and the next two years accomplishes little or nothing.  Then again, it may be that his reluctance to uphold our alliances results in a nuclear Iran or Russia encroaching on the Baltic states.  I don't know, and this uncertainty is scary.

I do feel some confidence, however, that the Enlightenment values Trump's movement opposes are the exact reasons why the world is going as well as it is: why developed nations no longer fight one another; why individual rights are being championed so well.  Yes, the capitalist/democratic/progressive/globalist system has flaws -- its ability to be manipulated by the few people able to understand its complexity being one of those flaws.  Yet I think these flaws can be battled from within that system rather than trashing the whole thing.  That's the main reason I've opposed Trump all along -- though don't get me wrong, I detest him as an individual too.  He opposes everything which has been making the world a better place for the past sixty years: free trade, international alliances, pluralism.  (I could write a whole post on the ways immigration makes the world a better place -- maybe I should.)

Yet I am going to try not to read Trump's win as the definitive victory of the forces of darkness.  It's a setback, hopefully a temporary one.  Most of the world still wants to move forward, not backward, and there are ways to do it even if the most powerful man in the free world isn't on your side.

Recommended reading:
Don't Mourn, Organize - Thing of Things
White Riot - Vox [Note: facts very interesting. Tone very inflammatory.  If you are a typical conservative who absolutely cannot handle anyone thinking that anyone you like is racist, it will make you mad.]

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


The morning after an election is always rough.  Particularly because I seem to have a spidey-sense for picking the candidates who won't win.  Still, in past years, I was never all that shaken up.  Obama won -- oh well.  He won again -- eh, four years of the same, I can deal with that.  On Facebook, I can see that I spent my time reminding people that God was in charge no matter who won or lost, and that real change happens on the personal level anyway.

I'm not keeping it together so well today.  I've become pretty cynical about the thought that God is in charge of anything; if he was in charge of the Holocaust, for instance, he did not do the kind of job that ought to comfort anybody.  And as for change happening on the personal level -- that can only happen when people are safe and secure enough to work for it.  If they're being rounded up and deported, you know, it's kind of tough.

Last night was horrifying.  I went in with a little nervousness, but not too much because I felt pretty confident in the polls.  I guess there are plenty of people out there ashamed to tell a pollster they were voting for Trump, but not ashamed to do it.  And I think Clinton's people just didn't turn out as much as expected.  Comey's new emails might be to blame; I don't know.  I just know that, watching the results came in, I felt so sick I couldn't watch anymore.

John tried to console me by saying the two aren't really that different.  But they are.  I know it's always a challenge after an election not to mix up your fears with your actual expectations -- you know, to argue for your candidate you might say, "X might happen!" but that doesn't mean X will necessarily happen.  You were just being cautious and things might really be fine either way.  I said Trump might start a nuclear war, but I don't think that will happen.  Probably.  But still, there are plenty of things Trump does have a high likelihood of actually doing, and with both houses of congress on his side, no one will be able to stop him.

At 12:30 we turned off the computer and meant to go to bed.  But instead I spent half an hour storming around angry and then half an hour crying.  I meant to be at peace with everyone after the election, not to hold grudges for how people had voted, but I am surprised by how furious I am.  And I just feel so out of control right now ... this whole dang year, stuff just keeps happening to me.  I have a recurring dream lately of being swept away by waves.  I have never been afraid of the ocean in my life, but I feel it symbolizes how I feel about my powerlessness at the stuff that swamps me.

I mean, this has been the year from hell.  Getting pregnant so thoroughly against my will and expectation, moving, my health being inexplicably awful, worries about Marko, and now this.  And even saying this I feel ashamed, because my life is so much better than many people's.  I'm not honestly worried about myself, but I am so, so worried about people more vulnerable than I am.

I didn't sleep well last night.  Miriam woke me every hour and I dreamed of Trump and dead babies (thanks, Fr. Pavone, that stunt of yours really helped).  And this morning all my problems are still here.  The boys are fighting over a sleeping bag they both want to play with.  Miriam is clambering all over me, demanding books, songs, nursing, food -- anything to get my attention back onto her, because she's a bottomless pit of need lately, for no obvious reason.

I'm scared because my one battle for the past six months has been not to get depressed, and I was winning.  I have been the ray of sunshine my kids needed.  Despite every sucky thing about my life, I have been patient with Marko's meltdowns, Michael's whining, and Miriam's demandingness.  And it's paid off because they've been doing very well.  But today .... I am not winning, so much.  Maybe I'm just having a bad day, but I'm so scared of getting shoved right back to where I was when Miriam was born.  I can never be sure that won't happen, so every bad day terrifies me.

I'm sorry to shower you all with so much doom and gloom.  I just feel like I should record these feelings.  Maybe, a couple years from now, I will look back on how I felt today and say, "See?  You shouldn't trust your fears, because you were so scared then and things turned out okay after all."  Or maybe not.

Hope you are all feeling better today than I am.  Though if you're throwing a party right now, please don't tell me; I don't want to know.
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