Monday, March 27, 2023

Rihanna, pentagrams and other nonsense

| February 23, 2023 1:00 AM

No, Rihanna wasn’t wearing a belt with a Satanic pentagram during the Super Bowl halftime show (it was just a safety harness).

No, President Biden’s claim that billionaires pay an average income tax of 3% — nor his previously stated 8% — isn’t the full picture (with taxes, it depends on the data used, and some calculations did provide those two numbers, but one neutral fact-checker cites economists who say the top 25 billionaires pay an average 16%, or 1% more than the average school teacher).

No, the city of Atlanta didn’t ban the word “women;” its website alone is replete with it.

If it sounds too wild, weird, good or bad to be true, it probably isn’t. If it’s a politically expedient sound bite — that applies to Republican and Democrat officials alike, there’s probably more to the story. If it’s an inflammatory image, these days it’s just as likely doctored.

Thanks to the ease of instant-click shares and limitless digital platforms for spreading misinformation, whether for some kind of personal benefit, political gain or just plain neglect to verify, gone is the era of reliability in information consumption.

This wild world of social media and clickbait emerged on the heels of a change in law back in the 1980s, removing the obligation for broadcast networks to provide balance in political reporting. How much should freedom be tempered by responsibility? That’s the $60 million question.

A 2017 Pew Research study indicated experts were evenly split on whether the coming decade would see a reduction in false and misleading narratives online. Those forecasting improvement hoped for technological fixes and society-driven solutions. Others thought the dark side of human nature is aided more than stifled by technology. As we’re more than halfway to 2027, it seems the latter group pegged it.

How well is “anything goes” working for us? Modern society has made information unfettered — free from the bounds of reliability, of accuracy, of attempts to verify before repeating every datum. Free to deceive and to be deceived.

Onus on the reader/viewer who’d rather not bother with research.

It’s clear by now that before believing just about anything (especially when the source is word of mouth, social media or that vast netherworld, the Internet) it pays to do a quick fact check. Not doing it has led us to this confusing, frustrating and crazy world that feels so laden with uncertainties people just stop participating in the democracy we’ve built and treasured because it’s too depressing, confusing or stressful.

Where can we look for help? Even there we have to be careful, as some of the “fact checker” sources are themselves biased, looking to debunk only one side (giant clue No. 1). There are several relatively reliable, responsible options offering a quick true-or-false verdict that takes 10 seconds to note. No excuses.

What the best fact check sites do is use researchers to look for evidence to back up claims, or note a lack of it. In many cases, a nugget of truth has been twisted — either from neglect or intent to misinform — and embellished until it becomes something salacious or provoking.

Sadly, many become so used to shaking their heads and pointing fingers, they prefer the fun or fuel of outrage and shock. That’s easier than taking a few minutes to search for the dreary truth: Much of the outrageous stuff making rounds is hogwash.

But that’s not to say all; sometimes fact check sites prove truth, too. Just be careful which fact checkers you rely on. Some claim to be accurate, but really operate with bias.

Here are a few of the more reliable places to check — a simple search with keywords usually gets a quick answer:

• — As it sounds, Politifact is good for checking statements attributed to candidates and public officials. Their goal is “to give citizens the information they need to govern themselves in a democracy.”

• — Also with a focus on politics, but includes science (scicheck), which has become strangely politicized. Factcheck is a multiple award-winning, nonpartisan nonprofit organization, aiming to “reduce the level of deception and confusion.”

• — Among the oldest fact-checkers for social media, Snopes is good for the nonpolitical (is there such a thing anymore?), weird, and whatever is shared on social media or email (Meghan Markle isn’t dead and Marines didn’t kill Idaho FBI agents).

• Media bias — This one’s harder, because bias by definition is a subjective thing and ranking the bias of a publication or network is hard to do with absolute neutrality. Two of the most popular among those genuinely looking for neutrality (as opposed to a mirror of what they believe) are and, both private sites started by individuals.

Mediabiasfactcheck tries and isn’t a bad place to start, but has been criticized for lacking a scientific method with its determinations. That doesn’t make its bias meter wrong, if perhaps slightly less reliable.

Both seem to earnestly try, but Allsides is more methodical according to nonprofit institutes. That should make it more reliable, if for no other reason than it starts with a presumption that “there is no such thing as unbiased news.”

Every human has biases. The hope is knowing that, each person can consciously create and adhere to an ethic of watching for it, and attempting to remove or balance its expression.

That’s an onus on every information consumer. Here’s hoping we can raise the bar together.

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Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email

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