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How to recognise bullshit on the Internet

Following Trump’s shocking election win last Tuesday, this picture was shared by thousands of people across both the world and my Facebook feed:


I, like I suspect most people I know, wanted to believe it. It just sounds so true. He totally would say that! They would buy it! It speaks to all my prejudices, and when trying to make sense of what just happened, it provides a bit of solace.

It’s too good to be true though, innit? It just fits a little too perfectly, the quote’s too prescient, its message too convenient. Indeed, as it turns out, the quote is completely fabricated. It first surfaced around October 2015, and has periodically made its return in sync with Trump’s successes over the past year.

This is fairly emblematic of how our news are generated these days, and the tendency was clear in the US elections. Facebook was flooded with highly partisan posts and articles on either side of the fence. Some, like Breitbart, are designed to be highly partisan. But a lot of it has to do with incentive structures: Online, most companies make their money from clicks rather than subscriptions. This creates an incentive to generate articles that conform to people’s preconceived notions, as they’ll be more likely to read and share them. And clicks mean advertising revenue. A BuzzFeed article recently exposed how a city in Macedonia had become a hub for far-right conspiracy nonsense on Facebook. They simply repackaged articles elsewhere and shared them with their followers with zero regard for factual accuracy. This is not only a right-wing phenomenon, however. On the left, The Canary is a particularly glaring example. It’s the worst of both worlds: A heavily partisan editorial stance, and an payment structure that pays authors per click, incentivising sensationalism.

Highly partisan sites are not the only ones suffering from a lack of editorial oversight, however. Even respected papers tend to give voice to people whose ability to draw readers isn’t exactly matched by their political insights (naming no names). Mercifully, they tend to be confined to the Opinion pages, thereby warning readers in advance.

This is not necessarily true online, where the pressure to constantly publish new content can blur the lines even among the bigger, established players. A good example is the centre-left American site Vox, whose stated purpose is not to offer opinion or debate, but to “explain the news”. Yet, like many others, they don’t always manage that distinction. This article, for instance, both explains how the US Electoral College works, and why it’s an awful system, as if that’s an objective fact.

With that in mind, here’s a quick guide to who to detecting bullshit on the Internet. I’m sure many of these will be obvious to some of you. Please feel free to add more things in the comments.

My friend shared this on Facebook. Should I read it?

As the number of new players in the media business proliferate, it’s harder and harder to keep track of who’s legitimate and who isn’t. Here’s a quick checklist of some things to run through:

– Does it sound plausible?
If it’s not the kind of story you would expect from this source, or if it fits a little too neatly with your preconceived notions, it’s time to get suspicious. Check what kind of other stories the source carries, and search the Internet to see if any warning signs pop up.

– Does it make you feel things?
Do you feel hopeful and uplifted? Or are you left seething with rage at the injustice of it all? There’s a chance the story has been embellished to play with your emotions. That doesn’t mean it’s not true, but it’s your cue to be extra vigilant.

– Is it from a reputable news site?
If it’s from the BBC, New York Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Times and The Telegraph it’s more likely to be factually accurate than if it comes from The Daily Mail, Occupy Wall Street or The Canary.

– Is it the right URL?
Anyone can set up a website and make it look like an established player. Double-check that it’s spelled right, and that it’s not .co when it would be .com or .co.uk.

– Is anyone else carrying the story?
Check the sources you know and trust, or do a quick Google News search. If they’ve got it too it’s probably true, but if your story is exclusive to The Canary, that should raise some serious red flags.

– Does it hint at an MSM cover-up?
If so there are, broadly speaking, three possibilities:

  1. The story’s not true.
  2. It’s true but not all that newsworthy.
  3. They are covering it, despite what the story claims.

Occasionally these come together in spectacular fashion, as in a beautiful article from February 2016, by activist and Labour supporter Crispin Flintoff. Entitled “The Jeremy Corbyn story that nobody wanted to publish”, it tells the utterly uninteresting story of a group of left-wing mucisians and comedians going on tour in support of a left-wing politician – seemingly unaware that this story is printed in The Independent, thereby negating its central thesis. Incidentally, the tour was also covered by the New Statesman and The Telegraph.

Why am I reading this now?

When the terrorist attacks in Paris happened in November 2015 people were, understandably, quick to share their sympathies with the victims on social media. But a persistent counter-narrative quickly emerged, which went something like this: People only care about tragedies when they happen in the West, but are blithely ignorant of the pains of non-Western people.

The proof: A terrorist attack in the city of Garissa, Kenya had taken place at the same time, leaving 147 university students dead at the hands of Somalian al-Shahaab fighters. Though reported extensively on the BBC and other media, it had elicited none of the sympathy the Paris attacks had. Where were the vigils? Why were no one changing their profile pictures to a Kenyan flag? Where was the outrage that this had happened?

The outrage wasn’t there because the although the story was real, the implication was false. The attack i had happened in April 2015, almost six months before Paris.

Why did the story suddenly flood our timelines? Some perhaps shared it to make a point, others to deliberately confuse. But many will simply have seen it, thought it potent, and clicked to share without looking into it any further. Once it started generating clicks it gained its own momentum, moving up the ranks of the BBC’s automatically generated Most Popular sidebar, and eventually reaching the top spot and generating even more shares. In the end it was read by four times as many people in November as it had been six months earlier.

The moral of the story is that algorithms aren’t guided by editorial oversight. Make it a regular habit to check the date stamp on anything you read online.

How do I know if a photo is genuine?

Photos are a great tool for lying. Anyone can find a photo, write a caption and put it online and, with a bit of luck, enough people will believe it for it to go viral.

There are tools to help you sort the factual from the fanciful. A good one is TinEye, a reverse image search engine. Simply copy in the image URL of the picture you want to search, and the site will give you a list of all the places the image has been used, along with the dates it was uploaded.

If this reveals the picture to be older than the post claims it is, you know it’s a lie. Alternatively, you can see if other image captions describe it differently, or if it’s been used by reputable sources in a different context.

What if I saw it on Twitter?

If you were on Twitter around Halloween you probably noticed that for a few weeks half the people you follow turned into ghastly ghouls and vicious vampires, with the usernames to follow. So keep in mind that anyone can call themselves anything. Just because they call themselves CNN Politics it doesn’t mean it’s not just some teenager tweeting from his room. Here are some things to look out for:

  1. Is there a picture or a link to a source? If so, everything I said above applies.
  2. Does the person have a blue tick? If not, they could be anyone. Of course, even if they are who they say they are, they could still be lying.
  3. Who else follows the account? If people you know and trust regularly retweet or interact with this person, that should make you more confident in them.
  4. Who do they follow and what else have they tweeted? Don’t just look at the one tweet. Have a look through their profile and see if they look like an authority.
  5. Does it sound too good to be true? Again, be suspicious.
Should I read the Daily Mail?


Jesper Lærke Pedersen

Jesper recently completed his PhD in Political Theory at the School of Government & International Affairs, Durham University. He works on global justice, specifically responsibilities of the developed world towards developing countries. He’s also the webmaster for this blog.

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1 Comment

  1. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Thanks Jesper!

    Beside personal judgment building, I think it’s a crucial educational issue. Do you know countries where there is genuine media education in secondary schools?

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