Before You Click Ask These Five Questions!
Great Britain’s ‘Royal Society’, often referred to as the ‘invisible college’, is a fellowship of scholars, eminent thinkers and scientists, that has been around since the days of Isaac Newton. Its motto: 'Nullius in verba', or ‘Take no one’s word for it’ should be considered an axiom when scrolling through FB posts—and indeed any news story, blog post or claim to ‘expertise’. The internet is the place where alternative facts, conspiracy theories, unsourced quotes, doctored maxims, outright lies and scams, proliferate and flourish. Now some of the latter are innocuous enough—good for a laugh or expressing a platitude or proverb we happen to agree with.
If you are like me, you will see a quote you love and want to share it on Facebook with others. That is natural and normal. The problem is that it is all too easy to set aside the question of whether the quote is genuine or fabricated. When we read the news or see posts that we agree with, we are not terribly motivated to dig any deeper and assess the truth or reliability of what we are told. However, it is crucial to critically challenge not just what we read on Facebook and the internet, but also our own assumptions and convictions.
Here are five questions we should ask, most especially in cases where what we read attracts or pleases us. They are by no means exhaustive, but they are a place to start:
1. Who or what is the source? This is all about vetting the author, blogger, journalist, specialist, scientist, or professional in order to determine whether they are, in fact, a reliable source. We should gauge the reliability of the information presented to us according to the credibility of whoever authored it. For example, if the source is a blogger whose primary intention is to put forward a particular narrative or agenda, then checking out their credentials is always a good idea. None of this means that the New York Times, The Guardian, The CBC, or BBC should be considered as authoritatively reliable sources. Read the Edward Herman/Noam Chomsky book ‘Manufacturing Consent’ if you want to know why. A good rule of thumb here: ‘follow the money’—in other words, is the author paid by some interest group, corporation, or political party to say what they are saying?
2. What is the intention or purpose of the communication? Is it to encourage us to act, to enlighten or edify us, to deceive, mislead or anger us? Here the rule of thumb is captured in question ‘Cui Bono’?—in whose interest or ‘to whom is it a benefit?
3. Is the information, statement, or quote accurate? This is about verifying what you read through other sources. That can be a tedious job, but it really pays off. There are fact-checking websites such as Snopes, Fact Check, Politifact, Media Matters, Pro Publica which are independent, and non-profit. But even here it is wise to check and double-check. As well, there are watchdog journalism sites such as Reveal, The Discourse, and Orb Media that can also be good sources for verifying news. There are many posts that feature ‘quotes’ by celebrities or great thinkers that we like and share on FB. These captivate us because they appear to speak a truth, or affirm our own opinions or beliefs. That is precisely when we should make the effort to determine whether the person the quote is attributed to, did, in fact, say this. I don’t know how many times I have read quotes on Facebook that were unsourced, out of context, misattributed or plain fabrications!
4. How was the information, fact, or knowledge attained? This is an important question that goes to the heart of what it is to be a critical listener or reader. Much of the information on the internet and social media does not derive from original or reliable research, but instead is handed down from secondary sources. It is worthwhile to trackback this information and determine if it was gathered from an independent source, journal, scholarly text, anecdote, hearsay, or folk wisdom.
5. Is the information complete? This is a good question to ask when you read statements such as ‘recent research concludes’ or ‘studies suggest’. You often find that what is presented as complete or thorough is often dated, partial or biased in a certain way.
The structure of Facebook is grounded on the idea that human beings are less thinking beings and more creatures of emotion and desire. We register approval or disapproval by clicking like or dislike. We are asked to categorize how we ‘feel’ by clicking love, surprise, or anger, or again through a variety of emojis.
This is all done in the immediacy of the moment, and we often put behind us what we just expressed so that we can quickly move on to the next post. Facebook algorithms are, therefore, not designed to encourage us to take the time to critically evaluate an idea, quotation, news item beyond an initial “feeling”. That means it is really up to us to take what we read to another level—one where we try to think through, research, and use good judgment to determine the truth or reliability of what is presented to us. (Feb 23/21)
Now of course, one might also add this final caveat: a good 40-50% of what we take to be true today will likely be shown to be false in 50 or 100 years! There are very few eternal truths—except perhaps that you are going to die and be wrong more than you would like to admit!