It’s a marvelous time to be alive! Whatever you want to know about is literally right at your fingertips. The Internet is your portal to all manner of information, be it useful, amusing, disturbing, comforting, informing, or affirming. There are Internet sites that cater to every interest and predilection. Your television set, or computer screen, or tablet, or smartphone can deliver thousands of broadcast stations to you any time you want. Through the power of social media, you can share that information with the mere click of a mouse.
Libraries, historically the guardians of our information, are finding it necessary to reinvent themselves in order to provide a broader range of more relevant services. No longer is the library a mere repository of print media; libraries are becoming technology hubs, offering computers, wireless access, e-books and e-learning classes, among many other innovative services and products. My local library is even offering the ability to check out bicycles!
Newspapers struggle with the need to accommodate a new way of delivering the news, and in fact, to redefine just what constitutes “news” in our world today. The number of people in the U.S. who get their news delivered to their front porch each day is dwindling amid the proliferation of other news sources and growing environmental concerns.
Gone are the days of three network television stations that provided news and entertainment over the airwaves. Now we have many hundreds of cable channels that cater to every interest and demographic.
But are we better off for it? The answer is a resounding YES!…and no.
My housemate and I rarely tune into a TV show or sit down to dinner without a tablet (or two) within reach. Invariably, at some point in the program or conversation, we will want to check a fact or look up the definition and history of a word or phrase. We might need to determine a date, or find nutritional information, or verify an assumption. It’s fabulous! The information is at our fingertips.
On the other hand, trying to find out just exactly what position a candidate really takes on an issue that’s important to me, well, it’s not all that easy to find. There’s so much misinformation and disinformation out there, that it takes work to sift through it all. (Misinformation = mistakenly informed, not based on accurate knowledge. Disinformation = deliberately obfuscating, deflecting, misleading for spurious purposes.) Sometimes I just don’t know what to believe!
I came up with some basic guidelines for myself to help me sort the wheat from the chaff. Maybe, dear reader, they will be of use to you as well.
1. Did I see it on Facebook?
If so, I automatically assume it’s not accurate, until I have verified otherwise. I like Facebook for keeping in touch with the doings of friends and family, but deplore its use to spread lies and half-truths, usually about prominent people or current issues. And politics? Oh, please! What people put out there is enough to make my blood pressure rise! I have become ruthless. If someone persists in posting spurious memes, or making hateful, mean-spirited, racist, bigoted or homophobic comments, I take them out of my feed. I don’t want to read that stuff. And I don’t want any part of anyone who persists in spreading it around. People say things on the Internet that they would never think of saying face to face with the object of their vitriol. At least I hope not. I must say, since I’ve started eliminating those folks from my FaceBook life, I enjoy it a lot more.
2. Do I trust and respect the source of the information?
Am I getting my news facts from NPR or the New York Times, or even the BBC? I tend to trust those sources more than some others that are popular. I look for sources, whether on-line, on the air, or in print, that have a history of a high level of journalistic integrity. If I received this information from someone else, do I trust their integrity? Is this someone who only passes along information that they have checked out themselves?
3. What is the tone of the information?
Is the information presented in a way that deliberately seeks to inflame and anger? Or is the information presented in a thoughtful, well-reasoned manner? Is the writer clear on what is factual, and what is his or her opinion? Use common sense when deciding what to accept as fact. I don’t trust information that doesn’t seem reasonable. Not that there couldn’t be truth in such information, but then that brings me to my fourth guideline:
4. Verify, verify, verify.
Look for sources, and then look at the quality of the sources. Seek for hidden agendas. Check, double check, and cross check. If it’s information that’s important enough that you will be using it to make critical decisions, or will be using it to form the basis of your own opinions, it’s certainly worth taking some extra time to verify the accuracy. I love Wikipedia—it’s an encyclopedia for everybody by everybody. But it, too, must be regarded with a skeptical eye. Well-written Wikipedia entries are accompanied with a list of references from which the information was gleaned. I look over those references. I mean, there are references, and then there are references. Right?
5. Seek the other side of the story.
If the information we have found is going to help us shape our opinion of a person or an issue, we need to be extra vigilant. It’s so easy to just align ourselves with sources that seem to think like we do. It might be a church, a politician, a journalist, a talk show host, or even our own friends and family. But we don’t do ourselves any favors, if we just stop there. If we do, we are forfeiting our right to think for ourselves. We need to get a balanced view of any issue, and then decide where we stand. Take the labels off the information, and see if it resonates with you when it stands alone.
And finally, my last guideline for dealing with information:
6. Think before passing it on.
With just the click of a mouse, that scary report or scandalous tidbit of information can be sent to all your friends and contacts. It can be spread around the dinner table, or passed on at work, or in church. The person you tell it to may pass it on to all their friends as well. And if all this occurs on the Internet, well, that’s where we get the term “going viral.” I have to ask myself—is this something I want to stake my reputation on? Is this something factually interesting or important enough that I want to take the responsibility for its authenticity? Or is it just rumor, innuendo, gossip, or just plain false?
There is so much, dear reader, that demands our attention, our consideration, or our support, it’s hard to know how to sort it all out. Finding information that is thoughtful, well-reasoned, insightful, accurate and truthful is not easy, is it? That is where it makes sense to return to basics. Slow down. Think about it. Check it out. You must first rely on your brain, and your own common sense and power of reason. If you are being spoon-fed questionable facts, make sure your spoon also contains a healthy dose of skepticism.
Now…let me just check on when that new season of Sherlock will be starting…