In case you missed it, the 2015 Jade Helm military exercises were back in the news this week. While promoting his new book, The Assault on Intelligence: American national security in the age of lies, Retired General and former head of the National Security Agency Michael Hayden suggested that Russia had fomented paranoia in Texas through internet bots, which spread rumors that the Obama administration was using the exercises to impose martial law in Texas. Hayden further speculated that Russia’s experience with Texan’s vulnerability to disinformation emboldened them to employ a similar strategy to interfere with the 2016 Presidential campaign.
While the heads of tech companies try to balance the promise of open exchanges of information with the need to filter out malicious propaganda, others have decided to come at the problem from the opposite direction. In much the same way that one can focus efforts to address a drug epidemic by reducing supply (tighter enforcement) or by reducing demand (just say, “no”), a few educators and activists are pushing for a greater emphasis on critical thinking skills for kids in hopes that they grow up to be more discerning consumers of information (just say, “show me your evidence”). For example, NPR recently featured a story about a French investigative journalist named Thomas Huchon. Huchon has been conducting school assemblies in France to teach kids how to recognize disinformation on the Internet.
We become less vulnerable to disinformation when we become more aware of who produced the information we’re consuming and how it was produced. It’s not really that different from being an educated consumer of food. If dairy products upset your stomach, you would probably check the ingredients before buying untested food at the grocery story or you would have your server ask the chef whether the menu item you’re interested in was made with milk. If discussions of gun laws upset you, you owe it to yourself to find out why stories about guns predominate your Facebook newsfeed.
One way to become a better consumer of information is ask yourself some provocative questions as you read, listen or watch people provide their judgments, assessments and conclusions.
Why am I having an emotional reaction? It’s easy to confuse whom you hate with what you hate (equally true for strong positive emotions like love and admiration). After all, it’s hard to truly hate someone you have no personal experience with. More likely, you are witnessing someone embody values that feel personally threatening. When we feel threatened, we are vulnerable to messages that make us feel safe. When we feel threatened, we seek safety in numbers.
How badly do I want it to be true? If you see or hear a report that is devoid of any evidence or sources, or is laden with tightly edited sound bites, notice whether or not you’ve learned something that you could defend. Did the information convince you, or did the information simply deepen a conviction you already held to be true?
Whose perspective is missing? Be suspicious of reporting that does not include a diversity of perspectives. Quality information should leave you thinking, “I guess I can understand how some people might see it that way.” If the only information being presented impugns the character of a person or group without providing any opportunity to hear directly from that person or group, then you’re not getting information, you’re getting gossip. I understand that we like gossip. Gossip is fun to share and builds relationship (albeit at the expense of others). However, like overindulging in sweets made with processed sugar, a steady intake of gossip can become addictive and diminish your appreciation for subtlety and variety.
Who benefits from my attention and my actions? Social media sites and news media channels make money when they keep you engaged. The more they know about your likes and dislikes, the easier it is for them to package information that appeals to you. We understand when watching commercials that advertisers have designed messages to influence our choices and behaviors on behalf of those who paid for the ad. The same level of scrutiny is warranted when taking in information from any source dependent on advertising for the bulk of its revenue. To learn more about the pernicious strategies employed by tech companies to hold our attention, check out this interview with Tristan Harris, Founder of the non-profit initiative, Time Well Spent.
Information ennobles us when we learn something new or feel more inspired or more connected to others. Be wary of information intended to narrow your view of the world. The more we allow someone to do our thinking for us, the more we abdicate our humanity.