Critical Thinking Required

By Nancy Tannler

At a Civics for Adults workshop sponsored by the Oregon City Public Library Donna Cohen, M.L.I.S., M.Ed., presented Misinformation, Fake News, and Political Propaganda to a non-partisan audience. 

These on-going series of workshops are intended to increase factual knowledge about civics/politics and provide the tools for civic/political engagement.

The timely presentation discussed the way current events are misconstrued by the media so they read in favor of various political, social and moral agendas. Because misinformation is so prevalent in today’s media, the only way to prevent people from becoming ensnared by it is to inoculate them from misleading or manipulative argumentation strategies.

Cohen’s presentation described how the mainstream press and fake news became synonymous with each other and how the public can best find the truth in news stories. 

An example of how subtle manipulation can be is The Social Dilemma, an American docudrama written by Jeff Orlowski, Davis Coombe and Vickie Curtis. It goes into depth on how social media’s design can easily nurture addictions, manipulate politics and spread conspiracy theories.

Former employees from social media platforms such as Facebook, Google and Apple were interviewed for this show. It’s agreed that social media platforms and big tech companies have been instrumental in providing positive change for society, but these same platforms have caused problematic social, political and cultural consequences. 

They do this by using algorithms to track the websites you open and what your interests are to eventually begin feeding you information that pertains to these subjects in articles known as clickbait.

What happens, Cohan explained, is how information being received is not always factual, journalistic writing, but rather opinion pieces posed as truth. There is a grave concern in the country today about the lack of journalistic writing whose job is to present the facts objectively.

A simple example used to define the difference between reporting and opinion reporting: “There was a crash on I-84.” versus “There was a terrible crash on I-84.” Injecting opinion into reporting can be as subtle as using subjective adjectives (in this case, the word “terrible”). Terminology can make a huge difference in how a story reads.

Another challenge to our sensibilities are deep fakes. These are sophisticated videos and audios coming from what we assume are reliable sources. They are made using authentic-looking logos that upon close inspection are false. Check logos, websites and credentials because when something doesn’t sound right or look right, it usually isn’t.

We all have the capability to share information via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Encouraging people to critically evaluate information before posting is the best way to stop the spread of misinformation. Asking ourselves if we have fact checked before posting should always be part of the process.

Unfortunately, many people will repost statements that are familiar to their preconceived views and biases. However, a claim without substantiation is still just an opinion.

Debunking Handbook 2020 (tinyurl.com/debunking2020) states: “Objective truth is less important than familiarity: we tend to believe falsehoods when they are repeated sufficiently often.” 

An example of how effective this can be is the perpetration of the 2020 presidential election Big Lie that President Joe Biden didn’t win. This was a tactical conspiracy theory used to purposely feed those who want to believe he lost. 

The US Office of Strategic Services (predecessor to the CIA) has compiled documents on how Hitler used the Big Lie technique to mislead the German people.

Other media manipulations to be aware of are data in the form of graphs and charts. These can be read quite differently. 

Suppose a graph is intended to portray the average net worth of a group of people. One type of average is called the mean, and you add up the total value of money and property of everyone in the group and divide it by the number of people. 

The other type, called the median, you identify the net worth of the person who is richer than half the people and poorer than the other half.

So if Warren Buffett drove through a tiny village in India, the mean net worth of those in the villagers would suddenly rise to perhaps a billion dollars, but their median net worth would remain close to zero. Which figure would be more meaningful?

There are a ways to identify fake websites and emails. An important first step is to pay close attention to the address bar in your browser. If for any reason the URL seems suspicious you can go to tinyurl.com/browsingtransparency and drop the address in Google’s Safe Browsing technology site for confirmation.

Finding the truth in today’s media barrage is not always easy. We have to be willing to look at our own preferences as a starting point and then determine if we are willing to hear objective facts that might be counter to our dearly held beliefs. 

“Democracy requires critical thinkers,” Cohen said.

Additional information at civicthinker.info/resources.

Critical Thinking Required

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