These days, we are constantly bombarded with conflicting information. Brexit is good, Brexit is bad. Trump has banned Moslems. Trump hasn’t banned Moslems. So how can we find out the truth amongst the bias and propaganda?
A good starting point is to realise that almost everything we read is biased – yes, even this blog post. That’s because we insert bias as soon as we choose one word instead of another. For example, if you’re writing about a big event, saying “crowds of people thronged the streets” paints a different picture from saying “crowds of people clogged the streets”. Similarly, the way we feel about a mother who doesn’t go out to work is affected by whether she is described as a stay-at-home mum or an unemployed benefit claimant. (Both are true because nearly all mums in the UK claim child benefit and anyone who doesn’t work is unemployed.) .
Bias also affects which facts we choose to leave out or include. Quoting a politician as saying “I hate cats” is misleading if he really said “I hate cats being cruelly treated.” The order of the words makes a difference too. In my first paragraph, I wrote “Brexit is good, Brexit is bad” not “Brexit is bad, Brexit is good” and that may have affected the way you reacted to what you read
Politicians claim that the spread of bias and misinformation has been made worse by the internet, but I think they are wrong. Although it allows so-called “fake news” to spread quickly, it also allows the truth to spread just as fast and it helps us discover when photos are doctored or dossiers are dodgy.
There are several ways you can help yourself spot propaganda and discover the truth.
- Look at the source of the information you are reading. Some websites and newspapers are more reliable than others, and some have a built-in bias you need to be aware of.
- Try to get information from more than one source. Looking at two websites biased in opposing directions will help you spot discrepancy in their accounts. (For US information, realclearpolitics.com links to conflicting articles. If you know an equivalent site for the UK, please let me know. )
- Be sceptical of quotes and soundbites. Wherever possible, look at the original source of the information in full: the act of parliament, the speech, the leaked email, the executive order. Everything you need is online if you search for it.
- Beware of percentages. A percentage means nothing if you don’t know what it’s a percentage of. 20% believe the world is made of green cheese sounds astonishing until you realise that’s not 20% of the whole population. It’s only 20% of the 10 people the pollsters spoke to (ie. 2), both of whom were under 6. And if someone is comparing percentages, make sure they are both percentages of the same thing. Two people having a 5% pay rise sounds fair until you realise that one received 5% of £250,00 and the other got 5% of £50,000.
- Be sceptical of poll results because they are often wrong and often biased. In fact, it’s hard not to have bias in a poll because the answers people give can be affected by the way the question is worded.
- Beware of graphs because they can be very misleading. Check the scales on the horizontal and vertical axes. Do they start from zero? If not a tiny change in numbers can be made to look like an enormous one. And if there’s no scale at all, ignore the graph completely because it’s meaningless
Of course, lack of time will stop you doing all of this every time you read something. But try to check sometimes, especially before you decide to share information on Twitter or Facebook, and treat the facts you haven’t checked with caution. If we all do that, the people who spread misinformation will find life more difficult and the truth may get a louder voice.