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How to detect manipulation of media messages

A TEDx talk by Sharyl Attkisson titled “Astroturf and manipulation of media messages” (embedded below) discusses many of the problems I had already discussed back in a 2007 post of mine titled “Be careful with where you get your information from!”

In all of these years little has changed, and it seems abuse of the media has only grown and taken over more sources of information, such as Wikipedia.

In her presentation Attkisson discusses a few strategies you can use to recognize signs of propaganda and false information:

  • The use of inflammatory language such as crank, quack, nutty, lies, paranoid, pseudo and conspiracy.
  • Claims of debunking myths that aren’t myths at all. People hear something is a myth and maybe they find it on Snopes and then instantly declare themselves too smart to fall for it. But what if the whole notion of the myth is itself a myth?
  • Attacking an issue by controversialising or attacking people, personalities and organizations surrounding it, rather than addressing the facts (also known as ad hominem attacks).
  • Public skepticism for those exposing wrongdoing rather than the wrongdoers. For example, instead of questioning authority, they question those who question authority.

Attkisson forgot to mention another common tactic of attacking an issue by using a straw man argument:

A straw man is a common form of argument and is an informal fallacy based on giving the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument, while actually refuting an argument which was not advanced by that opponent.

All of the above tactics are frequently used online and offline, and you have to be careful to recognize and not to fall for these tactics. And when you notice any of these tactics being used, expose them immediately.

Like I discussed before (with examples), you should never trust any information presented online, unless you’ve done your own homework and tried to scrutinize and verify the information for yourself. Many popular online sources of information (such as Wikipedia) are being infiltrated and polluted with propaganda and misinformation. Like Attkisson also mentions, whole studies are being faked or misrepresented while scientists are paid to back them, websites and bloggers are being paid to promote lies, and whole armies of people and bots are being employed to participate in discussions on social media channels to spread disinformation and misinformation.

In the end, due to the open architecture of the Internet (that will only become more open and decentralized in the future), disinformation and misinformation will always be outed eventually (and increasingly easier and faster), but in the mean time you have to remain very cautious.


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