Trust No One: All news is doubtful

My main project, Doubtful News is on hiatus right now. (Update 22-Jan-2016: We’re back.) Honestly, it’s because I don’t have the motivation to keep up with the onslaught of questionable claims that are in the media. Twice this week, I was reminded by others of the following: 1. I am not alone in this and, 2. We are foolish to rely on the media for accurate information.

DN was designed to reach the “Googler”, the curious, the smart searcher. I wanted to show that there was more to these stories than just “they’re fake”. Early on, it was clear that DN could be a full-time job for me. In fact, it could be work for half a dozen people. But it wouldn’t make a profit because I was opposed to plastering the site with crappy ads.

After four years, I noticed a few things.

By covering news on ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot and the general paranormal I saw that these very poorly done, sometimes obviously hoaxed pieces came mainly from tabloids like The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Mirror and Huffington Post. Several reputable news sites would pick them up because they were great click-bait. They were like pre-packaged fast food snacks – devoid of nutritional value, pure filler, really not part of a healthy news diet. But for some, this is their main news feed.

There was a proliferation of fake news sites. They are so ubiquitous now that it can be difficult to tell if they are satire or real. I have no love for dumb fake news. Today’s fake news is not witty satire of The Daily Show, Colbert Report or The Onion, but deliberate crap put out there to fool people who don’t look too closely. And, about 80% of people, I’d guess, don’t look closely at all. They just click “share”. That sort of non-thought gullibility is, overall, not good for society.

Caitlin Dewey at the Washington Post who wrote the weekly column, “What was wrong on the Internet this Week” had her work cut out for her. She mostly covered the fake news, not the deeper, trained, skeptical look into questionable and antiscientific claims that I often did. While I thought her column was great for the public – because the more people see a reasoned response, the better – Dewey never really gave me the impression she knew all that much about how psychology works in terms of cognitive bias.  She writes:

Since early 2014, a series of Internet entrepreneurs have realized that not much drives traffic as effectively as stories that vindicate and/or inflame the biases of their readers. Where many once wrote celebrity death hoaxes or “satires,” they now run entire, successful websites that do nothing but troll convenient minorities or exploit gross stereotypes. Paul Horner, the proprietor of Nbc.com.co and a string of other very profitable fake-news sites, once told me he specifically tries to invent stories that will provoke strong reactions in middle-aged conservatives. They share a lot on Facebook, he explained; they’re the ideal audience.

So, you have people deliberately being disinformation agents. And people eat it up. She continues:

Frankly, this column wasn’t designed to address the current environment. This format doesn’t make sense. I’ve spoken to several researchers and academics about this lately, because it’s started to feel a little pointless. …Essentially, he explained, institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.

Starting to? It always was a Sisyphean job. She can’t keep up, so the column is dead. I can’t keep up either, especially everyday. While DN does very good traffic – so much so that I have to pay for a higher tier of hosting – there is no way to compete with the Daily Mail, Reddit, IFLS or the many really awful Facebook pages and websites that pander to the sensational and/or shocking. Or even just politicians these days!

A few other things I found:

The endless sources of news material on medicine and health issues is best left to the professionals. This is a needed niche that, hopefully, won’t suffer from mission creep and will continue to grow. When people search for info about these issues – vaccines, autism, dietary supplements, cancer treatments, alternative cures – they need to hit a science-based site on the first page.

Themes of false stories are regurgitated over and over again. Even the exact stories are regularly resurrected. One of the first things I do is look at the dates, search for other sources, and look at THOSE dates. It’s becoming more frequent to see the same stories show up from 2 or 3 years ago framed as if they JUST happened. And the sharing begins again. Are our netizens learning? Not that I can tell. They seem to have incredibly short and poor memories. So, the archives of stories on my sites do receive views years laters. Sometimes they spike unexpectedly. Funny, that.

I’ve developed a bit of a knack for knowing what story will go viral. But I can’t always predict how successful a critique post on that topic will be. You can’t do too much to help it along; though I’ve tried. I’ve had little to no help from Reddit, BoingBoing, or Fark who prefer the ridiculous versions, or other critical thinking organizations or individuals that I’ve asked to help share these stories as I share theirs. That’s a problem. The aggregators and community should make an attempt to get the best view of the story circulated. Not the garbage version.

Remember, people will share the extreme pieces far more readily.  The majority of people just see the news is another way to be entertained. They don’t care much about how true it is if it has truthiness that they enjoy. So, the news feed never gets smarter, it just gets worse.

Therefore, I declare all news is doubtful.

Damn it.

But what of the portion of the population that is interested in the fuller story?

We really could use several sources for news to trust and who won’t pander to the pull of posting click-bait. Real news sources should be producing reliable news, not debunking someone else’s. Doubtful News as a niche blog is appreciated and shared by select crowd who gets it and why we do it. It’s also snubbed by a number of bloggers who don’t value cooperation, is badmouthed by a few who wish to live in a world of fantasy and paranoia, and cited by a handful who know how tough this is to do day in and out. A concerted effort is needed in order to provide a social solution to fake news. 

Many of us are jaded by the tsunami of terrible news sources and ridiculous stories passed off as news (or worse, journalism). It is my opinion that a continued effort should not be from a few part-timers like me but that it should be a primary job of the skeptical/critical thinking organizations to focus on good information, counteracting misinformation and doing this IN REAL TIME with news feeds, original pieces, expert commentary and online resources.

There is a gaping hole in society that needs to be filled by orgs like Center for Inquiry and The Skeptics Society to stand up for science and evidence-based media critique. Modeling skeptical critique and critical thinking processes should be a priority. My gosh, we need this so desperately! The skeptical voice is required for a thinking society. It’s nearly impossible now not to be drowned out totally.

I will always probably write about this stuff even though it gets old at times. It’s been a relief to not have to follow every silly psychic story and miracle treatment claim in the past weeks, which can be a downer. I gave up talking about Bigfoot a while ago and can’t be moved to even click on UFO claims. Need a ghost? Create one on an smart phone app – instant hits and a UK tabloid might even pay you for your pic.

It’s all so boring online now. In fact, my co-editor for DN said we might as well just have a template for the sensational paranormal story of the day. There was nothing new to add since we were often repeating ourselves. But insert a few keywords and it’s like it’s brand new news to half the world!

The interesting stuff is very much deeper, more historical and tied in with psychology, society and our quest for meaning in life. It takes a lot of work to dig those angles up. I plan to keep up with DN as a story grabs me. I certainly learned a lot and will surely continue to do that in a limited capacity. So, keep the site bookmarked, keep sending me links I might have missed. I probably won’t spend time debunking them but I have assumed a role of curious and critical spectator. There is no harm in that – critical being the important word.

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18 thoughts on “Trust No One: All news is doubtful

  1. Write at your pleasure, much as I’ve enjoyed DN with my breakfast every morning I can handle days or weeks without for the quality of the writing. Heck, Monster Talk is on a hiatus for months, Archyfantasies is bi-weekly, Pseudoastronomy is whenever – but I’ll check regularlyand enjoy the blogs whenever they appear.

    Thank you Sharon, I can also always listen to you on an old podcast or two if I need a boost.

  2. I appreciate your site AND the lack of advertising. One thing I noticed about some of the other “critical thinking organizations” they will readily debunk something but are reluctant to share just how they did it. I have asked how did you figure that out? or where did you find that? & am mostly ignored, I am terrible at research but am getting better at chasing down stories, although I still often hit a brick wall and have to wait until someone else debunks it. Anyway, Thanks Sharon

  3. I say thank you as well, I’d have shared this on the book of face but there was no image of the ghost of a unicorn. Do what you enjoy.

  4. Who’s work do you share, outside of the capital S skeptic community? When’s the last time you gave credit to one of us “woo peddlers” who don’t use click-bait tactics and who work hard to present factual, verifiable information, but who don’t belong to the S-club? The Brien Forster fiasco from a year and a half ago?

    I don’t wish to cast dispersions. Really, I don’t. You do great work, and you always have. You know I respect your work, but I have to echo the sentiment that you aren’t alone in this, and neither are the Skeptics. Some of us do pretty good work too.

  5. I don’t understand this, Martin. I have linked to your work if it tied into a story. But I kept the focus on the latest media news. You went quiet or a different direction for a while.

  6. Sorry that’s how you see things. But providing insight into areas in which I have experience and knowledge (and providing sources to back it up) is not “self-righteously telling people what to think”.

  7. I’m not giving up, as I state clearly. I suppose you mean Randi? The JREF does not operate in that capacity anymore.

  8. I don’t understand this. Perhaps you can provide some examples where Sharon has self righteously told people what to think?

    Telling people how and why they’re wrong about stuff, isn’t being self righteous, if you can prove it and back up your claims with sources and the science.

    But I have a feeling you can’t really provide these examples (but I’m eagerly awaiting them) as I have a sneaking suspicion you’re one of those people who consider Sharon a “narrow-minded scoftic who just wants to ruin other peoples fun”

    But hey, prove me wrong!

  9. I thank you for what you’ve done but you’re right, there is so much of this nonsense out there that one must feel that you’re trying to bail out the the Titanic with a teaspoon. Taking a break is a good idea and hopefully you’ll get some time to do some deeper thinking on the best place to focus your time and energy. I look forward to what you’ll do next and again, thanks.

  10. Are our netizens learning? Not that I can tell. They seem to have incredibly short and poor memories.

    “Memories? What’s the App for that?” (text text text text text text text text…)

  11. Totally understand Sharon, it’s whack-a-mole out there. No money in skepticism, people care but little help.

    I love your analysis and think it would make a terrific article for publication and/or lecture. I hope it teaches beyond our choir as you have learned a lot.

    GSoW has been doing what you suggest is needed, getting good citations into Wikipedia articles in order to counter nonsense. It is a task for thousands.

    I train and recruit and push and motivate and work full time and more to make it happen. People (well most) love us. But in the end people discover that they can’t finish training for many reasons, I’m sure they are great reasons. Or more frustrating, they finish training then disapper. Life again interferes.

    I have a few rock stars on the project but the workload is enormous. As you report there is so much to do, and no time to do it.

    I don’t have the solution, possibly funding the people doing the work? But not with ads, just straight up give us money to supplement the work we are going so they don’t have to. Is the skeptical community willing to do this? I see drama bloggers making thousands a month for putting up videos of butterflys and some discussion about what they are having for dinner. How can we compete with those personalities?

    When asked, people usually pony up. It’s just exhausting to have to beg. People should support the very few projects out there doing these insane tasks.

    Ahhh well I suppose I should end the rant. Please publish more on what you learned, please do not disappear. We need you and people like you. Take a break, get your feet rubbed, work in the garden do whatever you need. But please stay.

  12. As Randi once told me when I expressed much the same sentiment you have, “…Now you know how I feel,” as he looked up at me through his deeply stressed eyes so full of wisdom and compassion. We have to do what we can each day and that’s enough. I have been in and out of the so-called “Skeptical Community” twice now, and after the last go round, decided I would do much better on my own, in my own time and without getting involved or trying to please everyone. And now I can proudly say I’m doing much better. The people who are with you and care about your well-being will stay around and in contact. Meanwhile, what we do will never sell soapflakes, and maybe that’s a good thing. The truth is never popular. It can be expensive and time consumimg, but it looks good and wears well. Persevere!

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