How to find reliable sources and form critical opinions amidst the noise of misinformation
Recently, I learned something new from a Netflix show about Italy’s victory in the 1976 Davis Cup. The final match occurred in Santiago de Chile during Pinochet’s regime. Many Italians believed our team should have boycotted the final to avoid appearing as Pinochet’s supporters. After much public debate, the Italian federation got approval from politicians, and our tennis team headed to Santiago.
Indeed, weeks before the final, the Italian Ambassador in Chile had secretly negotiated the release of 600 political prisoners, who obtained refuge in Italy as a condition for Italy’s participation in the match. No one knew anything about this agreement except the highest offices of the State. Even the players knew about this backstory only 47 years later while filming the series.
I got this information by pure chance, and those who don’t watch the series will never know why politics changed their mind so radically. But how much news is debated without having the whole picture? How often does a controversy arise around a fact about which we only see the tip of the iceberg?
To make a clear opinion on facts, we should get access to full information, but it’s well known that some diplomatic agreements cannot be accessible to the wider public. Besides, some events have so many precedents that it is almost impossible to reconstruct the entire dynamics, even for the most skilled journalists.
“The impulse of the journalist is to be novel, yet to relate his curiosities to the urgencies of the moment; the philosopher seeks what he conceives to be true, regardless of the moment.”Daniel Bell
So, where can we find the whole data, that allows us to make a clear opinion on the news? But above all, is it possible to find such well-structured sources?
The accessibility to public knowledge reminds me that information is a public asset, as stated in Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. Like every public good, information is non-rival and non-excludable, as it can be “consumed” by many users simultaneously, and it’s impossible to prevent anyone from accessing it.
Public also means free of charge, or very affordable at least. So, we should have free access to information. Breaking news and nationwide warrants should be immediately delivered free of charge.
But the devices where the information is shared aren’t public. And that’s where the situation gets complicated.
Whether it’s printed on paper or published online, someone owns the newspaper, the website, the blog… And owning something means setting its rules. Besides, newspaper or broadcasting channels that aren’t public, as in most areas of the world, thrive on sales. As every good on sale, news must also attract customers: becoming more engaging, interesting, and sensational, or even mixed with opinions that are opposite to common sense.
The sudden outbreak of social media changed quickly from sharing cute kitten pictures to spreading content about policy, social life, work, and economy, by people who have no background at all. The balance of power shifted from respected names in journalism to the number of followers. The reliability of news is now determined by how many likes it gets. It’s a new language to which politics had to adapt as if the real poll was on the internet. It’s named mediatization: our lives and opinions are shaped by the media we use.
“All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the message.” — Marshall McLuhan
Influencers can condition their vast audience’s votes or suggest causes that deserve attention. Previously, political theorists addressed supporters during rallies in public squares. Their following was limited, and ideas took time to permeate large population segments. Today, however, the ‘square’ is virtual and potentially infinite: just a few clicks can disseminate an idea to a massive audience in real time.
Unfortunately, there isn’t any official authority that checks the truthfulness of information published; but even if such an authority existed, the gigantic volume of daily shared data and various information streams make it impossible to verify all news. It’s possible to sue someone for defamation, of course, but news can be harmful in ways beyond just defamation.
Making a very simple example: on my blog, I decide which themes I want to write about, which readers I’m addressing, and my tone of voice. I always cite sources of the data I share, but no one obliges me to. My readers might decide to trust me without any fact-checking. Which means that I could manipulate the information I write.
The most fantastic example of manipulation is the Birds Are Not Real campaign by Peter McIndoe. The satirical conspiracy theory he created pretends that all birds in the United States were exterminated by the Government and replaced by birds-like drones to spy on citizens. You can find the whole story here: ‘The lunacy is getting more intense’: how Birds Aren’t Real took on the conspiracy theorists | QAnon | The Guardian. The conspiracy theory took hold so quickly that the author himself became alarmed and now struggles to uproot the weed he has sown.
So, if those who share news are paid for their work, and if the news itself is a profitable industry, how can we find raw information, and, more importantly, how can we form our opinion?
I don’t know if my technique is valid, but when I hear about a new fact, my first action is fast fact-checking:
- I look for pure information, searching in the press agencies, where I find the facts, plain and simple.
- Then, I sift through all the national and international news websites to have the picture seen from many perspectives.
- If any official document is quoted, I look for it and read the original one.
- Finally, when it’s possible, I match all the data with dates and numbers.
For example: when the US Army left Afghanistan, many criticisms argued about why the Taliban arrived so quickly to get the power back. But it could have been enough to read the original Doha Agreement to understand what had happened. It starts with this sentence: “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban, and the United States of America”
Another example: there was a piece of fake news circulating about Tesla cars spontaneously combusting frequently. Knowing that electric cars don’t use fuel, I was intrigued about how this could be possible. After researching independent statistics sites, I discovered that while electric cars can indeed catch fire, traditional combustion engine vehicles are five times more likely to do so and burn much faster. Therefore, electric cars are actually safer.
In general, our best allies to understand reality are the wealth of knowledge we got from school and the memory of experiences in real life. Every news must be checked through the lens of physics, chemistry, statistics, economy… If you don’t have any scientific or technical background, ask reliable friends, or read the opinions of knowledgeable people. A post by former President Barack Obama, for instance, carries more weight than a TikTok video by Fairytale01. There’s no shame in asking what we don’t know; it’s much sillier to pretend to know everything.
As our tennis players stated, they had no idea that their Davis final in Santiago de Chile had helped to save so many lives; they were athletes, not diplomats. Yet they were glad to have learned the full story.