In a “post-truth world”, divided between the anti-mainstream media conspiracy theorists and those who trust the mainstream media with a critical eye, it is increasingly important for readers to know how to differentiate between “fake news” (a list of sites catalogued in a peer reviewed project by Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communication at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, can be viewed here) and a properly sourced article.
The Middle East is rife with conspiracy theorists who disavow mainstream media as “fake news” that perpetuate information benefiting the corporate elite. While this view is understandable in our region, which has one of the lowest press freedom ratings in the world (according to the 2016 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders ) and a history of media censorship, it’s important to understand that the truths about media that may hold true in the Middle East are not necessarily the truths about media in other countries.
One of the biggest failings of anti-mainstream media conspiracy theorists is their tendency to look toward smaller websites that claim to be independent crusaders for truth (yet lack editorial oversight, fact checkers, and/or proper sourcing). Ironically, in the conspiracy theorists’ quest for truth, they do just the opposite: They inadvertently share articles with even higher levels of partisan bias that often have little grounding in reality.
The fact is this: For an online publication, big or small, to be sustainable, it needs to make money. To do this, it needs to advertise. The amount of money that can be made with web advertising is based on clicks and content. Therefore, an under-staffed smaller publication is more likely to produce worse quality, clickbait-y type articles in order to make the minimum quota of monthly hits. Editors will also often pay attention to content so as not to alienate a smaller pool of potential advertisers.
In a sense, larger publications will be more free in what they can publish. They will have a larger pool of advertisers to pick from, and they will be staffed well enough to produce higher quality articles with better fact checking and sourcing. If one corporation backs out, as long as the web traffic is high enough, so what? Another one will just step up and take its place. There is less at stake.
What matters, at the end of the day, are the quality of sources and evidence presented in each article. This responsibility to discern falls into the lap of the reader.
Especially when it comes to independent publications that aren’t peer reviewed, if readers don’t have a critical eye when it comes to determining which authors can be trusted or whether the information is put together in a logically consistent fashion, they won’t be able to filter out the garbage. Here are a few tips:
- If it’s an opinion piece, understand that it is an opinion piece.
- If it’s satire, understand that it is satire.
- If it’s presented as news, check the sources and make sure they are unbiased and non-partisan.
- Read a variety of articles, particularly ones from parts of the world with the highest levels of press freedom such as Scandinavia.
- Put your own biases aside. Don’t ignore facts because you don’t like them, and realize that it is disingenuous to dismiss a fact because it happens to support an opposing claim.
For useful criteria for evaluating the credibility of a source, visit Columbia College’s online guide.