How do you find good information? Becoming More Media Savvy

In this world of Fake News and people online shouting “Do your own research!” who seem to think doing research is sitting online taking in opinions of people who agree with them (known as confirmation bias), how do you find good information?

First of all, it is very important that you realise that the internet is a positive feedback loop that is designed to keep us engaged by feeding us little squirts of dopamine every time we see or click on something that gives us pleasure, or have what we perceive to be a successful social interaction. Our phones are listening to us and tracking the things we click on, so if we click on the fluffy kitten video (for example), the app we’re on will keep showing us fluffy kittens. We get more dopamine in the act of clicking on the link to go and look at the fluffy kitten than we do actually looking at the fluffy kitten. This is called Reward Prediction Error Encoding, something that used to be mainly seen at the gaming tables in a casino, a reason why social media became so wildly popular and changed the world forever. I personally keep seeing animal rescue videos in my news feed. If I didn’t know any better, after seeing months and months of pets getting rescued I could end up thinking that rescuing an animal is the main way for a person to get a pet. We inadvertently create our own echo chambers by clicking on the things that interest us, and if we don’t get exposure to other sources of information, such as from interactions with other people (who just by existing are more contradictory and nuanced than any algorithm can be ready for), we can think what we see online in our news feeds, or from that one tv channel that we watch is the full picture.

Add to this the parasocial relationships we engage in when we go online and expose ourselves to online personalities and social media influencers, who deliberately use language and create intimacy to make us feel as though we’re their friends (even though in reality they have no idea who we are), which gets us invested in what they say or what they want to sell. Parasocial relationships used to be the domain of rock gods and film stars, blowing kisses to the camera, but now it’s available to anyone with a phone.

All of this is not inherently bad, if it’s just for entertainment purposes. Feel good neurotransmitters are nice. Going online to get them is generally a lot more low risk than using cocaine (for example). Modern life can be very lonely, especially in these days of COVID, so it’s not inherently a bad thing to watch someone’s livestream or see their day in the life video. We do however need to see the parasocial relationship for what it is when someone on a screen who says things like “I love you guys SO MUCH!” or if they upload a video of them talking to you casually from an intimate space that you would not normally see, like in their car. (Picture the difference between someone with a set agenda in a professional setting, wearing business attire giving a powerpoint presentation, and then picture someone wearing active wear holding a to-go cup of coffee from which they drink from while they talk, like you’ve met up for a coffee date. Or some bloke talking to you in his ute wearing dirty work gear with his sunglasses on his head. Which makes you feel more comfortable and willing to agree with what they’re saying?) We do need to be a lot more aware that this behaviour is a tactic to increase engagement from you, the viewer. More clicks and engagement means more money from advertising, which is where the profit is online, let alone the merchandising, meet and greets, e-books, memberships, subscriptions, patreons or speaking events that the person you’re watching might be encouraging you to buy or participate in.

So it’s very hard out there to find out what’s up when we’re all just squishy bags of chemicals who want to make more friends. Feel good chemicals aside, how do you find good facts online?

Step 1 always is find the primary source. When it’s for something that’s important, like a health issue, it is not enough to accept the article that you read in the paper or online or see on the news at face value. That doesn’t provide enough information for you to make informed decisions. It’s all very well for a newsreader to say “A new study has shown…” but if it’s for an issue that is important to you, go and find the original study. Or go and ask your doctor. (I will shortly be writing a guide for reading research papers that I will link here). If you are reading a blog post, or someone is telling you about this thing that’s great on Instagram and providing you with links to go and check it out, go and look at those links. Do they provide information on what this thing has been found to do, or is it just marketing bumf with a Click To Buy button at the end? Find other links that have nothing to do with that person. Your click through to that page they recommended counts as engagement, which makes the person you’re following look more successful, potentially getting them more brand deals in the future. Who else is recommending the same thing? Are they someone you would listen to in real life? Are they all sending you through to that one page?

It is an important skill to differentiate between whether you are reading a news article or an opinion article. A news article will be quite dry, you will find the who, what, why, where and how listed in the article and it will start with the important bits and will then have more quotations and general information towards the end. The writer will not insert themselves into the article. If you’re reading a physical paper, these articles will be towards the front. If you’re reading an opinion piece, it will be located more towards the middle of the paper, it will usually be by one particular person whose articles always appear in that one place, say top left of page 14, they will probably talk about their interpretation of an event rather than just reporting an event, and they will probably write about that one topic repeatedly. There will be personal references to the writer themselves, events in their lives and how they feel about things. An opinion piece may be entertaining, but it is not to be treated as factual information.

Every single thing you look at online, on the TV, in the newspaper and in magazines uses hyperbole, clickbait and sensationalism to get your attention. This has been true ever since before the dawn of newspapers, the first time printing presses were used to distribute political caricatures to a mass audience. It is all still designed to catch your eye and make you take action, be it through clicks, likes, subscribing, buying, signing up for their newsletter or becoming a patreon and doing whatever will bring the creator and/or publisher money, and that content needs to be the biggest, the best, the most successful, the most serious, the most shocking, the most frightening, the most valuable and so on. It’s a main feature of advertising and we’re bombarded with advertising every single day, so whatever it is, it has to be made to be more eye catching. That’s why the meteorologist on the news will make rain sound like a significant weather event, like a Rain Bomb, when really we’re just going to get rain; and why the media seems to latch onto something quite benign (such as Safe Schools) and make it out to be a huge threat to society, and then they’ll run a poll on it. More clicks, more engagement. To navigate our way around this it’s really best to get your information from a lot of sources, preferably primary and original sources rather than opinions, and to step back for a bit then evaluate for yourself the importance of what that thing is.

It is important that we don’t get so attached to ideas that we experience cognitive dissonance, which is where someone can hold two beliefs that are in conflict with each other, or when our actions don’t align with our beliefs. We *know* they are opposing, and this causes us to feel uncomfortable, aggravated and stressed. Because we naturally desire to avoid discomfort, cognitive dissonance can affect our thoughts, behaviours, decisions and mental health, leading us to feel anxious, guilty and ashamed. We don’t like this either, so we will rationalise our choices, hide our behaviour from others, avoid talking about it, avoid learning new information that would go against this belief and ignore research, news articles or doctor’s advice that would contradict that strongly held belief.

Now, none of us have always behaved in a way that we’re proud of, and I am sure all of us have experienced cognitive dissonance at some point. Cognitive dissonance can be a useful tool for identifying when it’s time to reflect on what is going on or to encourage us to step away from the screens for a bit so we can re-calibrate.

A way that we can better arm ourselves for the barrage of information and content out there is to develop our critical thinking skills. Critical thinking seeks to identify reliable information and make reliable judgements. This tutorial by the Monash University goes on to explain the inquisitive, open-minded, willing to be challenged mindset of a critical thinker and the skills to develop in order to be one yourself.

So while the things I have written about in this blog post look quite post-apocalyptic and overwhelming it doesn’t have to be. Once we’re made aware of these tactics it allows us to wear the online world and media in general more lightly. We can still enjoy the content we previously enjoyed, but we can stop getting drawn into the drama and addiction of it all, we can decide to look more deeply into a topic elsewhere, we can find it easier to view many different sources before making up our minds on a particular topic, we become more adept at identifying when it’s marketing and then searching for facts. Using these tools we find it easier to develop objectivity about what we see. And then we can go outside.

I hope this helped!

Next up in this series is How to Find Reputable Experts. Coming soon!

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