Are you tired of being angry about things that aren’t actually happening? Are you tired of losing friends on social media because you keep posting bullshit stories from shady news sites based in some Balkan country? Well today you’re in luck, because after years of working in the field of counter-disinformation I’m finally presenting you with my list of tips for being less of a gullible rube online, or the guide to disinfo for short.
I shouldn’t have to tell readers this, but these are general rules of thumb and if one or even a few of these points apply to a certain news item it doesn’t necessarily mean it is fake or misleading. Everything must be weighed on the merit of its evidence. There is no magic formula that makes it possible to determine fact from fiction or disinformation. Likewise, there is no source of news that is 100% reliable and accurate every time.
Tip number one- if you see a news source, article, or video that prominently features the word “truth” in its title, you should be suspicious. This is doubly so if you see it written in all-caps. One real-life example comes from an RT program called Truthseeker, which became the basis for one of the Russian broadcasters’ many sanctions by the British regulator Ofcom after they repeated the infamous “crucified boy” story from the war in Ukraine. Also, Russia’s propagandist and sex tourist Graham Phillips also ran a now-defunct personal blog called The Truthspeaker, which if you’re familiar with even a fraction of his work, tells you everything you need to know. Exercise similar caution with headlines or video titles that contain something like “The TRUTH about…”
The reason this is suspicious is because if someone has done actual investigative work and they stand behind it, there’s already an automatic implication that the information is true. To understand the problem with overuse or inappropriate use of the term truth, just consider the following scenario:
A person was supposed to deliver something to your office at a certain time and they are both late and the delivery is wrong. The person has a long explanation as to why this happened, and while they are giving it they pepper their speech with phrases like “believe me,” “trust me,” and “I’m telling you the God’s-honest truth.” Would you believe that person? Most rational people would say no or at least say that behavior is a major red flag.
The corollary to this is if the story uses the word “lie” to refer to whatever narrative it is attacking. If a narrative is a lie, the article or video should be able to explain, in detail, why it is false or otherwise misleading.
People Are Doing X…
One particularly annoying recipe for often unreliable clickbait stories is outrage fuel that is about “people” supposedly expressing their own outrage at something else, usually something innocuous. This is typically aimed at conservative audiences and will most often be about “college students” or “social justice warriors” supposedly getting “offended” by something seemingly trivial. These stories play to conservative identity politics about how they are thick-skinned, common sense-having, tough people while their opponents are limp-wristed, oversensitive, whiny snowflakes (yet they’re also somehow antifa super-soldiers about to launch a new civil war any day now). The Russian propaganda outlets RT and Sputnik are also fond of such tactics, usually aimed at right-wing audiences in the West.
The problem with such stories is that, assuming they’re not entirely fabricated, they are typically based on a handful of social media posts, often on Twitter. Is there any proof these tweets are representative of any significant demographic? How many followers do those Twitter users actually have? Do their tweets even match the sentiments found in the story’s headline or copy? A really good example of how a tiny number of tweets can turn into “The SJWs are TRIGGERED by X” was tackled by the Youtuber Shaun, who debunked a fake outrage story about leftists supposedly being up in arms about a trailer for the game Doom: Eternal.
A similar theme in this genre is “those college kids,” whereby we hear that spoiled, entitled, over-sensitive college kids are supposedly screeching with rage about something happening on campus. Right-wing grifters have made a killing off of this theme, which appeals equally to boomers as well as white millennial males who say dumb shit like “I was born in the wrong era.” It’s also been a boon to Never-Trump conservative columnists who find few outlets for their right-wing politics now that the field is dominated by defending Trump in scandal after scandal.
In reality, most of “those college kids” stories are in fact bullshit. Trigger warnings and safe spaces? Just another moral panic. No-platforming speakers? An actual detailed examination of the phenomenon finds that conservative student organizations often protest or request to disinvite speakers on political grounds, something you never hear about in “campus free speech” pieces. Moreover, the fact that students, right or left, protested a speaker or tried to have them disinvited often doesn’t mean they were successful. More often than not, “PC Campus Crybabies Protest Speaker Who Offends Them” stories could be more accurately distilled as “Some Customers of an Institution Voice Their Objection to a Speaker They Disagree With.” Of course if they were worded that way, people would quickly see how non-newsworthy they are.
For more examples of campus free-speech grifting, check out Robert Evans’ Behind the Bastards podcast, which did a special episode on this subject. Or for a good video on the related term “cancel culture,” check out Cody Johnston’s Some News.
The Mainstream Media Won’t Show This!
Grifters love to hook rubes by convincing them they’re offering them esoteric, forbidden knowledge “they” don’t want you to know about. This comes in a lot of different forms, but the general idea is that this person or outlet is offering you a look behind the curtain and if you want to be a “free-thinker” unlike all those “sheeple” out there, you’ll listen to them.
First of all, the term “mainstream media” is ill-defined. What exactly is “mainstream” anyway? Sure, it could be large media outlets, but is the BBC mainstream in the United States, for example? Russia’s RT loves to bash the “mainstream media,” but it is yet another state-owned media enterprise in a country where the state controls most major media outlets (and heavily restricts independent ones).
When confronted with “mainstream media isn’t covering X,” the first thing to do is run to Google and type whatever “X” is in the search bar. If the story is actually accurate and newsworthy, chances are major outlets have reported on it, and they have probably done a better job than the people who claimed they weren’t covering it. If the only results that come up are tabloids, government media outlets from authoritarian states, or sites with names like “The TRUTH Defender,” it’s probably bullshit.
Sure, sometimes there might be important stories that aren’t on the network evening news or they are just blurbs in the paper, but the fact that a particular story isn’t front page news or the news anchor doesn’t give you an in-depth rundown of the ideological variations between the major Syrian opposition groups each evening doesn’t mean the mainstream media is trying to cover something up. There’s a difference between headline news and investigative stories. Yeah, as it turns out if you want to be informed about something you’ll actually have to read, a lot. Someone on TV or running a blog (yeah, including this one) can’t just spoonfeed you an understanding of complex events. Plus, there might be a logical reason why an outlet focuses more on one event in a certain place and not a similar event in a different place.
In any case if you were really serious about understanding some complex issue like a war or the politics of a foreign country you’re not going to be looking at your newsfeed or cable news; you should be reading books by recognized experts in the field.
As a corollary to the above, grifters who overuse the term mainstream media derisively often try to cultivate the idea that certain sources can be automatically trusted on anything, while others can be dismissed out of hand, specifically any source they designate as “mainstream.” Russian media often uses a variant of this whereby bad media that’s unfair to Russia labeled “Western media,” and of course you can’t trust Western media to report the truth! This labeling seems to convince some people because the West is portrayed as this US-led hegemony and Russia’s posited as opposing it. But consider that there are also plenty of non-Western media outlets which report on things like Russia’s role in MH17 or the Skripal poisoning. Are Al Jazeera or Daily Sabah “Western” now? In reality, “Western media” in the Russian press typically means “media reporting things that contradict the narratives of the Kremlin, foreign ministry, defense ministry, etc.” Same goes for “mainstream media,” “corporate media,” etc. These labels say nothing about the quality of the outlet’s reporting or the veracity of any individual story.
The idea that there are sources you can consistently trust on everything and those you should dismiss all the time is, to say the least, naive. You have to look at the outlet’s reputation, how they’ve responded when they got something wrong, and how thorough their reporting on a topic is. And even then, that’s just one source of news. It’s not necessarily going to make you informed on certain topics.
Another reason the dismiss “mainstream media” approach is bullshit is because virtually every individual or outlet who does this inevitably ends up citing the same mainstream media they regularly dismiss in their stories or basing entire stories around the idea that “even the mainstream media is acknowledging this!” Either they are acknowledging what the truth-to-power writer is claiming, which thus contradicts their claims about media coverups on that topic, or they are misrepresenting what the outlet they’re citing actually said. Even in the latter case, they’re still attempting to cite a source they would otherwise dismiss were it not for the idea that a major outlet reporting on something gives them credibility. And that’s just it- they do this because they know that no matter what you say about not trusting “mainstream media,” a part of you still trusts that enough to give more credence to them as a source.
Russian state media does this all the time with their term “Western media.” They know that their domestic audience doesn’t trust them, so while they’ll dismiss any Western media outlet’s negative reporting on the Kremlin regime, they’ll often enthusiastically cite “Western media” whenever it appears to go along with what their messaging. Of course this often means turning some obscure blogger into “Western media.” In fact, in one case they took something of mine that had been reported in The Guardian and twisted the meaning considerably before presenting it as a “Western journalist” attacking other “Western journalists” on their Russia reporting.
A tell-tale sign of bullshit is when you get the feeling that the article is trying to say something about your personal identity depending on whether you agree or disagree. Does the outlet or the author of one of their pieces imply that you’re a truthseeking free thinker if you believe their version of an event, as opposed to a mindless member of the “sheeple” if you don’t? Perhaps you’re not “patriotic” if you take the wrong side in the article, or maybe you too are a censorious, fragile snowflake if you think maybe those college students had a point when they protested against something?
If the answer is yes to any of that- it’s most likely a manipulation tactic. Obviously if it’s an opinion piece that sort of thing is more appropriate, but not in a news story.
If you see these words invoked unironically, increase the skepticism. These terms don’t mean anything. For example, in the manufactured outrage over Colin Kaepernik, nobody attacked Kaepernik’s critics for being PC snowflakes. Nor did the people who typically proclaim themselves politically incorrect praise him for also being politically incorrect. Opponents of same-sex marriage didn’t get labeled as politically correct when in fact their position was basically the definition of that until relatively recently.
In short, this is just a snarl phrase where PC = bad and un-PC = good, cold hard truth (often not true at all).
When In Rome – Leave
This one may seem oddly specific, but bear with me. Any time you see some American commentator saying our country is about to “fall like the Roman Empire,” that’s a fairly good sign you shouldn’t pay attention to them. Doubly so if they attribute that fall to “decadence.” Most likely that person’s sum total of knowledge on Rome amounts to having seen Gladiator once or twice. The decline of the Roman Empire was a long and extremely complex process that was due to many factors, and typically the “collapse” they’re thinking of is only the fall of the Western Empire, while the Eastern one continued on for nearly another thousand years.
In short, “aMeRiCa iS lIkE rOmE” is an example of stuff that sounds smart to stupid people, much like “we’re a republic, not a democracy!”or “the Nazis were socialists!”
Constant Complaining About ‘Bias’
This one is pretty straightforward- if an outlet is constantly complaining about other outlets being “biased,” it is probably biased itself in favor of a particular point of view. American conservative media is a major offender here. Anything not reporting their version of a story, no matter how idiotic or fabricated it is, is “biased.” This is a nice way of actually avoiding the need to provide evidence for your claims and explain why the other claims are false.
Terribly sorry, but reality tends to have a certain bias. The Earth is round. Vaccines save lives. Trump is objectively a moron. Russia shot down MH-17 and poisoned the Skripals. Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons multiple times. To take just one of those examples, that of MH17, it is a matter of comparing what has basically been one, more or less unchanging narrative of events (Russia shot it down), to numerous, changing, often impossible or mutually exclusive alternative explanations. Perhaps if the Russian side had decided to carefully craft one alternative narrative and present evidence only for that explanation, they might have produced something worthy of serious consideration. But alas, they deliberately decided on a strategy of simultaneously promoting dozens of easily-debunked fake stories even as the debris was still smoldering. Nobody made them do that; nobody put a gun to their heads and told them to put out a stream of bullshit via multiple channels. Therefore there’s no bias in saying they have zero credibility on that topic and people aren’t unfairly biased against them for not trusting what they say about it.