Listening to the frenzied accusations of “disinformation”, “shill”, “stooge”, “cointelpro”, “propagandist” that activists and journalists are wont to hurl at each other, I decided to jot down some of the markers that set off my BS detector.
Obviously, these are only very rough indicators and due diligence is also needed. But off the top of my head here are some things that will help you figure out whether a writer is reliable or not.
1. Look at the writer’s track-record. With so much writing now on the web, it’s easy to research a writer and find out where they were standing on issues years ago. How does their performance stack up? You don’t need Nostradamus, but the conclusions of a good writer/researcher will tend to be borne out most of the time. If someone had told you in 2003 that the Iraq war was going to be a cake-walk, had told you in 2006 to buy a bigger house for less money down, and encouraged you to sell gold short in 2009, you might be forgiven if, in 2010, you’d come to suspect his intelligence or motives…or both.
2. Look for details that you know about and see if the writer is accurate. If she isn’t and there is no good reason, then be wary. What’s a good reason? Well, if a Scottish writer isn’t a Sinologist and doesn’t pretend to be one, a mistake about Chinese history can be put down to error. If he is a Sinologist, then he should know better. If it is a one time mistake or a very minor one, put it down to sloppiness or human error. If it’s big and repeated, it’s not an error. It’s a sign of incompetence or disinformation.
3. Suspect cuing and stage whispers. When everyone in the blogosphere points you to certain sources over and over, be cautious. Sometimes it’s only a well-meaning attempt to help the public. Mostly, however, it’s a way to control the debate. New and interesting research/analysis pops up all the time, from all sorts of people. Even alternative voices shouldn’t be set up as final authorities. I am especially suspicious when mainstream sources like the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post point to certain bloggers as more reliable. These are efforts to co-opt or channel genuinely free, popular debates.
4. Follow writers for a while, before you make up your mind. Making up your mind about the reliability of a source from one article is not only silly, it’s impossible. You need to read writers consistently for a long time on many different issues before you can assess their reliability. You should read as much as you can by a writer before coming to a judgment. Even then, it’s always wise to hold off dismissing someone entirely or buying into them completely.
5. Realize that there are constraints on everyone who writes publicly. There is no such thing as perfectly open or transparent writing. Sometimes writers don’t touch on certain topics because they might distract, not because they are “covering up.” Or they might fear libel suits. Or they might feel they don’t know enough to comment. Or they might think they aren’t the right people to comment. An immigrant might feel diffident about discussing questions about national security. A heterosexual male might not want to corner a debate on female experiences of rape. Some writers won’t touch material that is controversial not because they are careerists, but because they have family members who might be vulnerable to harassment. Give people a break. Put yourself in their shoes – how much would you write if someone was threatening you or blackmailing you or warning you you’d lose your job?
6. Pay attention to style and tone. Credible sources rely on logic, reason, facts and evidence. They are likely to be cautious in interpreting events until they have researched them personally. If they are passionate, it is genuine emotion, not cheap rhetoric, personal attacks and vulgarities. When confronted with a mistake, they are reasonable enough to acknowledge it and make corrections or retractions. They compare and evaluate their sources and admit when they don’t know something. They apologize, if necessary. They tend to be personally polite, even if they are critical or sharp in their general tone. Denunciation of monetary policy is not the same thing as calling someone a buffoon and a liar because he disagrees with your way of thinking.
7. Study the main logical fallacies (red herrings, straw men, hasty generalizations – you know, all the stuff in English 101) and check whether a writer is prone to making them or not. Repeated use of ad hominem is one of the surest signs of a propagandist. However, make sure you know the difference between ad hominem and criticism that is warranted and related to the target’s professional conduct. If you don’t know the difference, study and find out.
You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned anything about credentials, prizes, fame, peer recognition, or publishing record. This isn’t because I think those things are irrelevant. But I don’t any more think they are good guides to a source’s reliability. There are well-credentialed people who are reliable and there are people who have no recognizable credentials who are. There are prize-winning highly-paid journalists who are great. And there are unpaid bloggers who are too.
As for peer review, some of the best information comes to writers in the form of anonymous links and tips. Or on forums that the mainstream won’t touch with a barge-pole. Or from insiders who don’t want their names in the press. Even scholars work in herds.
8. Check your gut reaction. Truth-telling on controversial matters is usually a lonely business or done with only the company of other loners. Once the crowd gets in on the act, even the best popular movements go awry. The reason is most people automatically tailor their thoughts to please others. It’s part of man’s inherently social nature. White lies are natural to even the best of us. And when we’re not lying to others, we’re busy soothing our egos with more lies.
And that’s why the most important tip I can give you is one that doesn’t even have to do with other people. It’s to do with yourself.
It is simple. Look inside and do some truth-telling there as well.
The more honest and truthful you are, the more you will recognize it in others.