Ask Professor Puzzler
Do you have a question you would like to ask Professor Puzzler? Click here to ask your question!
First of all...sorry about the click-bait title for this post. You'll see why in a minute.
Second...today I'm not answering a question from a visitor; I'm putting on my cranky-old-man hat and griping about something that concerns me deeply.
Yesterday New York Times had an article in which President-Elect Trump's aides said that he was considering (once in office) spending his weekdays at the White House, but on the weekends living at either his Trump Tower, his golf course in NJ, or his Mar-a-Lago estate.
OccupyDemocrats then did what any good clickbait site would do - they grabbed a couple sentences from the news report, built conclusions from it, and gave it a sensational (and inaccurate) headline: "Trump just announced he won't live in the white house full time, wants to golf and relax."
If you don't see a difference between what NYT reported and what OD reported, think it through very carefully - I think you'll see that there are important differences. NYT said it's what he's considering; OD said it's what he has announced. NYT simply stated where he was considering living on the weekends; OD made assumptions about what he would do while he was there. To make it even better, they found a nice picture of Mr. Trump golfing, to help add to the overall impression of the headline.
Certainly, I think it's possible, based on all that we know of him, that Donald Trump may be expecting to take a vacation every weekend, but that is not what his staff said, and to declare it as fact is nothing short of dishonest.
Of course, OccupyDemocrats is not alone in this kind of non-reporting. ConservativeTribune, WesternJournalism, USUncut, and many others, are guilty of this as well. The prevailing idea of journalism seems to be: find a news report on a "respected" news site, grab a sentence or two out of context, sensationalize it, and then give it an even more sensational headline in order to get people to click-through from social media.
I used to waste so much time reading Conservative Tribune articles my friends shared on social media, and researching the context of whoever they quoted, so I could tell my friends whether the article was false. Eventually, I realized that, for my own sanity, I needed to block this site from my facebook feed (notice, by the way, that I refuse to call it a newsfeed). I haven't seen a CT article in months, and I consider my life to be very much enriched for the lack.
So here's where things get really ugly, because we're going to talk about site popularity. A few weeks ago, Alexa.com posted in their statistics that this site (TheProblemSite.com) has broken into the top 100,000 most popular sites in the country. Using the estimate that there are a billion websites in the world, this puts us in the 99.99 percentile among US web users. I was pretty excited about that. But...that same site puts OccupyDemocrats in the top 1000 (99.9999 percentile), and ConservativeTribune at...are you ready for this? #52. There are only 51 websites in the world that are more popular than CT among US visitors, according to Alexa. That puts them at 99.999995 percentile.
Alexa says that CT has about 1.8 million visitors every day, and about 100 million page views every month.
In one month, CT gets 19.2 million UNIQUE visitors (96.7% of which are from the US). Unique means, if I visit twice in one month, I only get counted once. So about 6% of the US total population is visiting CT each month, and presumably assuming they've received a dose of news for the day. That's just ONE of these sites. What do you suppose the percent would be if we included ALL the sites like that (both the conservative ones and the liberal ones), and not just CT?
And that's just the people who actually click a link somewhere to visit their site. How often have you scanned your facebook feed and seen a headline from one of these sites and moved on without clicking? You're a person who has been "reached" by one of those sites, who does not count in their "reach" statistics. Did you assume you were looking at a news headline when you scrolled past it? Did you assume it must be true?
We complain all the time about "the media," but we don't have a whole lot to complain about if we're getting our news from entertainment sites instead of news sites. It's not much wonder we've become so divided and divisive if, after choosing sides, we gravitate toward the most extreme and dishonest sources to get our information.
I get that all news sources are biased, in the sense that they don't just give us facts, they also make choices about which facts are significant enough to be reported, and also give analysis of what they think the facts "mean" in the grand scheme of things. But biased is a whole different league from un-fact-checked click-bait that exists to serve as an echo chamber for people who already know what they think about everything.
Let's make a commitment. It's not easy, but it's only three steps:
- Begin a daily mantra: "I saw it on social media, so it's probably not true. I saw it on social media, so it's probably not true. I saw it on social media, so..."
- Every time you see a new "news" source, carefully research the first three articles you see from them, and if you can find even one blatantly dishonest statement in those articles, block the site from your social media.
- At the same time, explain to your friend WHY you're blocking the site they just shared. To make it easy, of course, you're welcome to share this article - we won't complain!
The truth is, sites like this aren't breaking the internet; they are breaking the nature of political discourse, and we are complicit. Yes, they are culpable, but so are we, every time we mistake an entertainment site for a news site. Let's start doing better.
Update, Nov 15, 2016 Cheyanne wanted some elaboration on #2 - How do you fact check? What do you compare to, considering how biased everything is? Here is my response to her:
There are a few different things you can do. In the case of the example above, I went to NYT, which is the site that OD quoted, and it was easy to see that they were simply taking what NYT reported and misrepresenting it. That's not to say NYT ISN'T biased, but when you find a site that deliberately misrepresents what they've said, you know that site isn't just biased, but downright dishonest.
Also, I often find articles that have short snippets of speeches, and I'm always suspicious, and go find a transcript (or video) of the ENTIRE speech, so I can find the quote in context, to see if the site is treating it fairly. For example, the number of times I've found conservative click-bait sites guilty of deliberately taking Obama quotes out of context is both embarrassing (speaking as a conservative) and appalling (speaking as a human being who cares about truth).
I also make use of custom date searches in search engines. For example, recently, there's been this thing floating around that Kurt Cobain predicted the rise of Trump. I grabbed a phrase from the supposed Cobain quote and put it into google, with quotes about it. Then I clicked the "tools" link, and "Custom date Range" to tell it I only want results from Jan 2000 - Dec 2014. Google tells me there are no results. Turns out that quote first showed up in 2015, which is a problem for Cobain, who has been dead since 1994.