Five ways to detect Internet BS

In the quest for page views and visitors, bloggers and content creators skate the ethical borders.

They steal content. They create meaningless lists. They perpetuate inaccuracy with statistically ridiculous online polls.

Do not nibble on these cognitive candy bars; they make for flabby brains.

So I offer you a post that is not pilfered, that is accurate as far as I know. I hope it will bring meaning and substance to your online diet.

1. Top 75 ways to …

Have you noticed the proliferation of lists (including this one)? People like them because they are easy to scan, digest, and comment upon. It’s like the weather: Everyone can comment on their favorite song, dog breed, gluten-free cereal, etc.

Often, these lists are meant to spark an emotional reaction — How dare you leave out my favorite song, dog breed, gluten-free cereal, etc.! — and create “engagement.” They’re also designed to pump up page views by putting each item on its own Web page.

Be especially wary of lists with more than 10 items.

The best compilations I find don’t actually use the word “list” anywhere in them. Two of my favorites: The Big Picture, which collects the best photojournalism from around the Web daily (by Boston.com); and Brain Pickings, which curates some of the most thought-provoking content from the Internet.

2. Who’s your favorite…?

As a researcher, I find online polls particularly offensive. They give the veneer of validity, presenting quantitative “findings” to support a given claim.

The problem? Statistically valid polls depend on a random sample of a given population. In an open online poll, the visitors to a given site decide whether to participate; there’s no control over the sample. The results are meaningless in a larger context.

The questions are often meant to provoke a response rather than elicit valuable information.

The most reliable polls (e.g. ones from Pew Research or Gallup) will provide their methodology, questionnaire, sample size, and margin of error. They will carefully pull together a list from which anyone from the population could be randomly selected. And they will be equally careful in how they interpret the results.

3. Whose content is it anyway?

We’ve all done it. Searching for a quick answer, we Google our query and click on the first reasonable headline. We scan the article, and if the information is useful, we smack our lips and continue on merrily with our day, with little regard for the actual source of the information.

Often, content farms scrape the Web for posts and articles on a given topic and shamelessly repost them with credit lines in the small print. In my opinion, this plagiarism is a lazy, misleading way to manufacture false credibility.

Like the multi-paged list, this ploy is another attempt to pad page-view numbers to lure advertisers and ultimately revenue.

4. Coffee is [bad, neutral, good] for you.

Good journalists know there is a wealth of fascinating, insightful academic research available for public consumption. Academics are often more concerned with publishing in peer-reviewed journals than the public sphere, making this source a rich mine for the resourceful writer.

The key, however, is putting that research into perspective. No single study or paper exists in a vacuum. Research must be tested, validated, and corroborated.

Still, some will elevate a solitary study to inerrant status. Those in search of click-throughs opt for the sexy headline — “Coffee is good for you, says science” — and selectively cite the studies that support their point of view.

5. Don’t believe that S.O.B.

As with academic cherry-picking, the polarized blogosphere has a nasty habit of taking quotes out of context and elevating them to the level of scandal.

Take a quotation from Mitt Romney that made the rounds from one of the GOP primary debates:

…I like being able to fire people…

For people who focus on Romney’s stint as head of Bain Capital, it fits the narrative of Romney as the evil CEO who cuts thousands of jobs. The problem is the quotation is out of context.

Watch the entire quote:

Even his opponents in the GOP primary called off the critics to say his comments were being taken out of context — but not before the Internet masses feasted upon the supposed “gaffe.”

It is this misrepresentation of fact that affects all of us who hope to gain credible knowledge from the Internet. Unfortunately, as authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel note in Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload, it’s up to us as content consumers to be skeptical of all we encounter.

Kovach and Rosenstiel offer six questions to consider when hearing or reading information:

  • What kind of content am I encountering?
  • Is the information complete, and if not, what is missing?
  • Who or what are the sources, and why should I believe them?
  • What evidence is presented, and how was it tested or vetted?
  • What might be an alternative explanation or understanding?
  • Am I learning what I need to?

The technological explosion brought on by the Internet has democratized the ability to consume and create information. It has expanded our minds and empowers us to take action.

But it has also required us to become more discerning, skeptical consumers.

The Egyptian revolution: Exposing the weaknesses of media punditry

Egyptian flagThe protesting masses in Egypt exposed another worldwide problem: the 24-7 idiocy of instant punditry.

You’d think an exposé showcasing problems with self-proclaimed “experts” would create a more skeptical media. But some outlets, desperate for instantaneous analysis, lured commentators to the airwaves who offered little more than uninformed opinions about what was happening in Egypt.

While MSNBC and CNN flailed about, Al Jazeera English proved itself a credible news medium, providing on-the-ground coverage in the early days like few other outlets.

Long-form journalism also offered nuance and subtlety. The New York Times chronicled the changes in an ever-expanding photo gallery. The Christian Science Monitor, known for its stable of correspondents and writers abroad, revealed the violence some faced while covering the clashes — through the eyes of its own journalists.

For deep analysis, Terry Gross, host of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” regularly finds authors and researchers who truly know and understand their topics. As the Egyptian crowds grew, Gross interviewed two authors who offered some of the most insightful analysis of what was happening:

  • Thanassis Cambanis, a longtime Middle East correspondent and author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel, who walked listeners through the history  leading up to the Egyptian revolution.
  • Lawrence Wright, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Looming Tower, who explained the roots of the Muslim Brotherhood, an activist group banned (but active) in Egypt.

The explosion of news sources gives us a wealth of information at our fingertips. But it’s up to us to find the gold among the pennies.

Note to Mashable: Online polls are garbage

Mashable offers some of the smartest online commentary and how-tos about social media on the Web.

Except for its online polls.

As statisticians know, most open-community online polls are garbage. You cannot generate a reliable sample for generalizing, and the results basically mean nothing.

Take Mashable’s latest declaration: “Nexus One crushes the iPhone 3GS in reader vote.” It posted an online poll in its Web Faceoff asking, “Who would win in a fight: Nexus One or iPhone 3GS?”

A few of the problems with this poll:

  • There is no control over the sample. Anyone with a computer and online access could click on the survey. For a poll to be statistically valid, the sample has to come from a population of users. It should not be self-selected; the researchers should randomly select people from the population to participate in the survey. As a result, this poll is subject to manipulation.
  • We don’t know who is answering the poll. Yes, 10,000 users responded to the poll. But who are they? Have they actually used both phones? Do they know the difference among all the models? And which sites referred the most users to this poll?
  • The question is vague. What does the poll question mean? Do users think Nexus One will outsell the iPhone? That it offers better apps? That it is easier to use? That it costs less? We don’t know because users could interpret “fight” a hundred different ways.

As Robert Niles has noted, open-community online polls are great for engaging your users and sparking conversation. But it is inappropriate and misleading to report the results as “news.”

OMG! Covering the personal failings of giants

Peter Orszag (courtesy of America.gov)

My first reaction to the NYT piece about the romantic maneuverings of Obama budget guru Peter Orszag was an audible gag.

Even in the piece itself, writer Mark Leibovich revealed a touch of nausea at having to write about the subject (boldface mine):

“Everyone feels the need to say, ‘I’m really sorry I have to ask you about this’ and ‘I’m only carrying out orders from my boss,’ ” Mr. [Kenneth] Baer [of the Office of Management and Budget] said. (For the record: this reporter was only acting on orders from his boss.) And, of course, the Very Serious Media are not writing the Orszag Love-Child Story, they are merely writing about the media frenzy surrounding it.

To Leibovich’s credit, he explores the idea of whether reporters should actually cover these under-the-sheets exploits. I believe it is journalistically valid to ask whether such a web of emotional involvement (two children with an ex-wife, a newborn with an ex-girlfriend, and a new fiancee) affects Orszag’s decision-making.

Unfortunately, most of the piece documents Orszag’s celebrity. The more I read, the more I wondered whether such a story would have been written about the less fair among us (especially since it was filed under the Fashion & Style section). What if Orszag were not a dashing 41-year-old? If he were not dating an attractive ABC reporter a decade younger than himself?

It reminded me of the torrent of Tiger Woods stories after revelations about his love life. Perhaps it is seeing the flaws in these giants that makes us feel better about ourselves.

I had to admit to myself that the headline — “If Peter Orszag is so smart, what will he do now?” — was the first I clicked on this morning, in part because of the picture of the handsome couple. I’ve listened to Orszag in many an interview and heard his praises sung by many. Perhaps it was morbid curiosity. Perhaps it was my own desire to see the celebrity flaw.

Perhaps it was intellectual laziness, going for the easy story rather than complex pieces about the bank crisis, Yemen, or  the mistreatment of immigrants in federal prisons.

When I finally clicked on Nina Bernstein’s investigative prison piece, I realized I had become the lazy public, favoring tales of individual failures over stories of systemic woes.

Unfortunately, it is also easier for journalists to cover the individual than the system. Why expend the effort for something far fewer will read or watch?

In the end, we will all get what we click for.

Most-admired woman? Or best brand?

As a researcher, I do believe surveys are valuable, important tools for understanding public sentiment.

But polls have become one of the most abused items in today’s society, to the point that some outlets even ask clueless people about who they think perpetrated a crime. If there is a number available, we believe the statistic is sacrosanct.

It’s even more worrisome when credible names such as USA Today and Gallup tout the answer to an open-ended question as what Americans believe.

In a poll taken Dec. 11-13, questioners asked (among several other questions):

  • What woman living today do you admire most?
  • What man living today do you admire most?

And the winners:

  • Woman: Hillary Clinton (16%), Sarah Palin (15%), Oprah Winfrey (8%), Michelle Obama (7%)
  • Man: Barack Obama (30%), George W. Bush (4%), Nelson Mandela (3%), Glenn Beck (2%)

Wow! Clinton and Palin are neck and neck! And Glenn Beck is almost as admired as Nelson Mandela!

The problem with stories about the poll is that they focus on the results with little questioning about how people might approach this question. USA Today does acknowledge that “name recall” plays a role, but that phrase doesn’t come until the sixth paragraph, well after the lead proclaiming:

President Obama is the man Americans admired most in 2009, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds, while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin are virtually tied as the most-admired woman.

What would be helpful is to consider the fact that Oprah Winfrey and Glenn Beck are among the most-watched people on television. And the week the poll was taken, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin were the top newsmakers among media outlets, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

I am sure many of the 1,025 people polled honestly admire the people they named. But think about the times you’ve been polled. How often do you just say what comes off the top of your head? And is it possible for someone to admire both Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton?

You also have to consider the margin of error of +/- 4 percentage points. That means Clinton and Palin could be as low as 12%, and Oprah could be as high as 12%. I can see a new narrative forming: A virtual three-way tie for most-admired woman! Oprah should run for president!

The worrisome issue is that some pundits try to tease out scenarios from this seemingly simple question. The savvy Andrew Malcolm at the Los Angeles Times notes the margin of error and adds this troubling insight:

Are American voters dropping a hint here?

According to a new survey just released by USA Today and the Gallup Poll, the 62-year-old Clinton barely beat out the 45-year-old Palin as the most admired female — 16% to 15% in a poll of 1,025 adult Americans.

However, because the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, it’s statistically a P-C draw. The survey was …

… open-ended, meaning men and women respondents had to provide the names by themselves.

Not that public admiration necessarily translates to votes. But the results have to set off any political spectator’s eager imagination about a future presidential ballot match-up between the pair who, though politically polar opposites, are both outspoken, both often underestimated and both beloved by their respective bases. (Emphasis added)

Folks, it’s one poll. One question. One group of people. Let’s be careful before extrapolating it to the entire populace as what America believes.