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.

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