Sunday, October 25, 2020

Election Media Literacy Reminder

The US is set to vote for a potentially new President, along with a number of down ballot contests and initiatives, all the way to the local level. The election is really underway already, as large numbers of Americans have cast their votes either in person or via mail in ballots. As any of us might remember from elections past over the course of this still-young century, all it takes is one outrageous headline to essentially "blow up" in order to alter the trajectory of an election. 

With that in mind, my advice is actually pretty simple. Stick to relatively mainstream sources. If you can subscribe to what is essentially a national newspaper (e.g., Washington Post, New York Times), do so. If you can't and are at a workplace or educational institution that has access to these sources, take advantage. Find at least one mainstream international news source that has some mainstream credibility. I rely a lot on The Guardian, which is a UK based independent news source. I also recommend bookmarking news aggregators like Memeorandum or use aggregator apps like Google News. Beyond that, try to read sources that are reputable but have varying editorial slants. CNN is pretty much middle of the road. Washington Post is likewise, although its columnists will run the gamut from neoconservative to rather liberal. My own bias is to avoid most of the columnists, unless I have grown familiar with their work and I trust them (whether or not I am likely to agree with their conclusions is another matter). Have at least one financial news source in your bookmarks. Forbes works for me. It's slant is somewhat conservative, but it is reliable. Pressed for time? I find Axios worth bookmarking. Its articles are brief, no-nonsense, and cut to the chase. Ultimately, the idea is to have a mix of sources that vary somewhat in editorial slant so that you are not in a bubble (or what we used to call 20 years ago, an echo chamber). 

I can't emphasize enough sticking to mainstream sources. My reasoning again is fairly simple. A source like Washington Post, Axios, or CNN vet articles for reliability before publishing. If the claims made in an article can't be verified, the story typically doesn't run. That vetting process is far from perfect, but it usually works. Their stock in trade is reliability, after all. The other thing that seems more like a corollary is that mainstream sites are highly unlikely to sensationalize. Yes, news sources want you to read them and view their videos, or find their YouTube channel. But, they also want readers or viewers to stick around for the long haul. There may be a subset of an audience that can be taken in by the latest sensationalized headline (another story for another time), but most of us are going to tune out if we are unable to trust the news site to provide accurate information. I stick to sources I can trust. Bottom line to me is that if a source is unfamiliar, I think twice before clicking a link. If the headline seems too outrageous, I think twice. So should you.

A personal anecdote might help. In early 2017, not long after the 2016 election had come and gone, and Trump had become President, I noticed a site called Axios appear on my aggregators constantly. I'd never heard of it before. Needless to say, I was highly suspicious. However, I noticed the headlines seemed fairly neutral, and the stories appeared to be well-vetted, and tracked pretty well with the rest of the mainstream. When I'm pressed for time, it's become one of my go-to news sites. But I was definitely skeptical at first.

Finally, there is little doubt that for those getting their news from social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, the algorithms are just simply jacked, for a lack of a better way of phrasing it. Sites that really are not reputable tend to end up getting their headlines to trend easily. Whether or not we wish to accept that alleged news sites that trade in sensationalism, clickbait, and outright conspiracy theories are simply "more engaging" to social media users, and that is merely a marketplace of ideas scenario I will leave to your discretion. My recommendation is that this would probably be a good time to tune out from social media for a few weeks. Log off Facebook. Log off Twitter. You get the idea. Bots, whether or domestic or foreign, are boosting and in the process mainstreaming content that is detrimental to a functional democratic process, sowing division and doubt in the process. My best guess is the next few days and weeks will get really ugly really fast, and stay that way until we have a clear picture of the final vote count. I wish that were not the case, but here we are. 

Be careful.

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