Misinformation in the Media: How to tell what's Legitimate and what's not?

In out latest Survival Guide to Authoritarianism video, we ask you to help by always pointing out the truth and exposing ignorance with facts, because if nobody fights the blatant lies authoritarians put forward, they will win.

Awesome, some of you may say. But how on Earth am I supposed to do that? And even if I had the expertise, who on Earth has time to do that? After all, an investigative journalist is paid to spend hours checking and double checking, but nobody's paying me to do the same!

Here's a piece of good news for you. Most lies, half-lies, misinformation and disinformation are not really hard to detect. You just need to know a few techniques.

First and foremost, search to see how any fishy sounding statement is reported on legitimate news sites. Do they challenge the statement? Are they unified in challenging the statement? If not, do they offer evidence to support their take on the issue? Is that evidence legitimate?

Yes, I know. How do you know which news sites are legitimate and what makes an piece of evidence legitimate?

When it comes to news sites, check who they really are. Established big European media sites are generally reliable. You can safely turn to the BBC, Deutsche Welle or France 24 if you are unsure whether your favourite authoritarian has been lying or misrepresenting the truth. However, there are some big news sites that are very active in Europe you may want to avoid, like Russia Today or Sputnik, which tend to spread misinformation and paint authoritarians in a positive light.

When it comes to smaller outlets, check their URL. When they end in extensions like ".infonet" rather than for example, ".co.uk", or they look very much like an established website but their URL has some extra letters (for example, ww.bbc.co.uk.co or www.thebcc.co.uk), chances are that they are not legit sources and you may need to look for another source to check on authoritarian claims.

Bias is a fact of life

If the URL looks fine, you may want to check who is behind the information (ours is here). Be aware that trust should not be a yes or no matter. Not in everyday life, and not when trying to figure out whether a statement is true or false. All of us have limits and biases. I, for example, have a very strong bias toward a certain kind of ice cream. You better not ask my opinion whether the one you like is good enough. I am sure to say no. But when it comes to running gear, I don't really have an agenda, and since I run quite a lot, if you ask me about the pros and cons of a certain type of running socks, I'm more than likely to give you an unbiased answer.

Sources and references

Also, keep in mind that legitimate sources tend to refer to and include hyperlinks to research or other sources while the not-so-reputable outlets usually don't mention their sources. Reputable sites also go into detail on their data samples, while fake news outlets are well known for referring to out of date information as if it were still valid and for presenting surveys with a few dozen responses as being representative of the views of a whole country. Legitimate resources also ask known experts (or people that work for well-known research institutes or universities) to give their views on the subject matter, while disreputable ones ask self-proclaimed "experts" or do not even say where their expert views come from.

Populists undermine public trust

Experience tells me that on Wednesday morning I will find at least 10 comments under the newest Survival Guide episode informing our audience on social media that the EU is the real authoritarian, that it is the mainstream media that is spreading propaganda, lies and misinformation, and that whoever made the video must be a Soros mercenary. This is sad, but in a way not really surprising. Smug dictators understand very clearly that the only way they can get away with their blatant lies is to undermine trust in anyone who criticises them, especially the EU, mainstream media, and human rights NGOs. So they demonise their critics. And some people buy it. It gives them an easy explanation for many of the disturbing issues they face in life, and it provides them with meaning and comfort. You cannot really change their belief systems. The emotional stakes are too high, they will never admit that their leaders are lying to them.

But remember, most of your fellow citizens do not believe that your neighbourhood authoritarian is a fountain of truth. You can still tell them about disinformation and lies, you can still (respectfully) tell them if they are (ignorantly) spreading them on social media and direct them to legitimate sources. Do that. Democracy needs you.

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