29 December 2014

Not a source of information

I've been meaning for some time to write about an important form of informational hygiene one must practice when reading things on the Web: learning to recognize untrustworthy sources. There are websites that I file in my mind as Not A Source Of Information because I once saw an article on that site that was false or deceptive.

Yes, just one bogus article disqualified the source. On the face of it, that seems a little unfair. One is tempted to say that sure, maybe that article was bad, but one should evaluate each article on its own merits. But that's a serious mistake. You don't have time to properly vet everything you read. You have to rely on the trustworthiness of your sources. If the source is either deceitful enough to deliberately serve up BS or sloppy enough to do it accidentally, then everything offered by that source is suspect.

You may say, “Well, even if I cannot trust that source, this article is interesting, and might be worth following up.” But one must be wary even of that. Something one follows up from an untrusted source is research starting not from a useful clue but from zero; it doesn't become a real lead until you find something from a trustworthy source ... in which case you should link the trustworthy source rather than imply that an untrustworthy source is credible by linking it.

If you take “reported lots of places” as a positive indicator you'll end up believing BS re-reported by lots of BS sources and accept “Elvis' UFO alien love child” stuff eventually. We live in an environment conducive to the spread of BS, where deceiving us has become an industrial process. (That last link is possibly my favorite thing on the internet: it makes clear how smart, motivated people with lots of time and resources are out there working hard to confuse you.)

So good hygiene is important.

RationalWiki maintains a pretty good index of websites with credibility questions examining their credibility. Here's my own little index, which I hope to build out over time. Links, where I have them, lead to demonstrations of why the site is not credible.

These sites purport to publish news, but they are sources of BS:

Here's a list of untrustworthy sites commonly shared by lefties like me, taken from another blogger's site:

  • Occupy Democrats
  • Bipartisan Report
  • Winning Democrats
  • PoliticusUSA
  • Blue Nation Review
  • IfYouOnlyNews
  • USUncut
  • The Freethought Project
  • Addicting Info
  • LiberalAmerica
  • Newslo
  • Politicalo
  • (almost anything that ends on lo; these sites specialize in taking accurate statements from politicians and then adding false quotes to them that are much worse than what they actually said)
  • DailyNewsBin
  • American News X
  • Being Liberal
  • The Other 98%

It turns out we need a section just for health-related pseudoscience:

These sites are aggregators which take no responsibility for the sources they republish:

  • Huffington Post
  • Forbes
  • Business Insider

These sites are publishing platforms which take no responsibility for the people who publish on them:

  • dKos diaries

A friend points out that we have a proliferation of parodic fake-news sites in the style of The Onion, some of which are so deadpan that their less clever efforts are sometimes mistaken for real news:

Special mention: Cracked is a humor site which often reports on facts with the addition of joking commentary. I like Cracked a lot, but their fact checking cannot be trusted.

Note also that it's important to distinguish reporting of fact from commentary. On this blog I have several posts linking to dKos diary entries with analysis about politics which I have found instructive or at least interesting. But I would not trust dKos with news; if a credible-looking news item shows up there, I confirm it elsewhere before taking it seriously.

Update: Other indices of bogus sources: 1 2

Update: Discussion over on Facebook brings up the trickiness of the comparison to more respectable news media. On points of fact, the mainstream media are not as bad as most of the sources I've pointed to here, but their failings can be severe.

The New York Times provided very misleading reporting in the run-up to the Iraq war, often acts as apologist for US government interests, and has expressed some bizarre ideas about their responsibility to report the truth. A friend offers an example of the kind of misleading reporting he has seen at the UK Guardian. And the Wall Street Journal trades on its deserved good reputation for journalism to lend credence to lies and deceit on the editorial page.


Ron said...

Note that the RationalWiki link you give is not to a list of articles with credibility questions, but simply to a list of websites that are represented by articles in the wiki for any reason.