Read outside the lines

My Holiday Gift to You:

How to Filter Digital Media Content

I love digital media. As one who makes a living helping financial institutions marshal their marketing power, I’d be a fool not to.

Even so, digital media are a mixed blessing. They put mass audiences, once the exclusive province of the moneyed, within the reach of all. But like any pipeline, they care nothing about what flows through them. They deliver trash as readily as treasure.

This places the responsibility for sorting through the dump on the shoulders of individuals at the receiving end. Sadly, it is a responsibility that many neglect. Which is how bogus tales catch fire and spread.

Recent examples of fakes include a story about sending rude messages on napkins to a whiner on an airplane, one about an insulting message left on a check for a server, and tales of insensitive quotes from the celebrity or politician of your choice.

Some fast-spreading fakes may be harmless, but not all. As I write, digital media are spreading nonsensical anti-vaccination hysteria that kills children. Get-rich-quick schemes are depleting people’s life savings. False accusations are costing innocent people their jobs, marriages, and community standing. Bogus medical treatments are keeping seriously ill people from seeking appropriate care. Once limited to small, word-of-mouth circles, these and other instances of harmful misinformation now spread virally and cause real harm.

Who knows? The next bogus story to go viral might just be about your financial institution.

When trusted friends or generally reliable news sources post a story, how do we know what to pass along and what not to? As my holiday gift to you, here are three tips: 

1. Focus on the journalist, not the journal. With shrinking budgets, even many respected journals can no longer afford the kind of fact-checking that was once de rigeur. But over time you may identify individual writers who are more conscientious than others about checking their facts.

2. Use fact-checking resources. With a quick visit to sites like Snopes.com or FactCheck.org, you can confirm or debunk much of what you encounter in digital media. Both sites do a good job of sticking to facts and avoiding ideological biases.

3. Learn to spot logical fallacies. We are all prey to logical fallacies, that is, reasoning that appears to make sense but under scrutiny does not. A working knowledge of them can provide a shortcut to not being taken in. Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab offers a great introduction to logical fallacies.

Please share these tips liberally. Together, we might just reduce the amount of nonsense in circulation. And maybe even prevent a bit of harm.

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