UN Photo/JO Former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld
“One of the lasting experiences from the last months and weeks is that, with our so called rising civilization, we do in no way see a decline in the art of lying. The modern media of communication, the modern entanglement of interests all over the world, have opened the door to a paradise for those who fight with words representing mala fide assumptions, false presentations, invidious comments, outright slander—and so on. If I were Hieronymus Bosch, I could paint a beautiful triptych in the colors of Hell and in celebration of this new great Harlot. But why be bitter.”
— Dag Hammarskjöld, second secretary-general of the United Nations (1953-61); in a private letter
Resources to Be Well-Informed
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 21:
“(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
“(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
“(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
With these rights, however, comes the responsibility to base that participation on accurate information—something that often seems all but impossible.
As Stanford University Professor of Education Sam Wineburg wrote:
“What once fell on the shoulders of publishers, editors, librarians and subject matter experts now falls on the shoulders of anyone who encounters the world via a screen. In this digital Wild West, the ability to evaluate information is to informed citizenship what clean air is to public health. As journalist and scholar John McManus reminds us, in a democracy, the misinformed hold just as much power in the ballot box as the well-informed.”
The Internet has provided a powerful tool for allowing ordinary people to express and disseminate their views without censorship by entrenched interests. In the process, it’s also created a universe of self-perpetuating echo chambers and clever manipulation, in which it’s often very difficult to verify the reality behind the latest horrifying tale or outraged call to action.
With “fake news” and “alternative facts” in the headlines, as well as millions of readers being taken in by made-up stories posted purely as clickbait by teen hackers seeking quick ad revenue, it’s essential to develop skills to evaluate information that’s being presented to you. Because, consciously or unconsciously, it’s being presented to manipulate you in some fashion, to make you go along with the presenter’s agenda. The more upsetting and “actionable” you find a particular story or internet meme, the more likely it’s been very carefully crafted to produce that very reaction — for reasons that could be very different from the concerns that drive you. The more inflammatory the headline, the more it’s meant to provoke a knee-jerk reaction (whether clicking to feed someone’s ad revenue stream, sending a donation, buying a product, or forwarding the item to all your social-network friends with words of outrage on the side) and discourage thoughtful consideration.
And then there’s plain old falsehood, repeated often in hopes of turning it into the truth.
Last year, in our Resources for Informed Voters (updated below), we offered some helpful resources for fact-checking information—especially when it’s obviously meant to infuriate you or reinforce your beliefs. But the problems are even more complex.
This page will serve as an archive of resources for sifting through the avalanche of warring “information” besieging us all, and make it easier to frame issues we care about in ways that invite solutions.
(See also: Before You Act, Do This and Resources for Speaking Up)
FactCheck.org: A nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. FactCheck monitors the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. Its goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding. FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. The APPC was established by publisher and philanthropist Walter Annenberg to create a community of scholars within the University of Pennsylvania that would address public policy issues at the local, state and federal levels.
Snopes.com: There’s a lot of wacky stuff on the Internet. Some of it even comes from the mouths of politicians, their supporters, or their enemies. Find out if it’s true, false, or a mix of both.
PolitiFact: Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking website that rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others who speak up in American politics. PolitiFact is run by editors and reporters from the Tampa Bay Times, an independent newspaper in Florida, as is PunditFact, a site devoted to fact-checking pundits. Find out which politicians and pundits are telling the truth, which ones are stretching it, and which ones are making statements PolitiFact rates Pants on Fire.
Washington Post Fact Checker: The purpose of this Web site, and an accompanying column in the Sunday print edition of The Washington Post, is to “truth squad” the statements of political figures regarding issues of great importance, be they national, international or local. As a presidential election approaches, it will increasingly focus on statements made in the heat of the presidential contest. But it will not be limited to political charges or countercharges. It will seek to explain difficult issues, provide missing context and provide analysis and explanation of various “code words” used by politicians, diplomats and others to obscure or shade the truth.
15 News Organizations Worthy of Respect: “Popular culture has become so attuned to repeated and regurgitated analysis, interpretation and opinion passing as news that we don’t stop to distinguish the reality behind the bloviation any longer. Here are 15 sources, which have earned their respectable reputations through investigative reporting and the maintenance of high journalistic standards of integrity.”
Articles on Related Issues and Practical Tools for Teachers and Community Members
Propaganda Critic: A website resource with tools, guides, and exercises for understanding, identifying, and deciphering propaganda in the internet age.
Student Loan Lenders Created Fake Person: Profanity-laced but important article on how news outlets uncritically relay unvetted, often false information.
5 Ways to Spot Fake News: Common Sense Media’s short video helps parents and adults deal with a plague of manipulative disinformation.
How Fiction Becomes Fact on Social Media: New York Times article on the complex issues underlying “fake news,” misinformation, and deliberate deception online.
A Guide to Rating the Reality of News: Is it “real news” or “fake news”? San Francisco Chronicle‘s John Diaz on tools for evaluating what you read and hear.
News and America’s Kids: Common Sense Media on where kids and teens get their news, how they feel about it, and how social media have changed the landscape.
How to Train America’s Brain Against Weaponized Fake News: In this Newsweek essay, Daniel Levitin says: “The most important component of the best critical thinking that is lacking in our society today is humility. It is a simple yet profound notion: If we realize we don’t know everything, we can learn. If we think we know everything, learning is impossible.”
4 Steps Schools Need to Take to Combat Fake News: Stanford University Professor of Education Sam Wineburg says, “We must avoid teaching students that the web is about binaries ― ‘fake’ versus ‘real,’ ‘hoaxes’ versus ‘non-hoax.’ Instead, let’s teach them to ask probing questions about where all information comes from. Neither the website of the American Academy of Pediatrics nor that of the American College of Pediatricians is a hoax. Yet, one conveys scientific research about the likelihood of LGBTQ children being bullied in school, while the other downplays the issue, providing links to groups that urge reparative therapy for gay youth.”
Fake News’ Power to Influence Shrinks With a Contextual Warning “Research conducted by social psychologists at Cambridge University in the UK, and Yale and George Mason in the US, offers a potential strategy for mitigating the spread of misinformation online — involving the use of pro-active warnings designed to contextualize and pre-expose web users to related but fake information in order to debunk factual distortion in advance.”
How the Left Lost Its Mind Atlantic article analyzes the Internet landscape, focusing on the left side of the aisle but elucidating how fakery and propaganda drive out facts and truth on the net. “Polemicists, conspiracists, and outright fabulists are feeding an alternative media landscape—where the implausibility of a claim is no bar to its acceptance.”
Resources for Informed Voters
As we enter an election season filled with name-calling, rumor-mongering, and just plain lies, it can be hard to find accurate information about the issues and candidates amid all the Internet memes. These nonpartisan sites and organizations can help you make sure you’re registered, then navigate through the noise and draw your own conclusions so you’ll be able to vote your convictions come November.
Registration and Voter Info
United States Election Assistance Commission: EAC maintains the National Mail Voter Registration Form, which voters can use to register to vote and update their registration information. The form is available in seven languages. EAC also provides voter guides in 11 languages and a variety of links to helpful resources for voters relating to registration, military and overseas voting, accessibility, and volunteering as a poll worker.
National Association of Secretaries of State maintains a website that provides up to date information, by state, on how to: Register to Vote, Voter Registration Status, Find Your Polling Place, Valid Forms of ID, Absentee and Early Voting, Overseas Voters, Election Officials Directory, Become a Poll Worker.
Vote411.org: The League of Women Voters provides information on your ballot issues, searchable by state keyword.
HeadCount: Nonpartisan organization registers voters at concerts, and also online where available.
RocktheVote: “Building political power for young people.” Offers online registration. Also provides information on national, state, and local candidates and issues.
RespectMyVote: Respect My Vote! is a non-partisan campaign created and presented by the national, non-profit HIP HOP CAUCUS.
BallotReady.org: Unbiased information on candidates and ballot measures in your area, searchable by address. “Every candidate and referendum, explained.”
IWillVote.com: Provides info on where to vote, what you need, etc. (Sponsored by the Democratic Party, but provides unbiased public information.)
Exploring the Ballot and Understanding Parties
KQED’s What’s the Point of Political Party Platforms? Provides an explainer on the what and why of political party platforms. “…if you want to cut through some of the election spin and get an idea of what each political party ‘officially’ stands for, party platforms are a good place to start.” Read or listen to this article to learn more.
Artist YelloPain’s song, “My Vote Dont Count ?” gives a comprehensive overview of why it’s important to vote up and down the ballot for local, state, and national offices and initiatives—and how the process of democratic governance works.
Challenges in 2020
ACLU’s guide to understanding what voter suppression looks like in 2020 covers: Voter ID laws, an interactive map showing changes to voter ID restrictions, voter registration restrictions, voter purges, felony disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, and what you can do to protect the vote!