The first defense is our innate common sense. We all have developed an internal “BS meter” of sorts, largely based on education and experience, for dealing with many of the daily elements of life—including older kinds of media, from the traditional news world. We need to bring to digital media the same kinds of analysis we learned in a less complex time when there were only a few primary sources of information.
We know, for example, that the tabloid newspaper next to the checkout stand at the supermarket is suspect. We have come to learn that the tabloid’s front-page headline about Barack Obama’s alien love child via a Martian mate is almost certainly false, despite the fact that the publication sells millions of copies each week. We know that popularity in the traditional media world is not a proxy for quality.
When we venture outside the supermarket and pump some quarters into the vending machine that holds today’s New York Times or Wall Street Journal, we have a different expectation. Although we know that not everything in the Times or Journal news pages is true, we have good reason to trust what they report far more than we mistrust it.
Online, any website can look as professional as any other (another obviously flawed metric for quality). And any person in a conversation can sound as authentic or authoritative as any other. This creates obvious challenges—and problems if people are too credulous.
Part of our development as human beings is the cultivation of a “BS meter”—an understanding of when we’re seeing or hearing nonsense and when we’re hearing the truth, or something that we have reason to credit as credible. We might call it, then, a “credibility scale” instead of a BS meter. Either way, I imagine it ranging, say, from plus 30 to minus 30, as in the figure below. Using that scale, a news article in the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal might start out in strongly positive territory, perhaps at 26 or 27 on the scale. (I can think of very few journalists who start at 30 on any topic.)
Now consider a credibility rating of zero. Sometimes I tell myself I have no reason to believe or disbelieve what I’m hearing, so I either discount it and move on, or resolve to check further. This says nothing about the material beyond an absence of information about and/or experience with the creator.
On my mental scale, it’s entirely possible for someone to have negative credibility—sometimes deeply negative. For example, an anonymous comment on a random blog starts off in negative territory. If the comment is an anonymous attack on someone else, it’s so far in the hole as to be essentially irredeemable—say, minus 26 or 27. Why on earth should we believe an attack by someone who’s unwilling to stand behind his or her own words? In most cases, the answer is that we should not. The anonymous commenter—whether on a random blog or a traditional news site — would have to work hard even to achieve zero credibility, much less move into positive territory. (More on that below.)
Conversely, someone who uses his or her real name, and is verifiably that person, earns positive credibility from the start, though not as much as someone who’s known to be an expert in a particular domain. A singular innovation at Amazon.com is the “Real Name” designation on reviews or books and other products; Amazon can verify the identity because it has the user’s credit card information, a major advantage for that company.
Almost invariably, people who use their real names in these reviews are more credible than those who use pseudonyms. Not always, however: Andrew Breitbart did not hide when he “broke” the Shirley Sherrod story, as described in the Introduction. Still, his name was a warning signal to immediately put the story deep in negative territory on the credibility meter; the self-described provocateur’s record for deception and inaccuracy was already well established. And the story turned out to be the reverse of the truth.
We can carry skepticism too far. Some people develop such deep distrust of some media that they reject all that they report and, conversely, believe whatever comes from media they see as offering the opposite view. For example, some on the political right reject anything the New York Times reports and uncritically believe anything offered by Fox News; and some on the political left reject anything reported in The Weekly Standard and uncritically believe anything they read at Daily Kos.
It’s a mistake to give uncritical acceptance to any source—this can make people vulnerable to manipulation by untrustworthy people who appear to share their political perspectives. Many of the emails that bounce around the Internet—likely including the fiction about Oliver North and Al Gore, set in the Iran-Contra hearings, that opened Chapter 1—fall into this category, and they can come from the right or the left.