The News Is a Liability – How to Be Informed in 2019

How easy it is to make people believe a lie, and [how] hard it is to undo that work again!” –Mark Twain

Only thirty years ago, it was normal to go for hours or days without being exposed to breaking news. One time in the early 90s I went on a week-long hike in the Andes. I remember that when I came back I was curious about what might have happened in the world while I was gone. I did not know it at the, but I would never experience this feeling again.

Now, every time I check my phone I find a story that a person I trust believes is newsworthy. Most often this comes accompanied with an emotional reaction, and an implicit assertion that the story is true. Here’s an example, a tweet mentioning Taylor Swift’s dispute with a music label:

By her account, Taylor Swift has been wronged by unscrupulous businessmen. She is urging her fan base to help her fight injustice. It is a very good story, and well told. I want to believe it.

I immediately resort to my usual modus operandi: if I care enough about something (it could be a military coup in Latin America instead of the tribulations of Tay, it does not matter), I do my own research. A few minutes and keystrokes later, I have a different opinion. The situation is a mess, and you could argue either side of the dispute. If I were selected as a civil juror for a potential court case, I would be able to reserve my judgement until seeing all the evidence. I have little doubt that both lawyers would be able to make a compelling case for their clients.

The ease with which anyone on the internet can manipulate my feelings has made me cynical. I do not want to help information spread unless I have made an effort to:

  1. verify that it has a reasonable chance to be true.
  2. convince myself that this information is useful signal in an extremely noisy world (I know this is subjective, but still better than not considering the issue at all).

I believe the world would be less noisy if everyone tried to apply similar principles. Wouldn’t you agree?

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