This is an English translation of an earlier post.
Imagine, for a moment, turning on the TV. You see a news segment announcing that “Isaw (a popular Filipino street food) boosts IQ by 100%, ‘scientists’ say”.
“How can it be?” you think to yourself. You’ve eaten a bajillion isaw sticks in your university days and it didn’t help you pass Math 17! Plus, why is the word ‘scientists’ in quotation marks? Is this news really true?
Chances are, maybe you’ll look up “isaw high IQ” on Google. Maybe you’ll ask a friend on Viber if he’s heard of it. Maybe you’ll check if other news stations or newspapers have carried the article, to see if they’ve said the same thing.
Now, imagine – what happens if there are no other sources of news out there?
What I’ve just described is a rather poor metaphor for what I felt upon hearing the Philippine congress’ decision to reject the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN, the country’s largest broadcast network on Friday.
The biggest loss, in my view, is the information void left by shutting down the network. More than 90% of Filipinos get their news from TV and ABS-CBN had the widest reach throughout the country. Who do those Filipinos, especially in rural areas, turn to for updates (especially critical now that we’re in the midst of a pandemic) now that one of the biggest sources is gone? Facebook groups? Kapitbahay? (Neighbours?)
Sadly, during this whole controversy I have observed from interactions with friends and some relatives on social media and elsewhere that, too often, opinions are taken wholesale from one source (or worse, an unsubstantiated Facebook post by some random stranger masquerading opinions as truth), without regard for fact-checking the arguments presented.
It’s the Wild West of disinformation out there, especially on the internet. And now the country’s media landscape has lost a key player that – while imperfect – at least had a track record spanning decades and recognition from local and international organisations for its reporting.
“Civilized society is a working system of ideas. It lives and changes by the consumption of ideas. Therefore, it must make sure that as many as possible of the ideas which its members have are available for its examination.”Commission on Freedom of the Press, “A Free and Responsible Press”
Now, I don’t intend to go through the arguments of why our lawmakers closed that network. That’s not the purpose of this post.
But in the face of what’s happening in the country today, I would like to present a Toolkit for Healthy Skepticism to Guard Against Bullsh*t in the News (a.k.a. Toolkit Laban sa Katangahan), based broadly on Carl Sagan’s baloney detection kit, resources from Singapore’s National Library Board & the News Literacy Project, and the scientific method.
Remember the scientific method? We all slogged through it in high school. The key point is this: when presented with new ideas, we should not accept it immediately. We should treat it with skepticism. We ask questions, gather information, and make our own assessment based on the information we’ve gathered.
Going back to the isaw headline – if you decided to search for the story on Google, ask a friend, or check out other sources – congratulations! That was the first step!
But what questions should we ask? I would recommend starting with the NLB’s S.U.R.E. framework:
1) Source – Where did the content originate from? How credible is the publisher?
A quick scan of Facebook pages, news websites and groups, where a lot of Filipinos get our daily source of news, easily yields biased sources of reporting. Some are fairly easy to spot, but others aren’t.
Red flags include no “About” section, no byline (an author’s name) attached to the piece, news articles that have no date, and a “Contact us” section that does not match the domain (e.g. a Gmail or Yahoo e-mail address).
2) Understand – Search for clarity in what you’re reading. Does the article make sense? Does it trigger strong emotions? Do offers sound too good to be true?
“Agot niresbakan ang kampo ni Jinkee!” Does the headline make you upset? Angry at Agot? Fight through that knee-jerk reaction and pause for a minute. A lot of headlines use sensational language to bait you into clicking the link or sharing it to your friends. Take the time to read through the article and understand if it makes sense. Sometimes, the stories don’t even have anything to do with the headline!
3) Research – Go beyond the initial source. Has it been published elsewhere before? Check the publish date. When was the photo taken? Real information can often be taken out of context.
Early on in March, a family friend shared a series of photos to me purportedly coming from Unicef with tips on how to fight the coronavirus. It had a Unicef logo, but immediate red flags included the clumsiness of the advice (it suggested staying away from ice cream and cold food, which did not sound science-based) and format of transmission (private chat). It took me less than 2 seconds to Google and find out directly from the Unicef official website that it was fake.
There are websites like Snopes who’ve been out there doing the hard fact-checking work for us since the 1990s. All it takes is a few more clicks to double-check before we share.
As for information being taken out of context, a recent example is this one of Prince William flipping someone off. Or is he?
Photos can be cropped or altered to serve certain agendas. Before we rage at Prince William, let’s first dig around and see if the images we see are credible.
4) Evaluate – Look at the story from various angles. Was it meant to be a joke (for example, satirical news websites such as The Onion or Adobo Chronicles)? Check your own biases and emotions. Are they affecting your judgement? Think before you share!
Maybe at this point, you’ve gone through the S.U.R.E. toolkit. But what if you realise the conclusion points against something you believe in?
As Carl Sagan once said, “The question is not whether we like the conclusion that emerges out of a train of reasoning, but whether the conclusion follows from the premise or starting point and whether that premise is true.” Let’s not get overly attached to an idea just because it’s ours.
Being S.U.R.E. is not easy. Believe me, I know! Skeptical thinking doesn’t sell. It takes some extra work.
But I believe in all of us. As one of my favourite childhood shows suggests, “Buksan ang pag-iisip, Tayo’y likas na scientist!” (Open your mind, we are natural scientists!)
Now more than ever — think critically dear readers,