Media Literacy: Some things you can do to stay informed amid disinformation

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52 mins read
Photo by Peter Lawrence on Unsplash

We as Americans are subject to a disinformation war.

Some of this, of course, comes from the Russian government—the notorious “bots” (only partially true; bots are automated distribution of content generated by humans), provocateurs, and false-flag operations that work to poison social-media discourse.

But an exclusive focus on Russia overlooks things here at home that produce a less-informed populace. The right-wing propaganda machine is the obvious example; right-wing media has innovated for decades in ways to bamboozle its audience with disingenuous questions, false generalizations, and other forms of bullshit. And, of course, we have an increasingly politicized government, subject to Trump’s purges of people not willing to lie to or for him and works of the man himself that include weather maps altered with Sharpie.

OK, so just stick to “good” media and you’re fine, right? No; even “good” media, while sticking to truth, can still manipulate your attention and provide a drip-feed of outrage.

Outrage is junk food. It feels good; it’s “staying informed”, it’s “raising awareness”. But outrage without action is exhausting, so a drip-feed of outrage—that is, outrageous news stories that you can’t do anything about—will wear you down and make you feel hopeless.

We’re activists. We need to stay in the fight and not get worn down. We need to be well-informed, because well-informed activism is the most potent activism.

So, here are some practices you can adopt that will make you a more well-informed, less exhausted activist.

#1: Stop watching TV news

TV news tends toward “breaking news” (of which not all the facts are known), moment-to-moment coverage (lacking analysis and background), and outrage drips (rather than in-depth reporting on more substantive and/or actionable issues).

Illustration from “The Incredible Secret Money Machine,” 1977, by Don Lancaster. Modified by Indivisible SF member.
Illustration from “The Incredible Secret Money Machine,” 1977, by Don Lancaster. Modified by Indivisible SF member.

Cable TV news is especially bad, primarily because it so often conflates news reporting with commentary. (A particularly favored tactic on the right, but it’s also a lot of what MSNBC does, and to a lesser extent CNN.) Commentary both presents a particular point of view (often centrist, on cable TV) and often resorts to “what if” speculation. Remember Betteridge’s Law—if a claim is stated as a question, it’s because they don’t have the evidence to state it as a fact.

Another particularly bad source is “local” TV stations owned by Sinclair Media—which, at this point, is fair to call a propaganda outlet. Vox had a good explainer about Sinclair back in 2018, though we’ll note (see #8!) that the then-pending acquisition mentioned in the subheading got quashed.

We’re not going to go through all the bad sources that you should avoid—there are infinitely many—but we will give you one more suggestion: If you see Fox News on at the gym or the doctor’s office or something, consider asking them to change the channel. The staff may not want it on either, but someone else asked for it.

#2: Don’t substitute similar drip-feeds for TV news

Don’t follow TV news outlets on Twitter/Facebook. Same garbage, different package.

Be vigilant about whom you follow on social media. If someone is whipping up outrage, misrepresenting stories, failing to cite sources, etc., unfollow them, mute them, or even block them. Definitely do not retweet/like/share.

The way social-media disinformation operations work is by putting out claims we believe and messages we agree with, so that when that content crosses our path, we’ll accept it and pass it on. (Yes, “we”. Disinformation agents target us, too, not just Trumpists. They want to divide everyone against each other.) Having high standards for trustworthiness and actionability are key parts of resisting disinformation.

Social media can be a potent tool for staying informed, but it really depends on whom you’re following. Its primary function is socializing; using it for anything else requires vigilance. Even if you don’t purposefully use it to follow news outlets, if people you’re following because you actually know them are sharing bogus news or commentary, that’s completely valid grounds to unfollow them or at least (on Twitter) turn off seeing their retweets.

#3: Subscribe to—and pay for—good sources of news

Subscribe to newspapers, especially nonprofit newspapers. The SF Public Press is our local nonprofit print newspaper in the City; if you’re not in the City, check out NewsMatch’s list of nonprofit outlets that they help fund. The Examiner, while not a nonprofit, is also good about holding City government to account and recently launched its own subscription program.

Subscribe to your local NPR and/or PBS affiliate. Here in San Francisco, they’re both KQED.

ProPublica is a good national nonprofit that has done a lot of good work exposing wrongdoing from the federal government (not just under Trump) and other bodies.

Generally-speaking, nonprofits tend to be small, scrappy, and focused on holding power to account. They report on the lesser-noticed doings of government—especially local government—that might otherwise escape people’s attention, and provide depth that other outlets might gloss over. This is the sort of knowledge we activists need in order to have an active role in our government! And it can’t exist without funding.

People have a range of opinions on paying money to the New York Times, due to its opinion section’s platforming of some rather awful people, or the Washington Post, due to its being owned by mega-billionaire Jeff Bezos, or the Wall Street Journal, due to its being owned by News Corporation (the same company that owns Fox News). Their news departments are generally solid (though the WSJ has always had a pro-corporate slant), but those other aspects are deal-breakers for some. We’ll leave that decision to you.

The San Francisco Public Library provides access to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal—among many other sources, including historical archives of the SF Examiner and Chronicle—to all cardholders. SFPL library cards are available to all California residents, though you’ll have to stop into an SFPL branch to get one. Once you have one, you can browse the library’s archives from home.

#4: Insist on sources

If you hear about a story that concerns you, ask for a source. Or, look it up yourself on Google News. Once you’ve found an article about the story, dig for the original source of the information, which should be a trustworthy source like a mainstream news outlet. TV news, for all its faults, is the bare minimum of credibility—if it isn’t at least that trustworthy, disregard the story entirely. Beware of second-hand reporting (including mainstream news pieces that go “such-and-such other outlet reports that…”), which might introduce bias or telephone-game errors—always go to the original source. Snopes is a good first stop for checking a story’s veracity.

Find the facts and work from there to find out what you/we can do about it or what we can pressure lawmakers to do about it.

Anything not cited from a trustworthy source should be ignored.

#5: Question the trustworthiness of anonymous sources and of even “good” news outlets

Mainstream media do their best to vet sources and confirm that someone is a real source who credibly knows what they’re talking about (e.g., they actually are a White House official or a campaign staffer or whoever), and they’ll try to get multiple (ideally unrelated) sources to confirm the facts.

But the source may have their own motivation for talking to the press. It may be a deliberate leak, a controlled leak, a timed leak—the message may be framed favorably, the whole truth might not get told, etc.

And the media, for their part, are not neutral above-it-all parties. Part of why nonprofit news outlets are so important is because they’re less likely to be beholden to big corporate bosses or advertisers—but even there, there is risk, as nonprofit outlets tend to be reliant on donations, much of which comes from philanthropy (see Anand Giridharadas’s book for more on that) and/or corporate tax avoidance donations. And regardless of the corporate structure or funding mixture of the organization, the individuals—including the reporters, editors, fact-checkers, etc.—all have their own politics and their own ideas of what is “neutral”.

So, when you see a claim attributed to “people familiar with the matter”, take it with a grain of salt. Which people? If the story is about events that aren’t actually recent, why is the story only coming out now—did the story actually take that long to cook, or was it sitting on the back burner for at least some of that time?

At the same time, this is the same sort of “what-if” speculation that is so abhorrent of cable “news”. Ultimately it doesn’t matter; the facts are what matter. As long as the story is true, then it can be a basis for action. Or, inversely, if you don’t trust stories based on anonymous sources, don’t spend any time or attention on them at all. There’s plenty of other stuff to deal with.

A particular case of that is White House gossip. So-and-so’s in trouble and might get fired! This is of absolutely no relevance to you, as you can’t do anything about it, and it doesn’t affect anything (since all the worst abuses of this presidency come down from the top and his hand-picked “senior advisors”). Ignore these stories entirely.

#6: Beware the partisanization of “fairness”

The right wing loves to work the referees, and part of that is characterizing neutral statements of Trump’s Administration’s activities as partisan attacks. If you aren’t repeating their official characterization of what they’re doing, you’re painted as partisan “fake news” (what used to be called the “lying liberal media”).

Part of increasing your media literacy is recalibrating what you recognize as neutral and what you recognize as partisan dogma. The right has successfully laundered a lot of their talking points as taken-for-granted truths; a news story might report on tax breaks as obviously a good thing for the economy, without addressing the underfunding of the public sector that the tax break contributes to. One article about “attracting businesses” and another article about a park or school closing might even be right next to each other.

One contributing factor (though not the only one by any means) to our current media landscape is the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine. It only applied to broadcast TV and radio media, not cable or newspapers, but that still had ripple effects (a journalist might apply the Doctrine universally to their reporting when transferring from broadcast or be accustomed to it in case they were ever to transfer to broadcast), and it helped a lot with the news reporting that broadcast audiences received.

That said, in today’s landscape, there’s a serious danger that if the Fairness Doctrine (or some version of it) were restored, it would immediately be wielded by people like Trump against the “unfair” media who try to hold him to account. We’re not against bringing it back, necessarily, but it would need to be part of a much broader effort to restore public understanding and appreciation for real fairness.

#7: Always read the article

Never stop at the headline, social-media blurb, etc. Take no action until you have read the article.

So much outrage (especially on social media) gets whipped up because people—or some prominent person who ought to know better, given their follower count—react to the headline or tweet blurb and don’t actually read the article that would allay their concerns.

Don’t settle for screenshots. Click through to the article—it may have been updated since the screenshots were taken. And, of course, screenshots can be clipped to omit context, extenuating circumstances, etc.

By the same token, when you see a video clip, consider hunting down the original video, if there is one. An excerpt may be taken out of context or selectively edited. If the video is of someone seemingly answering a question, find out what the question was and who asked it.

#8: Check the date

A good way to stoke a fresh wave of outrage on social media (especially) is to post an old article and present it as something fresh or at least still relevant.

Get into the habit of checking the date on any article you look at. (The Guardian actually prominently highlights the date on any article older than six months, which is an excellent practice that more outlets should adopt.) If the article is old, consider researching what’s happened on the issue since then.

As noted under the previous item, the same goes for screenshots. If you see screenshots of a news article that piss you off, dig up the original article (web-searching sentences from the screenshot “in quotes” is a good way to do this) and verify that (a) the screenshots were accurate, (b) the story is still what it was when they were taken, and (c) there isn’t a newer story where the guilty party apologized or the grievance has been redressed.

#9: Ask: What can I/we do?

Sometimes the answer is nothing, in which case the only thing to do is put it out of your mind and channel your energy into something you can do something about. Outrage without action is exhausting; it’s bad for you.

#10: Reallocate time from reading headlines to doing research

If pruning your media consumption leaves you with some free time, consider putting it to researching something the news media didn’t/hasn’t. Find the history behind the story, and let it expand your understanding of the issues and your vision of possible future directions. Consider writing up your findings as a blog post (or submitting it as an ISF Deep Dive!).

#11: Beware of characterizations (including your own) of groups of people

An under-appreciated aspect of campaigns of “bots” and provocateurs on social media is that of false-flag operations. For example, if you want a particular candidate to be known for obnoxious supporters, allocate some provocateurs to pose as that candidate’s supporters and stir up shit.

That’s not to say that any candidate you might be thinking of doesn’t have supporters who are assholes; every candidate does. The question is, does that candidate actually have a disproportionate number of real supporters who engage in that sort of behavior—or is that number inflated by false-flag provocateurs?

So beware of generalizing observed behavior to an entire group of people or of similar generalizations from others.

#12: Beware of things you agree with

It’s easy to be suspicious of things you don’t agree with. Obviously that Fox News piece was bogus! There were so many distortions and generalizations and assumptions, and…

It’s harder to be suspicious of things we do agree with/believe/hold to be true. And that’s precisely where propaganda and disinformation aim: at our existing biases and beliefs and opinions and knowledge.

Citing sources and establishing veracity isn’t just a weapon to use against right-wing propaganda and fake news (though it is that). It’s also a tool for expanding and fact-checking your own knowledge and understanding, as well as a defense against propaganda (from foreign actors or otherwise) made to appeal to your existing mindset.

This can lead you down some pretty deep, but interesting and ultimately beneficial rabbit-holes. Doing your research will help you build a more complete, more fact-based, more neutral understanding, less tainted by partisan spin. It will help you envision more effective solutions and spot false ones. It will help you avoid repeating false facts and bogus propositions.

Learn about logical fallacies—those short-circuits of reasoning that we often use to justify what we believe. Learn about things like the Shirley Exception.

And always remember: these aren’t just weapons to use against opposing arguments. They’re also tools to use to introspect and improve your own understanding of the world. What are you missing? What do you know that’s false? And how can you fill in those gaps?

#13: Learn to vet social-media accounts

Some things to look at:

  • Is it a verified account? If so, the platform has done a lot of the work for you, though it’s mainly just verifying that they’re a real person—verified status does not imply trustworthy content. (Trump has a verified account.)
  • How old is their account? Was it just created recently?
  • New Twitter accounts have usernames consisting of a short string of text followed by a long string of digits. Is their username one of these? (Mass-creation of accounts is unlikely to change the usernames.)
  • Do they have two different names between their username and their display name? (E.g., @SteveOSullivan19238130829 with name “Kiernan Davis”.)
  • Do they have any followers to speak of? Do their followers look legit? (There will almost always be a handful of people who follow back anyone who follows them; subtract these.)
  • How many people are they following? (Too many is almost always a bad sign, no matter the reason.) Whom are they following? Does their following list reflect preferences and opinions and selections, or is it a scattershot grab bag of anyone with an audience?
  • Look for other inconsistencies:
    • Have they posted photos of themselves? If so, do they match their profile photo (if it’s a photo)? If you feed their profile photo to Google Image Search or TinEye, does it come up with a bunch of other results? (Bogus accounts frequently use stolen photos.)
    • Do their posts match up with their bio? Be generous (real people are complex and make exceptions to their own rules all the time), but at the same time, an “atheist” who regularly attends Sunday Mass might not be legit.
  • What sort of content are they posting? Do they only ever reply and/or retweet/like/share? How long have they been posting (though, beware that some real people auto-delete old posts)? Have their posts changed over time?
  • Look at their likes. Are there any? If so, what’s the signal-to-noise ratio there?

One thing you should definitely not do is assume that anyone who is anonymous is a “bot”. Rather the opposite, actually: provocateurs pose as real people by assuming created identities. Meanwhile, real people—especially those of marginalized communities, who receive disproportionate amounts of ill treatment online—may indeed choose to be anonymous in order to use social media with minimal hassle. Their friends know who they are.

Anonymous accounts fall into two categories: Provocateurs who tweet outrageous content, often on the pretext of being a “resister” who might be in a vulnerable position, and average people who are using social media to interact with an average-sized set of friends and occasionally vent their opinions. The former are best ignored if not blocked; the latter, if you don’t know who they are, are best left alone to interact with their friends in peace.

The short version of all of this is that if you don’t know and can’t easily confirm that someone is a trustworthy source/good person to follow, move on. And there is no shame in having a quick finger on the block button. Your attention is valuable; guard it.

#15: Don’t amplify bad takes, propaganda, or triggering content

On Twitter, we often see right-wingers, propagandists, and people with straight-up bad takes putting out their bogus content. It can be tempting to quote-tweet (or “Retweet with Comment”) these tweets with a witty dunk or a direct response.

But doing this amplifies the bad information. It makes you a candidate to show up in the trending topics list as “tweeting about this,” particularly when there’s a hashtag in the original that the trending list might pick up on, and it puts the bad take onto your own timeline, broadcast to all your followers.

Instead, turn to the subtweet. Put out your own tweet, without reference or connection to the tweet that inspired it, that presents the truth and addresses why they’re wrong with a citation to back up your facts. Amplify your narrative, not theirs.

Similarly, triggering content such as videos of police violence should be shared very mindfully, if at all. The term “trigger” comes from PTSD: a trigger is anything that might cause someone with PTSD to have an episode.

We’re all aware, by this point, that police violence is a problem. Another video won’t do anything more about that; it’ll just re-trigger those in affected communities who already worry about it every day. We’re already past the point where we need to start talking about solutions.

If you do share triggering content, put a content warning on it by starting the post with something like “CW: police violence”. Those who can’t handle that content at that moment, whatever the reason, will see that and scroll on by.

And on both of these things, consider whether you should be following someone who’s sharing/retweeting these items (or originating them!) themselves. Part of staying well-informed is curating your social-media feeds for a high signal-to-noise ratio.

#16: Trending topics are worthless

“Such-and-such is trending” is a non-story. Look at the trending topics list (one last time) and ask yourself how many of the things on it are newsworthy, how many are important, and how many are advertisements (i.e., placed or maneuvered onto the list deliberately in order to seize your attention away from things that actually matter).

Throw social-media manipulation and Trump’s reckless tweeting into the mix, and you have one of the prime avenues by which social media is a tool for taking people’s eye off the ball.

Don’t fall for it. Ignore the trending topics list, ignore the fact that any particular thing is trending, skip any article about something trending (or, more generally, news reporting on something being in the news). Keep your focus where it belongs.

#17: Take a breath

Speaking of trending topics, we literally had #WorldWarIII trending not that long ago (in reference to Trump’s reckless assassination of an Iranian general). The two sides backed down and the protracted war that the entire world was worried about did not happen. That was not guaranteed, of course, and no doubt was in part thanks to the thousands of anti-war activists across both countries who rallied and marched to demand peace.

But it’s also a reminder that if you keep yourself tuned into a drip-feed of headline news, you will be perpetually afraid of one breaking news event after another, especially under this administration, and too preoccupied with the ongoing onslaught of awful things to do anything about them.

#18: Understand advertising

Much of what you read on the internet is advertising. Some of it is labeled; learn to spot these in Google results, on Twitter, etc. Some of it is not—find out who wrote what you’re reading and what their background is. (Especially in the Opinion section of the newspaper or on news sites—just like on TV, often the person has a really egregious bias, like being a fossil-fuel lobbyist or an executive at an interested company, and it might or might not get disclosed up front and should influence whether and how you read their piece. What are they selling?)

Understand that advertising is a tool for putting things in front of you. These days, it’s often targeted advertising, meaning that someone is specifically looking to put it in front of people fitting a particular profile (e.g., registered Democrats), and the ad engine thinks that you do. (Read up on data brokerage if you want to have nightmares about our privatized mass-surveillance state.) But even untargeted advertising is ultimately still a tool for influencing actions of the public—that’s its purpose. 

Understand also that the mechanism by which advertising works is not a straightforward “I saw an ad, therefore, I buy this”. That happens occasionally, especially for new products in novel fields, but generally not—otherwise you’d bounce back and forth between Pepsi and Coke, right? No; advertising works by repetition: by repeating a name, or some (alleged) fact or association, the advertiser plants that knowledge in your mind and reinforces its significance.

For a business selling products, the influence desired is on buying decisions, and the goal is to get you to pass by the Pepsi display at the grocery store and decide to buy some. But advertising is a tool, and it can be put to other purposes—including influencing elections and even public opinion in general.

#19: Don’t steal artwork/memes/infographics/etc.

This may not seem related to consuming news and staying informed, but it is; keep reading—we’ll get there.

When you make promotional art for an event, or are posting on your social media account(s), always cite the original source of anything you use. That includes digging for the original source and not just citing the source you got it from (which might have stolen it themselves).

Partly, this is good copyright hygiene, and it helps to funnel traffic (and hopefully purchases or commissions) to deserving artists instead of art thieves. Partly it’s being aware of where your ingredients come from; if the originator of some artwork is… unfriendly to our cause, you might wish to avoid risking their notice or amplifying their work.

But another reason is that finding and vetting the original sources of artwork overlaps with a lot of the same skills and discipline as finding and vetting the original sources of news reporting. It is a habit that must be cultivated, and cultivating it in one field will also improve your skills and reliability in doing it in the other.

This is especially true of infographics, which often are news content—or pretend to be. Apply all the same questions to infographics as you would apply to a TV news report. And find the original source, and make sure the infographic (a) hasn’t been altered, (b) is current, and (c) is trustworthy.

For artwork (including photos), finding the original source might mean discovering that the artist sells licenses of it—it’s not free after all. A photo, for example, might be licensed on a stock photo site such as Getty Images or Alamy. Finding a stolen copy on Google Image Search doesn’t count as an actual license; using such a copy may be breaching the copyright yourself. (“Fair use” is an exception, and worth researching, but doesn’t cover all cases.)

If the art is not free, you might wish to pay for a license (if the terms fit your needs and the price fits your budget), or abandon it and seek out a free replacement (if such a replacement exists/is possible). Items licensed under Creative Commons (a free, sharing-friendly suite of licenses) or released into the public domain (not copyrighted) might be more suited to your needs. Anything made by the federal government (but not necessarily local or state governments) is automatically in the public domain. The public domain also includes anything whose copyright has expired.

Whatever you use, you should give credit, even if you don’t have to. (Cite your sources!) A phrase like “Photo credit: Blue Wave by so-and-so” or “Image credit: Trump in irons by so-and-so”, with the image name linked to the original source of the image, is usually all you need. For print artwork, it’s good to both spell out the link (the https://…; use a shortener like TinyURL if space is tight) and include a QR code that people can scan with their phone camera.

On social media, you can post the image, attach alternate text (for screen readers) on Twitter, and link to the source in the text of the post.

These practices are good not only for improving your copyright hygiene and practicing your vetting skills, and for keeping stolen artwork and bogus information off your feed, but for sending a message: These are things you (or your group) does. These are good things to do. These are common things to do. These are things the reader should do, too.

With regard to memes and other comedic images/posts, these deserve a special caution independent of their veracity. Memes are a tool of in-group reinforcement; you post it because you agree with it, and other people like it because they agree with it. But there’s a high risk of a meme being junk food, appealing only to people who already like it. Organizational accounts in particular should focus instead on serious information, to signal that they are a serious organization doing serious work.

That’s not to say that humor is bad, but it should be used carefully, if at all. Arguably, its best use is when making a point that people might not have considered and might not already agree with; humor can reveal the fallacies in the status quo or the conventional wisdom. So select the memes you share carefully.

#20: Beware of meme/humor content

Going back even before the rise of the internet, humor and satire have been an excellent vehicle for (accidental or deliberate) disinformation. Many’s the hoax that turned into an urban legend that turned into widely-known “truth”.

More recently, in the days of image macros, it’s common to see photographs or other artwork that might have been altered. Photos are especially tricky, as editing tools have gotten more sophisticated. Removing a person from a photograph used to require special care and expert knowledge and was a hallmark of authoritarian regimes like the USSR; now it’s (relatively) easily accomplished with “Content-Aware Fill,” along with more primitive tools like clone-stamping.

Part of digging for original sources of images is finding the original image itself. If you see differences, you’ll have to figure out which image came first. Usually, the larger/high-resolution image is the original—but not necessarily, as images can be scaled up. You can tell with practice (there’s no substitute for the original pixels), but it can be tricky.

Publishing images—or other content—is an even greater responsibility to get right by publishing something either trustworthy or obviously false/satirical. And this can be hard, especially under Poe’s Law.

One good thing that’s been on the rise in internet culture has been obvious alterations, as a matter of etiquette and avoiding accidental deceit. Consider the image above, derived from a cartoon in a book. The original cartoon didn’t say “better-informed activist”; one of our members altered it to say that. They could have simply erased the original text and pasted in the new text, and maybe could have even altered it to look like it always said that. But because we’re not trying to deceive you, they, instead, made the edit obvious: a red strike through the original text, and a sharp white rectangle covering part of the cartoon’s picture-frame border, with the new text within it.

So there’s no mistaking that image for the original cartoon. You know it was edited, we explicitly told you we edited it, and we credited the original source (see #19). You should do likewise, whenever you edit content to serve your own purposes.

#21: Power, not panic

That’s what CIYJA taught us. Whenever immigration enforcement authorities crack down, we must respond with “power, not panic”: don’t share unsubstantiated gossip of ICE having been sighted somewhere; instead, contact your local Rapid Response hotline with hard evidence of authorities’ activities.

The principle generalizes well: Instead of freaking out at whatever apocalyptic headline is crossing your screen, take a breath, don’t panic, and respond with power instead. Maybe that means keeping your focus on what you’re already working on; maybe it means calling or writing to your Members of Congress, other elected representatives, or some other interested party; maybe it means organizing a protest.

#22: Best practices for evaluating candidates

In an election, keep your assessments of the candidates focused on their own statements, records, agendas, and behavior, not on what their (ostensible) supporters do or whatever salacious dish got served up this week.

We have seen and will continue to see an endless parade of clips out of context, obsolete quotes, and misleading framings of things they have and haven’t done. Probably most of this doesn’t come from rival campaigns (who know better); rather, this content comes from, at best, people who play at holding people accountable by airing everyone’s dirty laundry, and, at worst, those who want to start a fight between different campaigns’ supporters.

All the best practices above apply to reporting on candidates, as well. Ignore gossip; ignore that which is out of date, inaccurate, or distorted; do your research and find current, reliable information.

#23: Beware of “please share”/“please retweet”

People who spread bullshit are desperate for attention. Those who do so knowingly want to bamboozle as many people as possible; those who do so unknowingly were persuaded of the importance and/or urgency of the information and the need to share it as widely and as fast as possible.

So when a post tries to impress upon you how important it is that everyone see something, take a breath, and consider whether this is something everyone actually needs to see. Is it true? Is it sourced? Is it actionable? Does this need to be on your timeline in particular?

19 times out of 20, a post that begs you to “RT for reach” should not be RT’d, and its author may even deserve to be blocked for trying to manipulate people’s attention. (And consider telling or unfollowing the person who shared it on their timeline.)

Another phrase to beware of is “RT to tell so-and-so to [take or cease some action]!” or “RT to [achieve some other result]!”. RT’ing the post will not do that. This is clicktivism, the sharing of (probably dubious) information, as a substitute for real action that has real effects.

Instead of retweeting it, call or write to your elected representatives or to whoever is in charge of the subject. Or show up to a relevant hearing to give public comment. Or organize or attend a protest. If you’re not going to do any of those things, you should do nothing. You can’t do everything, and if this is not so important that it overcomes your threshold for taking meaningful action on it, it isn’t important enough to retweet it, either.

There is one exception to avoiding “please share” items: Sometimes a post might be highly personal or the author in a vulnerable situation. (For example, personal fundraisers for an emergency bill or to escape abuse.) In this case, the “please RT” should be taken as permission: You’re not compromising the person’s privacy, because they’ve told you it’s OK.

#24: Consider becoming the media

Anyone can start a blog, and that’s a good start. (Although getting your posts in front of people—without resorting to the sort of bad practices we’ve warned about here—is the hard part.) You can publish your research findings, your lived experiences, your vision for a better future. It’s also important practice for checking your facts and clearly and accurately stating your case.

Writing op-eds is also a good tactic. It’s not only for lobbyists and corporate shills; anyone can submit a letter to the editor. That means you! If you get published, your letter can give voice to things that the same pages might not have acknowledged.

But also consider hiring in at an established newspaper or other news outlet and becoming a professional journalist or columnist. It won’t make you rich, but it’s an opportunity to counter some of the slants that are overrepresented in even good media and to question assumptions and claims that past reporters may have repeated uncritically.

There’s a parallel here to running for office. Speaking truth to power only gets you so far, particularly when a lot of other people are speaking to power as well. And media is a body of power; there’s a reason we call it the Fourth Estate. Taking that power into your own hands comes with a lot of responsibility (as with any power) but also a lot of opportunity to do good.

Further reading

Parting words

We know we said to beware of “please share”, but we do encourage you to bookmark this post, and if you find that the practices you’ve learned from it help you to be a better-informed, more-effective activist, please do share it with fellow activists and anyone else who could benefit from improving their information diet.

Originally posted at Indivisible SF. Re-posted with permission.


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Since the January 2017, more than 4,000 San Franciscans have united as Indivisible SF to march in the Women's Marches, protest the Muslim Ban, meet regularly with our Members of Congress, and make thousands of phone calls to their offices to pressure them to do everything in their power to counter the policies and politics of Trumpism. There is much work in progress and many actions to come.

Members of Indivisible SF are defined by our action and find solidarity in our shared opposition to Trump and Trumpism. Each of us explicitly reserves our individual stances on specific issues for other forums as we believe resisting Trump is more important than any single issue. We adhere to a Code of Conduct that welcomes and respects everybody.

Members of Indivisible SF come from all kinds of backgrounds and political persuasions. Some of us are first-time activists and others have been at this for decades. We are citizens and non-citizens. Most importantly, we are all patriots that want the best for our country and are willing to work for it.

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