Pluralistic: A media literacy handbook for Israel-Gaza (28 Oct 2023)

Today's links

The On The Media Breaking News Consumer's Handbook Israel-Gaza Edition.

A media literacy handbook for Israel-Gaza (permalink)

Media explainers are a cheap way to become an instant expert on everything from billionaire submarine excursions to hellaciously complex geopolitical conflicts, but On The Media's "Breaking News Consumers' Handbooks" are explainers that help you understand other explainers:

The latest handbook is an Israel-Gaza edition. It doesn't aim to parse fine distinctions over the definition of "occupation" or identify the source of shell fragments. Rather, it offers seven bullet points' worth of advice on weighing all the other news you hear about the war:

I. "Headlines are obscured by the fog of war"

Headline writers have a hard job under the best of circumstances – trying to snag your interest in a few words. Headlines can't encompass all the nuance of a story, and they are often written by editors, not the writers who produced the story. Between the imperatives for speed and brevity and the broken telephone between editors and writers, it's easy for headlines to go wrong, even when no one is attempting to mislead you. Even reliable outlets will screw up headlines sometimes – and that likelihood goes way up in times like these. You gotta read the story, not just the headline.

II. Know red flags for bullshit

The factually untrue information that spreads furthest tends to originate with a handful of superspreader accounts. Whether these people are Just Wrong or malicious disinfo peddlers, they share a few characteristics that should trip your BS meter and prompt extra scrutiny:

  • High-frequency posting

  • Emotionally charged framing

  • Posts that purport to be summaries or excerpts from news outlets, but do not include links to the original

  • The phrase "breaking news" (no one has that many scoops)

III. Don't trust screenshots

Screenshots of news stories, tweets, and other social media should come with links to the original. It's just too damned easy to fake a screenshot.

IV. "Know your platform"

It used to be that Twitter got a lot of first-person accounts from people in the thick of crises, while Facebook and Reddit contained commentary and reposts. Today, Twitter is just another aggregator. This time around, there's lots of first-person, real-time reporting coming off Telegram (it runs well on old phones and doesn't chew up batteries). Instagram is widely used in both Israel and the West Bank.

V. "Crisis actors" aren't a thing

People who attribute war images to "crisis actors" are either deluded or lying. There's plenty of ways to distort war news, but paying people to pretend to be grieving family members is essentially unheard of. Any explanation that involves crisis actors is a solid reason to permanently block that source.

VI. There's plenty of ways to verify stuff that smells fishy

TinEye, Yandex and Google Image Search are all good tools for checking "breaking" images and seeing if they're old copypasta ganked from earlier conflicts (or, you know, video-games). The fact that an image doesn't show up in one of these searches doesn't guarantee its authenticity, of course.

VII. Think before you post

Israel-Gaza is the most polluted media pool yet. Don't make it worse.

There's plenty more detail on this (especially on the use of verification tools) in Brooke Gladstone's radio segment:

The media environment sucks, and warrants skepticism and caution. But we also need to be skeptical of skepticism itself! As danah boyd started saying all the way back in 2018, weaponized media literacy leads to conspiratorialism:

Remember, the biggest peddlers of "fake news" are also the most prolific users of the term. For a lot of these information warriors, the point isn't to get you to believe them – they'll settle for you believing nothing. "Flood the zone with bullshit" is Steve Bannon's go-to tactic, and it's one that his acolytes have picked up and multiplied.

It's important to be a critical thinker, but there's plenty of people who've figured out how to weaponize a critical viewpoint and turn it into nihilism. Remember, the guy who wrote How To Lie With Statistics was a tobacco industry shill who made his living obfuscating the link between smoking and cancer. It's absolutely possible to lie with statistics, but it's also possible to use statistics to know the truth, as Tim Harford explains in his 2021 must-read book The Data Detective:

There's a world of difference between being misled and being brainwashed. A lot of today's worry about "disinformation" and "misinformation" has the whiff of a moral panic:

It's possible to have a nuanced view of this subject – to take steps to enure you're not being tricked without equating crude tricks like sticking a fake BBC chyron on a 10-year-old image with unstoppable mind-control:

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Colophon (permalink)

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