The International Writers Magazine: *Academic Essay - Long Read
Evaluating Conspiracy Media for Reliability
*Image: Fake New York Times report
Since the beginning of the Barack Obama administration, the President and his government have been accused by the conspiracy blogosphere of committing crimes including: faking his birth certificate, creating Obamacare “death panels”, blowing up the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig, commanding or fabricating Syrian gas attacks, and ordering the shooting of a TSA agent, as well as the Sandy Hook school massacre. Further, according to the blogosphere, anyone who opposes these draconian policies will be shipped off to FEMA death camps. (Shermer) Conspiracy theorists have even blamed the US government for the Boston Marathon bombing. (Koerth-Baker)
Conspiracy theories have always existed in America, but they have gained popularity since 9/11. (Uscinski) An article published in Business Insider, explains that belief in conspiracy theories is so prevalent today that, 37% of Americans believe that the Food and Drug Administration, because of pressure from drug companies, is preventing Americans from having access to natural cures for major diseases such as cancer. (FRIEDMAN)
More than a decade after the start of the war on terror, people find themselves in an age of bank collapses, mortgage crisis, high unemployment, terrorism, and a diminishing middle class. Faced with so many real problems, it becomes easy for the average citizen to abandon hope, lose his faith in world governments, and to allow his very justified fears to snowball into paranoia. “Conspiracy theories often crop up during times of uncertainty and fear: after terrorist strikes, financial crises, high-profile deaths and natural disasters.” (Oaklander)
Examples of conspiracy headlines that have appeared on the internet include:
'The NYPD Declares Martial Law In Brooklyn” (published in Before it’s News, in 2013)
'Did You Know: US Gov't Found Guilty In Conspiracy To Assassinate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'. published in News One.
'Special Ops Officer Blows Whistle On CIA Funded ISIS Through Swiss Bank Accounts” (published in The Common Sense Show', 2015)
“Corporate Media Covers Staged ISIS Beheading Video” Published in Infowars, 2014.
'TIME Admits ISIS Bringing Arms, Fighters In From NATO Territory” published in New Eastern Outlook'. Journal-neo.org, 2015
“Fake News!! CNN & BBC Busted!! ISIS Is A Fake Threat!!” linked to RT English,. 'Media 'Staged' Syria Chem Attack (E36)'. N.p., 2014. Web. 29 Aug. 2015.
“US Corporate government goes bankrupt on April 17th, refuses to acknowledge” published in Towards Emancipation, 2015
“5 Of 10 Top Economies In The World Drop The Dollar'. Activist Post, 2013.
Any of these stories, if true, would certainly be cause for legitimate alarm. But with so much media out there, and so many sources, saying so many things, how does one know who or what to believe?
Luckily, text evaluation is one of those areas where skills learned in academia carry over to the real world. When students pursue a research based degree, such as a PhD, one of the first tasks they must complete is a literature review. The literature review is a way of collecting and evaluating dissertations, articles and books relevant to their research. (Mathieson) After collecting these texts, students then evaluate them for relevance and reliability.
According to The Basic Academic Business Communication textbook, published by University of Technology Sydney, reliability can be assessed based on the following parameters: Audience, language, author, evidence, currency, and relation to findings in other media (University of Technology Sydney)
To evaluate the audience of a text, one can see which type of publication the text appears in. For example, articles which appear in scholarly journals, intended for academics, as opposed to popular magazines, intended for the general public, will employ a greater degree of complexity while communicating ideas. (Guides.library.cornell.edu) Peer reviewed journals are excellent sources, as the texts have been read and evaluated by a panel of experts before being published. According to an article in the International Journal of Architectural Computing, libraries spend more than 50% of their budgets on peer review journals. The reason, the article goes on to say, is because peer reviewed journals, targeted at academics and experts, serve as a forum for the exchange of ideas and to further the body of knowledge. Peer review also insures the quality of research. (Yi-Luen Do)
The strength of mainstream media
The language and depth of a technical or professional journal, as opposed to a magazine or newspaper of general circulation is quite different. Because general texts are written for the public at large, they may oversimplify complex issues. This does not, however, mean that articles appearing in mainstream media are not reliable. It has been purported that the very competitive market for general news in The United States has historically promoted truthful reporting. (Gentzkow and Shapiro)
In fact, the strength of The New York Times, CNN, BBC, or The Wall Street Journal is their integrity. A single botched story could do irreparable damage to the credibility of a media source. “Fictional accounts sensationalized, presented as truth and ‘breaking news’ in modern times have destroyed careers, lives and people.” (Czarny)
Therefore, the editors go to great lengths to insure that their content is free of erroneous or misleading information.
Mainstream media generally subscribe to a particular code of ethics. In fact, well-respected and larger media, such as Associated Press and Reuters, publish handbooks for journalists which include a section on ethics.
One example of a code of ethics would be The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, which requires journalists to:
“SEEKTRUTH AND REPORT IT…Test the accuracy of information from all sources…diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrong doing…Identify sources whenever feasible… Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting…Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.” (Society of Professional Journalists)
Publications which cater to conspiracy theorists tend to have lower reliability, as there does not appear to be a unified code of ethics for conspiracy websites.
This quote from an article published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Oxford University was referring to Twitter, but it could just as easily apply to any online media which is not bound by a well-establish code of ethics. “Detractors point to the unreliability of information and the way rumour can also be spread in seconds around the world.” (Newman)
The Headlines are an Indicator
One way to check if a particular website is a conspiracy site would be to check the other headlines on the page. Conspiracy sites tend to have shocking headlines which involve: “UFO sightings. Hoaxed moon landings. Reptiles who rule the world.” (Oaklander) Other popular conspiracy theories include: President Obama is intentionally bankrupting the country, vaccines cause autism, President Obama has death squads to kill US citizens, rampage shootings and school shootings are hoaxes or perpetrated by the US government, (Listverse)
Headlines which appeared on activistpost.com in a single day, included stories with improbable headlines, such as Who is Jeb Bush, Really? – Part 1 – The Bush Crime Family, HERE’S THE NEWEST TOOL TO HELP YOU FIGHT THE SURVEILLANCE STATE, Declassified NASA Study Spreads Panic Amongst Americans, US Media Blackout: French Oppose Vaccines, Is The New World Order Dying? and US vs China: US Mobs Seek to Overthrow Malaysian Government.
Headlines appearing on Beforeitwasnews included: Confirmation Tianjin Was Nuked, Exclusive! 9/11 Methodical Deception: New Witnesses, Metadata & Mossad Links, US Banking Giant Citigroup Moves Massive Gold Reserves To Russia, Russian Media Warns That US Is Gearing Up For An Economic Apocalypse In September, Panic! Dollar Collapses..., All Major US Equity Indices Halted!!!, And Thanks to Congress the UN Plot to Confiscate American Guns Took a Giant Step Forward.
One can select any headline from a conspiracy site, then Google search it, and often, the results land on other conspiracy sites. For example, “US Banking Giant Citigroup Moves Massive Gold Reserves To Russia”: It would seem that something this important wouldn’t have been overlooked by the mainstream media. But the story is only running on conspiracy sites.
Where was a story cited?
Google searching the title of a story can also reveal where the story was cited. If the story has been cited as a source in academic papers or peer reviewed journals, or other relatively trustworthy media, the reliability would be higher. If the article was only cited in other conspiracy media, then the reliability would be lower.
Googling the phrase “CNN lied about chemical attack” the author of this report landed on several sites whose only evidence was the same RT report: RT English,. 'Media 'Staged' Syria Chem Attack (E36)'. N.p., 2014. Web. 29 Aug. 2015.
Some of the sites which based their entire article on this single video included:
Tar, Pete. 'RT Claims BBC Stages Syria Chemical Attack To Propagate War. [BBC Responds]'. Metabunk. N.p., 2015. Web. 29 Aug. 2015.
Educate Inspire Change, 'Fake News!! CNN & BBC Busted!! Proof Chemical Attacks Staged By Media - Educate Inspire Change'. N.p., 2014. Web. 29 Aug. 2015.
Mintpressnews.com,. 'RT Claims Media Staged Syria Chemical Weapons Attack (Video)'. N.p., 2015. Web. 29 Aug. 2015.
On each of these sites, RT English,. 'Media 'Staged' Syria Chem Attack (E36)'. N.p., 2014. Web. 29 Aug. 2015. is the only evidence. Just because something has been repeated many times doesn’t make it true. This story would have higher reliability if the sites which cited the story had other corroborating evidence to support the claims of fakery.
In evaluating language, keep in mind; reporting should be fair and unbiased. The code of journalism ethics demands that journalists not distort facts, language or headlines to attract readers. (Czarny) If an article utilizes inflammatory language, this could be evidence of potential bias, which damages the reliability of the article. Before even reading the stories, one can see that several of the headlines referenced above utilize inflammatory language. “The Bush Crime Family” for example, paints the Bush family with the same brush as the Gambino Crime Family. A crime family, by definition, refers to an Italian-American crime syndicate. This definition does not match the Bush family, particularly since the Bush family have not been convicted of a crime. Other inflammatory headlines include: “Fake News…” and “Time admits…” “Fake” is too strong. If this report had actual poof that a major news media had misreported a story, then a less accusatory headline should be chosen. Also, the news media accused of the error should be given an opportunity to respond to the allegations. The phrase “Time admits” would suggest Time was accused of something and finally came clean. But nowhere in the story is there any reference to previous allegations for Time to “admit to.”
Be aware of headlines which play with the meanings of words in order to mislead the reader. For example, the story entitled, "5 Of 10 Top Economies In The World Drop The Dollar" is not about countries dropping the US Dollar as a medium or foreign exchange or store of wealth, but only that some countries have made agreements with China, whereby they would “bypass the Dollar” in trade with China.
Other analysis that can be done with language is simple definition checking. For example, “NYPD declares martial law.” According to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, “Martial law is control of an area by military forces rather than by the police.” By definition, the police cannot declare martial law.
The headline “'Did You Know: US Gov't Found Guilty In Conspiracy To Assassinate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'.” The transcript of this civil trial, as well as the verdict, are available to the public. The defendant in the case was Loyd Jowers, not the US government. The US government was not the accused in the trial, neither was the US government the defendant. Consequently, by definition, the US government cannot be found guilty. (Coretta Scott King V. Loyd Jowers)
Responding to a request for comment on this story, Robert Previto, an attorney who has practiced law in New York for approximately 20 years, had this to say: "First, nobody is ever found ‘guilty’ in a ‘civil’ trial. ‘Guilt’ is a finding used only in criminal trials, which require that a unanimous verdict of twelve jurors determines that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The standard of proof in a civil trial is whether or not a majority of the jurors (usually six) or a ‘trial of fact’ meaning a Judge or tribunal, finds the defendant ‘liable by a preponderance of the evidence,’ or, in some cases, by the higher standard of ‘clear and convincing evidence.’ Of course, no person or entity, including the U.S. Government, can be found either guilty or liable if they are not a named defendant in the trial.” Robert Previto, Attorney at Law
The title, ““US Corporate government goes bankrupt” is clearly a misuse of language, as the article refers to the US Federal government, which is not corporate. And, of course, the US government is not bankrupt. Bankruptcy implies a state of insolvency, but, other than one brief delay in paying some T-Bills in 1979, the US government has never defaulted on a bond obligation. (Marron)
When evaluating the author one needs to ask if he or she is an expert in the field. What are his or her publishing credentials work experience, and education? (Guides.library.cornell.edu) For example, if during research on some aspect of health an article by CNN's Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, comes up, it can be assumed that Dr. Gupta, as one of the most high-profile medical practitioners in the world, is an expert in his field of medicine. On the other hand, an article about health, written by world-renown investor, Warren Buffett would carry less credibility because, although he is clearly a brilliant and accomplished man, Mr. Buffet’s expertise is in the field of securities and investments, not health.
It is also important to check the author’s affiliations. (Guides.library.cornell.edu) For example, if the article espouses the benefits of a particular company’s products or services, and the author is found to work for that company, then the article may have potential bias. On the other hand, if the author writes an article about the future plans or past behaviors of the World Monetary Fund, and it is found that the author is an employee of that organization, this may add credibility. This fact is equally likely to create potential for bias. Consequently, checking the author’s relationship to companies and organizations is important.
Publisher or Source
The source or the publisher of an article should also be evaluated. In the case of the story, RT English,. 'Media 'Staged' Syria Chem Attack (E36)'. N.p., 2014. Web. 29 Aug. 2015 the source is Russian Television (RT), a state owned media. As RT is 100% owned by the Russian government, there may be potential bias in their reporting. Journalist Simon Shuster, in his article 'Inside Putin's Media Machine', went so far as to refer to RT as Russia’s “main weapon in an intensifying information war with the West” (Shuster)
In an interview with the Washington Post, when asked about the Kremlin’s relationship to RT, Vladimir Putin said that the channel was funded by the government, “so it cannot help but reflect the Russian government’s official position” (Fisher, 2015)
Journalist Julia Ioffe, wrote in the 2008 Columbia Journalism Review that RT “Russia Today was conceived as a soft-power tool to improve Russia’s image abroad… Since its founding in 2005, however, the broadcast outlet has become better known as an extension of former President Vladimir Putin’s confrontational foreign policy.” (Ioffe)
According to a research paper from Harvard University, entitled “Who owns the media” zero percent of US media are owned by the government.” (DJANKOV et al.) CNN, for example, a leading US news media, which is often the target of conspiracy theories, does not qualify as state owned media. CNN is owned by the Turner Broadcasting System, a division of Time Warner, which is publicly traded.
Some countries are known to have very low degrees of press freedom which weaken the reliability of media. The organization, Reporters without Borders maintains the World Press Freedom Index, which ranks countries by degree of press freedom. Of the 180 countries rated, Russia ranks number 148. China ranks 175, or fifth from the bottom. According to a report from Harvard University, 100% of China’s media is state owned. The report claims that while in Russia, only 20% of media are state owned, the other 80% are so heavily censored as to limit their ability to report accurately. (DJANKOV et al.) Therefore, sources such as The China People’s Daily or Russian Television, both state owned media, would be considered sources of low reliability due to a combination of government ownership and censorship.
The difference between a country with high press freedom and one with low press freedom is illustrated in this Reuters story, accusing the US government of manipulating the human trafficking rankings of certain countries “Special Report: State Department watered down human trafficking report” (SZEP AND MATT SPETALNICK) Reuters is one of the mainstream media which conspiracy believers often cite as being a tool of the US government or only reporting in favor of US government agenda. But the truth is that Reuters also publishes reports which are critical of US government decisions. State owned media, on the other hand, tend not to criticize the state which owns them.
If a story makes a claim, such as “Special Ops Officer Blows Whistle On CIA Funded ISIS” the article needs to support this claim with some type of evidence. Some common forms of evidence may include; interviews with experts, interviews with witnesses, interviews with parties involved, or references to other reports which have been verified. This particular article is based exclusively on an interview with a single person, Scott Bennett, who is identified as “a U.S. Army Special Operations Officer (11th Psychological Operations Battalion, Civil Affairs-Psychological Operations Command)”.
An article published in the International Journalists Network cautions journalists to thoroughly verify their stories. The article suggests that the source of a story needs to be investigated and that the journalist should find out what evidence the source has to support his or her claims. (Silverman) The same article goes on to say, “One of the easiest ways to avoid becoming part of a chain of dubious propagation is to take a few minutes and search/read closely to see where the claim or rumor originated.” (Silverman) This is the step that seems to be missing in many of these conspiracy stories.
When a source is quoted, the credibility of the source needs to be established. The article “Special Ops Officer Blows Whistle On CIA…” only identifies Scott Bennett as an officer, but never gives his rank. Normally, military sources are identified by rank. This omission of rank does not detract from the credibility of Scott Bennett, but does detract from the credibility of the article, as this is a glaring omission.
The Associated Press, in its News-Values states that when possible, the AP seeks to use more than one source. (Ap.org) The Reuters Handbook of Journalism suggests that journalists use two or more sources. (Handbook.reuters.com) In a News College article, Gregg McLachlan goes so far as to say that multiple sources are “essential.” (McLachlan)
Single sourced articles are of lesser reliability than those with multiple sources. This article, “Special Ops Officer Blows Whistle On CIA Funded ISIS” is single sourced. The article makes the claim that “President Obama is so willing to chase ISIS into Syria and risk war with Russia, but he allows an ISIS base camp to remain intact only 8 miles from El Paso”. (Hodges) To prove that there is an ISIS base in El Paso, the author should have interviewed people involved, such as ISIS members who live and work on the base. Assuming the ISIS members refused to give interviews, the author should have interviewed eyewitnesses, people living in the El Paso area, who were aware of or have had contact with the base. A large military base would employ cooks, cleaners, maintenance workers, drivers, delivery people, office staff, and all sorts of people who might be willing to give a statement.
The story didn’t even make the claim that the reporter went to the base but was refused entry or refused an interview. There seems to have been no attempt made to talk to anyone or verify the story.
With only the word of a single source, the story lacks credibility.
The RT story, RT English,. 'Media 'Staged' Syria Chem Attack (E36)'. N.p., 2014. Web. 29 Aug. 2015. Makes this claim:
“4:46 Brilliant is how a top is Western official called tricking the public
4:49 through routine faking of atrocities and commonly aired on mainstream bulletins”
Although this is a video news story, which included other interviews and eyewitness reports, it did not include video footage of this “top Western official” making this statement. Neither did the story tell when, where, or in what context this “top Western official” made this statement. Additionally, the “top Western official” was never named. Therefore the quote cannot be verified. According to The Associated Press News-Values, sources should always be named except in the case of very specific mitigating circumstances. (Ap.org) The Reuters Handbook of Journalism also maintains that sources should be named, “Anonymous sources are the weakest sources.” (Handbook.reuters.com)Without attribution of speaker, time, and context of this quote, it is, at best, hearsay, not evidence.
The story headlined, "5 Of 10 Top Economies…" does not have a single interview or evidence of any kind. There are two quotes in the story, one which is an emotionally charged diatribe against the US Dollar “somewhat sustain our back-breaking debt that the banker-occupied United States government…”. The other quote is one which predicts what would happen if the world dropped the dollar. But neither of these quotes supports the story’s claim that "5 Of 10 Top Economies In The World Drop The Dollar"
The world’s 10 largest economies include: U.S., China, Japan, Germany, U.K., France, India, Brazil, Italy, and Canada. The story claims that several nations have agreed to bypass the dollar in bilateral trade with China, but, the list of countries in the story does not include 5 of these top economies.
Currency here simply means the timeliness of the story. If the article is too old, it may not be useful. The term “old” however, is relative. Some subjects change more rapidly than others. For example, an article about history, biography, or geography may be valid for a century or more. An article about the economy of China or Vietnam, however, or an article about the global use of social media may be out of date after a matter of months, because those subjects change very quickly.
Relationship with findings in other media
When evaluating the reliability of a story, it is important to see how that story relates to similar stories from other media sources. For example, in August, 2015, the Chinese Central Bank decided to devalue China’s currency, the RMB. (Telegraph.co.uk)
This change in value of the official currency of the world’s second largest economy was so significant that mainstream media began running stories predicting the drop in July, as can be seen from this July 8th headline from CNBC, 'China Turmoil Grows: 10% Renminbi Drop Predicted'. Major media, such as CNN, Reuters, MSN, BBC, Time, and the New York Times continued to follow the changes in the RMB’s value. Rather than just reposting the same source content, as has been seen with many conspiracy stories, the various media outlets ran their own stories with unique interviews, predictions and analysis on the RMB changes. A month later, toward the end of August, the mainstream media were still following the story, as evidenced in this CNBC story from 27 August, 'China's Yuan Up Sharply On C. Bank Intervention But Derivatives Stabilise'. (Jianxin and Sweeney)
Relationship with findings in other media means that a fact which was written in one source, such as CNN, could then be cross checked against another source, such as Money Magazine or Time. While predictions about future implications of the change in the RMB may vary somewhat, one would expect the basic facts of the story to remain the same from media to media.
Cross checking conspiracy theory stories is problematic, because conspiracy stories seem to appear only on other conspiracy websites. Although the conspiracy sites missed the RMB drop story, they had a number of stories which were not covered in mainstream media. A Listverse article selected the top 10 conspiracy theories of 2013. Among them were “Obama Death Squads” and “Newtown Shooting Hoax”. (Listverse) Interestingly, versions of both conspiracy theories appear on many of the same sites. For example, versions of both stories appeared on beforeitwasnews.com, prisonplanet.com, mrconservative, snopes.com, and dcclothesline.
Neither of these stories appeared on CNN, Reuters, MSN, BBC, Time, or the New York Times. If a story has no relation to other media, its reliability is lower.
According to a 2010 CNN article, 61% of Americans claim they get their news from the internet. (Gross) With millions of websites and thousands of news media to choose from, the choices of what to read and what to believe can be overwhelming. In order to select the most reliable media, one can evaluate the reliability of a news article by applying the simple tests of: Audience, language, author, evidence, currency, and relation to findings in other media
© Antonio Graceffo September 1st 2015
Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo teaches research methodology at Shanghai University. He is also a PhD candidate at Shanghai University of sport, writing his dissertation on comparative forms of Chinese wrestling. He is martial arts and adventure author living in Asia, the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.
The Monk from Brooklyn, the book which gave Antonio his name, and all of his other books, the book available at amazon.com. His book, Warrior Odyssey, chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia, including stories about Khmer and Vietnamese martial arts as well as the war in Burma and the Shan State Army, is available at http://www.blackbeltmag.com/warrior_odyssey
See Antonio’s Destinations video series and find out about his column on http://www.blackbeltmag.com
Brooklyn Monk fan page
Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE
Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)
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