Monday, February 7, 2022

Facts as Weapons

For a long time we've emphasized the importance of fact checking. But even facts that 'check out' can be used (incorrectly) as weapons in information wars.

The following article by the Consilience Project, How to Mislead with Facts, describes how "verified facts can be used to support erroneous conclusions."

A quick recap:

  1. Taking facts out of context, or failing to report sufficient context.
  2. Cherry-picking facts to support a particular point of view (which has other valid sides).
  3. Reinterpreting facts to persuade readers that a particular outcome is unquestionable.

When 'conclusions' like these are amplified on social media they really do have an impact, even if they are misinformation based on verified facts. 

The need for information fluency and not taking for granted everything we read is as true today as it was when the Internet first appeared. The article offers guidelines in terms of questions that are good to ask of any information. Here are just a few:

  • Has a reliable source been cited to support the facts?
  • Have the facts been corroborated by multiple independent sources?
  • What is important to know about the contexts in which the facts have been validated?
  • How much will the fact hold true beyond the context in which it was validated?
  • What additional facts must be considered?
  • In what ways can the fact be framed emotionally and taken personally by different types of people?

When facts are used as weapons (e.g., to vilify a political party, a scientific finding, a leadership decision, etc.) the task of not falling prey to misinformation requires more than reading. If recent events have taught us anything, is that information can't be taken at face value without some degree of risk. Unless readers exercise care and learn to evaluate facts on their own, they are increasingly at risk.


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