Calling bullshit: Finding truth in the era of disinformation
In our age of disinformation, click-bait and opinion polarisation, here’s how to cull the truth from the crap.

Are today’s info-wars driving you wild? With zillions of stories, blogs and vlogs pushing different agendas, you have to be a super-sleuth to dig out the truth. Unsurprisingly, polls show faith in media and government has slumped to an all-time low. But who do you trust in a world where any image can be manipulated; where the story and who tells it has become a prized commodity; and where the quest to find the truth can be like wandering through a hall of smoke and mirrors, counter-claims and part truths.

Fake news is as old as storytelling itself, says Mark Andrejevic, professor of Communications and Media Studies at Monash University. “It’s more of a drama now because we have systems for amplifying and distributing it that allow it to become more widespread.”

Here’s how to sift truth from the trash.

Fact versus opinion

Opinion with little to back it is like chatting to the bloke next door — possibly interesting, but not something you’d bet your life on. Opinion with weight is created by someone with credentials on the topic they’re presenting, and/or credible studies, stats and sources that back their argument.

What’s a credible source?

The most legit sources of information are what’s known as “primary sources”. As Veronica Mars could tell you, these are the original, raw, first-hand evidence of events and information. It’s stuff like the original publication of research, statistical data, audio recordings, conferences proceedings, government reports, annual reports, financial transactions, legal, social and other kinds of documents, diaries, letters, emails, manuscripts, autobiographies, interviews and eyewitnesses. Photographs and ads are also primary sources.

Interpreting media stories

A reputable media source is one that has demonstrated its reputation over time by subscribing to reliable practices and procedures for adjudicating what’s true or false, according to Mark. This includes using verifiable evidence and information, statistics, research, credible and identifiable sources.

News stories can be either primary or secondary sources. A primary source story is a first-hand, original account of something happening at that moment in time. For example, an out-of-control bushfire reported by a journalist on the scene. News about the failure of the Rural Fire Services (RFS) to undertake bushfire hazard reduction is a secondary news story.

Secondary-source stories tend to feed off, interpret or synthesise primary sources. Other secondary sources of info include magazine articles, textbooks, opinion pieces, documentaries, journal articles, blogs and books that interpret and synthesise information.

Secondary sources can offer excellent all-round coverage of an issue. However, primary sources are more badass when it comes to bias-free facts.

How to spot a hidden agenda

Unfortunately, any source can be subject to bias, tweaking or omitting of the facts — more likely if the creator is going to benefit somehow. To hunt out a conflict of interest, check the sources’ background and affiliations, and the gravy train of any grants, income or other rewards. Internal documents from the sugar industry, for example, show it sponsored research that successfully cast dietary fat as the culprit in cardiovascular disease and downplayed the role of sugar.

Mark says this type of commercial imperative infects all media. “Look at the Murdoch press. They were circulating incorrect information saying the cause of the bushfires was deliberate arson — and not climate change — because it feeds their readership.”

Bias versus fakery

Bias (which we all have) isn’t the same as falsity, Mark clarifies. It’s an interpretation of reality or “this is what I think is going on!” “Every story has an angle or perspective that reflects your assessment of the world. That’s different from you making something up,” he says. “The truth is slippery. Our goal is to test whether or not our sense of what’s going on is borne out in the facts.”

Trusty tools

Some cool tools exist to help you sniff out a fake. Reverse Image Search, for example, reveals historical uses of an online image, including any derivatives of a manipulated photo. Wayback Machine allows you to access archived versions of internet websites, books, videos, TV news, images and audio recordings. Given the tendency for history to be rewritten over time, it’s a nifty tool for checking up on the world as it was at the time. It’s where to find those deleted sites and more.

Clear your own lens

The filter of reality often sits in our own mind where pre-conceived opinions based on our life experiences flavour our view of the world. Social media algorithms capture data about our behaviour and preferences to send us more of what we already believe, which, of course, doesn’t help the matter.

Provided we’re open to learning new things, there’s the capacity for any of us to find the holy grail of truth, Mark says. “We need to re-learn shared practices for adjudicating what we think is true or false.”

Linda Moon is a health, lifestyle and business writer published in INTHEBLACK, Sydney Morning Herald, WellBeing, SBS, The Guardian, The Saturday Paper and more.