Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

22 October 2018

How to Avoid Being Duped and Stay Sane


[For a plea to Tim Cook to shape up Apple’s OS X before it goes the way of Microsoft’s consumer operating systems, click here. For how I voted early and why, and how easy it was to vote, click here. For a description of how mind-raping propagandists get people to vote against their own interests, click here. For all the reasons why the FBI’s “investigation” of Christine Blasey Ford’s claim of sexual abuse was a sham, click here. Fox sixteen reasons to vote this time for Democrats only, click here. For a note on the likely electoral consequences of the GOP ramming Kavanaugh through to the Supreme Court, click here. For a note on why the issue has become personal for many, click here. For a short note on how important Professor Ford’s charges are, click here. For comment on President Obama’s decision to join the political fray, click here. For a possible path to Trump’s impeachment and removal, click here. For comment on Trump’s deal with Mexico, click here. For a brief homage to John McCain, followed by reasons to support Stacey Abrams, click here. For a brief note on vote suppression in Georgia as a reason to support Stacey Abrams, click here. For other good candidates and causes and how to contribute easily, click here. For recent posts in reverse chronological order, click here.]

1. Shun “live” or “hot” media like the plague.

2. Filter your Internet: get “news” only from selected, trusted sources, and limit social media to your own in-person social circles.

3. Use “print” media exclusively to inform yourself about the world outside your own social circles, and especially about politics.

4. Pick your print media with care.

5. Think about what you read, hear or see.

The election season in which we are now knee deep is a big time for lies and propaganda. Many voices are trying to persuade you that up is down, black is white, and right is left. Some will even try to get you to go to the wrong polling place, on the wrong day, just in order to waste your vote.

Avoiding being someone’s dupe and staying sane are two skills that every voter should have. Here are five ways to acquire those skills, in rough order of importance:

1. Shun “live” or “hot” media like the plague.

You don’t need to know “news” as it “breaks,” far less to vote sensibly. So avoid “live” or “hot” news, such as TV, radio, and streaming Internet. They will only tend to distract, delude and confuse you.

This kind of “news” has a single purpose: to grab your attention and distract you from whatever you are doing or thinking at the time. The underlying aim is nearly always to sell you something—a sponsor’s product or service, the news source itself, or an idea. In one way or another, “hot” or “live” news is out to dupe you from the get-go.

At best, this kind of “news” will distract, titillate, or entertain you. At worst, it will delude or deceive you. Or it will make you fear or hate your neighbor without good reason. You don’t want to let anyone do that to you, especially right before an election.

“Hot” news is “news” without thought, reflection, or perspective. Often it’s misleading, incomplete, or simply wrong—just like initial reports of deaths and injuries from a plane crash or a multi-day hurricane.

Not only will paying close attention to this breathless, “breaking” news just waste your precious time. It will often give you a false and misleading impression. You’ll waste your effort digesting half-baked preliminary reports that will have to be revised, updated and corrected later.

Paradoxically, those distracting little “push” notifications on your cell phone can help you avoid this waste of time and effort. In a few seconds, you can read them and mentally note major headlines that you think may be worthy of sustained attention later. Then, after a day, two or three, when the story has matured and all the data are in, you can pick the best summary from a leading source of “print” journalism and inform yourself in depth.

Focusing on “breaking” or “live” news is not only a waste of your precious time. It can become an addiction—one that kills all reflection and higher reasoning. The only kind of “hot” news that merits unquestioned attention is news that a tornado or hurricane is heading your way.

Anyway, reading is always more efficient than listening or viewing. Nearly everyone but dyslexics can read much faster than any announcer can speak. Our busy modern life doesn’t give you enough spare moments to waste listening or viewing when you can read. So use your eyes, not your ears, and use them for reading.

2. Filter your Internet: get “news” only from selected, trusted sources, and limit social media to your own in-person social circles.

Unfiltered by source, the Internet is an open sewer of lies, rumors, speculation and gossip. If you’re old enough to vote, you know that stuff you yourself write can appear on almost anyone’s Facebook page, e-mail inbox, Website, or What’s App screens. There’s no telling where what you write can end up on the Internet, especially if you have a little skill with computers and software.

If you can write on almost anyone else’s social media pages, then anyone can write on yours. If you’ve been alive and sentient during the last two years, you know that Russian and Chinese military intelligence, right-wing and left-wing ideologues, extreme political “operatives,” white supremacists, and other hate-mongers—all have probably written on your own social media.

There’s no way you or anyone else can stop them because the folks who run your social media have no clue how. Furthermore, they have no incentive to stop them. What social media platforms do for a living is sell your attention to advertisers, political operatives and other opinion masters. Distracting and deluding you—or letting others do so—is part of how they make a living.

So there’s no way, even with a reasonable amount of care and effort, that you can protect yourself from lies on the unfiltered Internet or social media. You can either be a dupe, or you can close the valve and cut the flow of sewage. There is no other alternative.

So man (or woman) up and cut off the flow. Limit your use of social media to your own personal, social interactions with people you know outside of cyberspace, people you’ve met in the real world. Delete Facebook and Twitter, or at least limit them to “Friends” whom you know and select personally. Never open your social media up to Friends of Friends, who could be anyone. Pick your sources of information and social media contacts as carefully as you pick the real friends you spend time with in the real world.

3. Use “print” media exclusively to inform yourself about the world outside your own social circles, and especially about politics.

“Print” media don’t have to be on dead trees. They can be on line. But “print” is not video or audio; it’s writing. And that makes all the difference.

Print differs from “live” or “hot” news in that a trained expert—called a “journalist”—has taken the time and trouble to digest the news for you—to verify its truth, to organize it, to analyze it, and to present it to you through the crowning achievements of the human mind: language and Reason.

Unlike video and audio, print doesn’t rely on or target your immediate perceptions or your emotions. It addresses your capacity to think, remember and reflect. It invites you to consider the news in the same way that the trained journalist has presented it to you: from all sides, with all perspectives, and in light of both probable and possible consequences. It invites you to reason, rather than just react. Your own and our species’ survival depend upon us doing that.

4. Pick your print media with care.

Of course writers can lie, distract and deceive in print, just as announcers can in video and audio. But there’s a long and solid tradition of truth, honesty, balance and professionalism in print journalism. People who practice it for a living care about these things. And they correct themselves when they err in promoting falsehood, even accidentally.

Learn how to spot sources of print journalism that spring out of this professional tradition. The best way to do so is to focus on longevity. If a news source has had a good reputation producing print journalism since long before TV and the Internet even existed, you can rely on it.

Examples are well-respected national newspapers in the United States, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. (The Wall Street Journal also has been around for a long time, but Rupert Murdoch—the dark master of “hot” news and entertaining propaganda—bought it a few years ago and converted it to the Dark Side.) If you live in a major city outside New York, you also may have local print media with similar reputations and longevity.

An even better strategy to gain accuracy, perspective and freedom from bias is to rely on foreign print media. They are less likely to lie and delude you about American politics simply because they have no dog in our national fights. Such British news media as the Financial Times and the Guardian fit this description well.

A third way to seek accurate and balanced journalism, as well as to save time, is to subscribe to weekly news magazines. These sources use even more time and care to select and report their stories than dailies. Among them are Newsweek and Time Magazine in the United States and The Economist in Britain. The last has the advantages of being both a weekly and foreign.

It’s worth repeating that you needn’t subscribe to good “print” media on dead trees. Virtually every good print news medium today has an on-line presence to which you can subscribe. Many allow you to “sample” a small number of stories for free each month, so you can get to know them without spending any money or committing yourself.

And when you get ready to buy, a digital subscription allows you to access print news wherever you are, from a desktop or laptop computer, a tablet, or even a smart phone. You needn’t lose the convenience of modern digital communications to get the benefits of good, accurate and reflective print journalism and the elements of Reason that written stories provide.

5. Think about what you read, hear and see.

By far the most important aspect of your relationship with good journalism is your own active engagement.

Human life and history are continua. In real life there are no miracles. To the well-informed, there are not even many big surprises (besides occasional crashes and natural disasters).

In real news, as distinguished from “fake news,” almost everything is logically and consequentially related to everything else. That means—as one of my most popular blog posts once advised college students—that “Context is everything. If you know little or nothing, it’s easy to lie and mislead you. The more you know, the harder it gets.”

Almost every conspiracy theory you will hear or see is utter nonsense. People don’t work by conspiracies; they work by custom, habit and tradition.

So try to put it all together. Try to connect the dots. Above all, just sit and think about what you read, and discuss it with others.

I’ll give just two examples. The Republican Party has reflexively fought every aspect of the modern American social safety net since its inception during FDR’s New Deal. Republicans fought to prevent the enactment of Social Security and Medicare. They fought the expansion of medical coverage through Medicaid. They fought the enactment of “Obamacare,” and they fought to “repeal and replace” Obamacare once it passed into law. Now they’re fighting to bring back exclusions for pre-existing conditions, so that insurance companies can pass off as “health insurance” policies that don’t even cover the very risks to your health that are most likely to recur—i.e., those that have already happened before.

So as you consider Republicans’ claims that all they want to do is lower costs and increase the coverage of health-care insurance, how likely do you think that is? How likely are those “efforts” to be successful? Are they consistent with past performance?

Second, a core tenet of so-called “conservatism” is that taxes should be as low as possible. That goes especially for the rich, who got the vast bulk of the benefits of the Trump Tax Cut. So when Republicans claim that the Trump Tax Cut was intended mainly to boost the economy, how likely do you think that is? Do leopards change their spots?

If you get excited about every Trumpian Tweet and every Trumpian lie—of which there were already reportedly more than 5,000 as of this September—you can easily drive yourself crazy and lose the forest for the trees. That’s why it’s better to pick a reliable source of print journalism (or several) that you like and get your news from it. Believing a single pol for your information—any single pol—is a fool’s practice; it’s almost the definition of being a dupe.

Be skeptical. Things in politics and public life are often too good (or too horrible!) to be true, just as they are in the world of buying and selling. Approach pols’ own announcements and declarations as you would paid advertising for a very expensive product. In truth, that analogy has a lot of merit: they are trying to sell you a very important product: the future of your country and our democracy.

A good source of print journalism won’t try to distract or delude you or sell you anything, including a point of view. In fact, it won’t push a coherent point of view at all. Instead, it will try to put things together for you and let you see things in perspective.

Sometimes that can be frustrating. Good journalism often gives you no answers, at least not before they’re entirely clear. Instead, it gives you good questions. It forces you to think and wait for answers. Isn’t that much like real life?

As you find and immerse yourself in good journalism, pay attention to bylines. You will find that some authors are better than others, or that some are more to your style. My own personal favorite is David Leonhardt, the opinion-page editor of the New York Times. He has superb training in quantitative economics and writes simply and clearly. He runs a daily opinion newsletter, free of charge, that you can subscribe to here.

As you assimilate professional journalism, you will come to know individual writers like him, by name and by byline, whose reporting you trust and whose style you like. More than any shady “Friends” or “Friends of Friends” on Facebook, you can rely on them. They will become your real friends. Unlike Friends on Facebook, they will not rise out of the Internet’s digital sludge, vanish abruptly, or turn against you at the click of a mouse.

More than any other people on this planet, the respected journalists you pick as your reliable sources of real news will help you avoid being duped, stay sane, and stop wasting your precious time. If you take care in selecting them, you can count on their not being Russian or Chinese intelligence agents, or political agents provocateurs bent on making you their dupe. You just have to find them and get used to sampling their work product regularly. Only then can you be truly safe on line.

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