Determining the reliability of your news sources relies on you

If you live in the National Capital Region of Canada and have never been to one of the public talks organised by The Panel or – horror of horrors! – never heard of The Panel you really need to do your homework.  The Panel is an Ottawa-based organisation that hosts two live events each year to talk about issues that matter to Canadians.  It usually has a media host and a panel of experts, and allows those in the audience to chime in with their thoughts – live! – via social media.  It is worth looking into.

I have just returned from the latest offering, on data and democracy, moderated by Global News’ Ottawa Bureau Chief Mercedes Stephenson.  It covered a wide swath of topics, not nearly in enough detail alas, ranging from foreign interference in our elections process, fake news, whether governments are doing enough and what we as citizens can and should do to protect one of our most precious institutions: the ability to choose those who will represent us in Parliament.

It was all very, very interesting but one topic stood out for me: how we get our information – i.e. news – these days.  The reality, which was not a surprise to me but nevertheless still struck me, is that an awful lot of people are getting their news feeds manipulated through social media platforms like FaceBook.  In other words, FaceBook decides, based on some algorithm which draws from what you search for and consume online, what news sources you see.  This is of course much easier than having to look yourself.  Presto!  You get your news delivered to you effortlessly.

Here is the problem though.  I may not be an expert but I am pretty sure FaceBook or other providers don’t give a rat’s posterior how accurate the news they select (or the algorithm selects) for you is.  They see what turns your crank and give you more.  If you like the New York Times you get more NYT I guess.  If you like The Onion (or the Canadian equivalent The Beaverton) you get more of that. If Fox News (fair and balanced) is your preference…

Does anyone else see the danger of this?  A social media company is deciding – yes, yes through an algorithm based on your practice – what you see and makes it so easy that you have little desire to go looking for other sources on your own. You consume what is sent to you and you cannot help but have that selection determine your views on any given matter.

The only really effective way to wade through the myriad sources of information available these days is to a) look for yourself rather than rely on FaceBook and b) learn which sources are good and which are bad.  You also need to get out of your comfort bubble and read/listen to sources with which you disagree: echo chambers are not conducive to mature decision making.

As a former intelligence analyst tasked with collecting, analysing and distributing information to advise government, I and my many, many colleagues over the decades knew that our advice was only as good as the quality of the sources we had.  That is why we made so much effort to determine source reliability (SIGINT, HUMINT or whatever).  Bad sources give bad intelligence which lead to bad policies and actions.  Does anyone recall CIA Director George Tenet’s ‘slam dunk’ over the US conviction, derived from a wonky source, that Saddam Hussain had weapons of mass destruction?  Look where that got us!

When I worked at CSIS I spent hours every day reading what my colleagues had gathered and always asked myself: is this true? Does the source have a hidden agenda behind what s/he is providing?  Can we test the source?  Or, even better, can we get the same information/intelligence from multiple/independent sources, thus upping its reliability?  Now that I no longer have access to classified sources I try to do the same with the open media I scan, asking the same questions.  Sure, it is a helluva lot harder than just getting FaceBook to feed me but it is much more reliable (and satisfying) to do it my way.

As members of a functioning democracy we have a responsibility to stay informed, challenge what we hear and see and take nothing for granted so that we can make the best decisions and hold our  leaders to account.  If you are one of the many who get your news handpicked (machine-picked) for you by an algorithm you might want to ask yourself why you have chosen this path.  After all, an educated and knowledgeable electorate is a better electorate.

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