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Ending the spread of misinformation starts with you


“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Astronomer Carl Sagan is credited with popularizing that phrase, which in the 40 years since it was uttered, has become known as the “Sagan standard.” It is used at the rule to judge the merits of claimed breakthroughs, separating sound science from charlatans and conmen.

While its primary application is in science, the Sagan standard is equally as valid when it comes to interacting with the broader world around us. It is especially useful when it comes to winnowing through the daily bombardment of information, to separate out the kernels of truth from the chaff of exaggerations, prevarications and outright lies, that are told to further specific political or economic agendas.

When it comes to the news, the idea of requiring evidence for claims predates Sagan and is one of the foundations upon which modern concepts of objectivity in news coverage is based. By this standard, there is what is true vs. what is false. Politicians and public relations firms, by their very nature, seek to weave a gray area between truth and lies, to further their particular agenda.

In the main stream media, reporters, news directors and editors are trained to sift through the chaff, and find the valuable kernels. In the online world of social media, there is no such cadre of professionals sorting between truth and lies.

Social media is an information free-for-all, where the difference between truth and lies becomes meaningless, and computer algorithms lead to balkanization and tribalism, based around false narratives, rather than fulfilling the idealistic dream of it as a free-flowing forum, where lofty ideas are discussed and all voices are heard.

In the social media world, there are no Walter Cronkites, no Edward R. Murrows and not even any Paul Harveys to tell the rest of the story. There is only the spin supported by the metrics of manipulation, abetted by clickbait headlines, which deliver the proverbial diet of bread and circuses keeping people distracted from what is going on in the world.

In this cowardly new world, it is essential that people take up the Sagan standard and, in the process, recognize that what is true may not always be what we want it to be and call out those who spread lies.

A first step is to think before you share.

Do your research. Check with well-respected sources such as, Politifact or if it came from a legitimate respected news organization. Don’t stop with just one source, check it out with multiple sources, note the variations in how the information is presented. Question all extraordinary claims and hold them to the Sagan standard to provide extraordinary evidence to support those claims.

The next step is to answer those who spread lies, even partial ones, with evidence of the truth. This can be done discretely and with tact. Just as with the emperor’s clothes, sharing what is definably true is always the correct choice, rather than allowing someone to even inadvertently spread lies.

The further step is to recognize that despite the algorithms that have created social media echo chambers of like-thinking individuals, it is important to realize that intelligent people can, and at times, should disagree about what course of action should be taken.

The final, and most important step, is for all of us to speak the truth, regardless if it is talking with friends or sharing items on social media. The obligation to stop the spread of misinformation rests with each one of us.

Members of the Courier Sentinel editorial board include publisher Carol O’Leary, general manager Kris O’Leary and Star News editor Brian Wilson.