In the age of social media, we scroll through a deluge of information, most often in the form of memes or videos of talking heads.

Fairness and accuracy seem less important than pushing the agenda. Why? It’s the agenda that sells. As more and more larger media outlets - be they newspapers, magazines, radio programming or television programming - swallow smaller media outlets, media conglomerates are created. These conglomerates have business throughout the nation and world; they don’t care about the health of a community; they care about profit.

Like sex sells, so do other things that feed off of our emotions. A pundit validating your thoughts makes you feel vindicated. A story about an abandoned puppy being rescued can make you feel tender or hopeful, like chicken soup for your soul. News anchors comparing the coronavirus to the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic can make you feel fear. Perhaps the most prevalent of emotions the talking heads strive to kindle is anger. That anger pits Americans against Americans and friends against friends is a threat to the unity of the UNITED States of America.

As a high school English teacher, I taught a unit on rhetorical strategies, the tools of persuasive speaking and writing. I placed emphasis on ethos (appeal to credibility of speaker), pathos (appeal to emotions of audience) and logos (appeal to logic of audience) and challenged students to find these in advertising, articles and political speeches. I believe it is easier to be wary of manipulation when you can more readily spot these. Training your mind to see them is like training your mind to question the purpose behind a person’s persuasive words. I believe this is becoming an essential skill in the digital age, and one that is unhoned in too many people.

Aside from learning those and other rhetorical strategies, how can you protect your mind from misinformation?

  • Always check the source. If you’re unfamiliar with the provider, read their About page or Google them.

  • Does the author have a vested interest in you believing this information?

  • Are they an authority on the topic?

  • Do they fairly portray both sides of the issue?

  • Verify the information against other media providers. Is it the same?

  • If factual information is referenced or given, do the authors show you from where they found the information? Is it a credible source?

  • Are there multiple spelling and grammar errors?

  • A URL ending in .org doesn’t automatically make it credible. “Org” stands for organization, and not every organization is unbiased.

  • Does the information use words with strong connotations often?

  • Does the “news” you’re reading clearly take a stand on an issue?

  • Trust your instincts. If something sounds too off-the-wall to be true, it probably is. Fact check it.