By: David Wong
The Internet, while awesome, is also a mind-boggling marvel of bullshit production and dissemination. A misleading or outright fake news story can get forwarded on Facebook a million times before Snopes.com can even write up their rebuttal (no, oral sex does not prevent breast cancer).
Since the rise of social media, we get more and more of our news from each other, and far, far too many of us aren’t asking ourselves the important question:
“Is the amazing news I’m about to share even true?”
Because most of the time, we don’t need somebody else to debunk these stories for us — not if we know what to look for.
For instance, it should always raise red flags if …
#5. It’s World-Changing News from Some Obscure Website
Any Time You See a Headline Like … “Vaccinated Children Five Times More Prone to Disease Than Unvaccinated Children“ – NaturalNews.com
Or: “Studies Show That Online Gaming Can Add Years to Your Life” -i-Newswire
You Should Read It As … “Vaccinated Children Five Times More Prone to Disease Than Unvaccinated Children AND ALSO WI-FI IS CAUSING WORMS TO GROW IN YOUR BRAIN” – Hobo talking to his pet rat on the subway
Not all of the news has to come from The New York Times or the BBC, but if you’re going to forward me a link on Facebook about some earth-shattering piece of health news, I’d better not hover my mouse over the link and see it’s from AlienTruthRevealed.blogspot.com.
95% of the misinformation on the Internet could be stopped in its tracks if people would just take a few seconds to look at the source of the amazing headline they just read before hitting the Facebook “share” button.
In the case of that vaccination story above, it came from NaturalNews.com. And, to be fair, it kind of sounds like a legit site. It’s only when you read down to the bottom that you see that their anti-vaccine study was based on an online poll conducted at a website called VaccineInjury.info. That is, an anti-vaccine blog got their readers to click buttons on a page agreeing that vaccines are terrible (obviously every study ever done disagrees). But how many parents just skimmed and forwarded it along with an accompanying post like “Scary stuff!!!”
I understand it’s not always obvious by just glancing at the URL — purveyors of bullshit news have figured out how to sneak their product onto domains that also host legit news. For instance, a while back I mentioned a shocking story that ran on Reuters about how fluoride harms brain function, but a closer examination showed that it was just a press release by anti-fluoride wackjobs hosted on a separate part of Reuters’ website (with no oversight or fact checking — you could write one right now and they’d post it).
Oh, and do you still recognize Forbes as the highbrow magazine for investor types? Because guess what: Their website now hosts hundreds of unedited blogs from random, often unpaid writers off the street. Seriously, you can write for them if you want. So now any time you see a Forbes.com story and the URL has “sites/(some dude’s name here)” in the middle, you’re not reading a news story from professional Forbes reporters/editors, you’re reading a blog post from some random person. That’s why you can see a “Forbes” article claiming that a majority of scientists doubt global warming — in reality, it’s a press release written by a shill for the Heartland Institute, an oil-industry-funded group that ran billboards comparing environmentalists to serial killers.
Remember, there’s a lot of money to be made from bullshit — that traffic pays the same as any, and they’re getting very good at tricking us into doing their promotional work for them. And that goes double if …
#4. It’s From the Daily Mail (or Another U.K. Tabloid)
Any Time You See a Headline Like … “Semen Is ‘Good for Women’s Health and Helps Fight Depression’” – DailyMail.co.uk
Or: “Woman, 23, Found ‘Having Sex With a Pit Bull Terrier’” -TheSun.co.uk
You Should Read It As … “Bigfoot Caught Having Sex With Roswell Aliens” – BullshitChonicle.info
I guarantee that everyone reading this has clicked on, and believed, a Daily Mail story within the last year. Their website has become the most popular news website in the world, largely because of their talent for getting Americans to forward their bullshit to each other.
The Daily Mail and The Sun are tabloids — I’m not using the word “bullshit” lightly here. It’s a little bit easier to see with The Sun (typical headline: “Aaron, 9, ‘Bullied to Death for Being White’ — Family Blames Asian Yobs for Suicide“), but a huge number of Americans don’t seem to realize that The Daily Mail is just as bad. They’re so much better at hiding it — go to their front page and they’ll have four real stories and then one they just pulled out of their asses. And I mean literally they’ll just make up a fictional story, usually about the danger of immigrants/foreigners/Muslims, or salacious sex-related crimes, or the horrors of feminism.
For instance, they ran an outrageous “crazy ex-girlfriend story” with the headline “Dentist Anna Mackowiak Pulls Out Her Ex-Boyfriend’s Teeth” (they made sure this happened in Poland, to get the “crazy foreigner” aspect in there).
The story went viral and was picked up by Fox News, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The New York Daily News, as well as every news aggregator website on Earth. When somebody finally looked into it and it turned out that none of the people involved actually existed, The Daily Mail said they weren’t quite sure where it came from. That is, one of their reporters just … made it up.
And why not? It’s not like it will stop anyone from forwarding the next one. The “swallowing semen fights depression in women” story I mentioned above got repeated so often that England’s National Health Service had to issue a statement reminding people that if they’re suffering from depression they shouldn’t try to just blow their way out of it.
But their real specialty, the fuel that keeps their ad revenue fires burning, is outrage. When a British researcher suggested that autism could be exacerbated by two parents of similar obsessive personality types, The Daily Mail wrote it as “Is the Changing Role of Women in Our Society Behind the Rise in Autism in the Past 30 Years?” When a female scientist wrote a book about how in the future, there might be ways to have children without a sex partner, The Daily Mail‘s headline was “The Woman Who Wants to Abolish Sex.” Other Daily Mail exclusives include “How the BBC Fell for a Marxist Plot to Destroy Civilization from Within” and “Why No Child Is Safe from the Sinister Cult of Emo.”
Don’t laugh — remember, they generate some of the most-forwarded stories on the Internet. Hey, remember that crazy story from a while back with the headline “Saudis Fear There Will Be ‘No More Virgins’ and People Will Turn Gay if Female Drive Ban Is Lifted“?
That was The Daily Mail.
And just by linking to all of these I’ve fallen into another one of their traps: writing intentionally wrong/dangerous articles to get the traffic from outraged people debunking them. Like “Want to Beat Depression? Do What I Did — Just Get a Grip!” Or, after Japan’s tsunami, they gave us “Why My Wife’s POW Grandad Wouldn’t Mark a Minute’s Silence for the Japanese” (sample quote: “I often wonder what our fathers and grandfathers would have made of modern Britain’s ghastly cult of sentimentality and vicarious grief.”)
#3. It’s Predicting Some Future Disaster by a Strangely Specific Date
Any Time You See a Headline Like … “All Seafood Will Run Out in 2050, Say Scientists“
You Should Read It As … “We’re Not Sure How Much of a Problem This Is, But We Can’t Get Anyone to Care Unless We Say It’s the Apocalypse.”
Yes, all of the fish will be gone by 2050, according to that story that got spammed across every website and social media network on the Internet a few years ago …
… and who could resist forwarding, sharing, or reposting such a story? No fish by 2050! That story went almost as viral as the one pointing out how Europe will be a Muslim dictatorship by 2050. And the one about how there won’t be enough water to grow crops by 2050. And the news that America’s economy will collapse by 2050. Really, go Google the phrase “by 2050” and you’ll find out that it’s going to be a terrible year.
Granted, the “all fish will be gone by 2050” report was immediately debunked by scientists, and by scientists I mean “the same people who worked on the report” (they released a revised one a few years later, minus the doomsday prediction). And while there are still plenty of chilling viral videos warning of the Muslim menace overtaking the world thanks to their birthrates being higher …
… it, like all alarmist predictions your cousin shares on Facebook, is based on the assumption that every trend line on a graph continues in the same direction forever (spoiler alert: they don’t).
For instance, I grew up hearing every day that overpopulation was so out of control that we would run out of resources by 20 years ago. Today we know that birthrates are now falling worldwide, and so of course here come the predictions that humans will go extinct if current trends continue.
And that’s true, in the same way that you will eventually die if you continue your current trend of sitting and reading this article instead of eating or sleeping. But news outlets that rely on referral traffic know that a story expressing mild concern or suggesting sensible action on an issue is nothing but boring mouse cursor repellent. But set a deadline on the death of the reader or the reader’s children? That is getting shared. So, if it looks like an asteroid is going to come somewhat near Earth a century from now, according to a random Russian website, you throw that crap up on your site with the headline “We Have 93 Years Left Till the Next End of the World: Killer Asteroid to Hit Earth in 2106.” You’ve got a viral hit on your hands!
And you’ll notice that one also runs afoul of the “huge news from an obscure source” rule. Trust me, if a world-killing rock is heading our way, the grown-ups will cover that shit.
But even if the news is from a legit source, watch out if …
#2. It’s a Poll Disguised as a News Story
Any Time You See a Headline Like … “Poll: Americans Prefer ‘Christmas’ Over ‘Holiday’ Tree“
You Should Read It As … “A Special Interest Group Paid a Polling Firm to Get a Result, Now We’re Printing This Self-Congratulatory Circle Jerk to Fill Space.”
Keep in mind, I’m not talking about the polls they do around election season to figure out who’s winning — I’m talking about the paid-for bullshit surveys that make up the other 95 percent of stories that have the word “poll” in the title. Why do I call them bullshit? Three reasons:
A: In any poll, the wording of the question completely changes the result.
Most people have a few subjects they’re really smart about and are clueless about everything else. It’s nothing to be ashamed of; there are only so many hours in the day, and some subjects are boring as shit. The problem is that when asked by a pollster about one of the issues we’re clueless about, most people still give an answer, because we’d rather die than admit we’re not all-knowing geniuses. That means that in any given survey, many respondents are simply making up their opinion on the spot, and usually they’re doing it based on how the poll question is worded.
For example, recently the liberal website Daily Kos did a poll asking this question about gun control:
“Would you support or oppose banning assault weapons?”
Pretty simple, right? The result: Ban them: 63 percent; don’t ban: 32 percent
So about two-thirds of us want assault weapons banned. But at the same time, Gallup did a poll asking it this way:
“Are you for or against a law which would make it illegal to manufacture, sell, or possess semiautomatic guns known as assault rifles?”
The result: Ban them: 44 percent; don’t ban: 51 percent
A freaking 20-point swing, just by adding a bunch of words that really drive home what “ban” means. And you can do that with any issue — if you poll Americans asking, “Should we cut government spending?” an overwhelming 76 percent say cut, cut, cut, people literally demand cuts “across the board.” But if you ask the question another way, by actually listing the programs instead of just calling it “government,” then the numbers reverse completely — support for cutting drops into the teens or 20s.
This brings us to the next problem:
B: Polls are often paid for by special interest groups specifically to get that result.
So knowing how the wording affects the outcome, you can see how the game is played: Republicans who want to make it look like the public is on their side ask the question one way, Democrats ask it another. Now your liberal brother can post a link on Twitter saying, “84 PERCENT WANT GOVERNMENT HEALTH CARE SPENDING INCREASED! SO WHY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT CUTS?!?!?” and at the exact same time your conservative uncle can post the other link on his WordPress blog with “More than three-quarters of us want government spending cut — what part of that do you not understand, Obama?”
If you’re wondering what the pollsters get out of this, usually the answer is money. For instance, you might run across a poll showing overwhelming public support for legalized marijuana, and maybe you even incorporated that information into your brain (you don’t want to be out of step with the overwhelming sentiment, do you?) without reading closely enough to see that the poll was paid for by “The Marijuana Policy Project” and used laughably biased wording to get the desired result.
The point is that the poll got that result because the polling firm was paid to get it.
But even when the poll is unbiased …
C: A large percentage of people are just picking answers at random.
Remember that massive BP oil platform disaster a few years ago, the one that dumped a bunch of oil into the Gulf of Mexico? A poll at the time found that 21 percent of people said the disaster made them like offshore drilling more.
Another poll showed that during the last election, 6 percent of respondents thought Mitt Romney killed Osama bin Laden. Another showed 14 percent thought Obama might be the Antichrist.
Don’t freak out about those numbers — pollsters also found that they could make up a completely fictional government program and get 25 percent of people to claim they have heard of it and express an opinion about it. In other words, in any poll there is a solid 5 to 25 percent of people who are just saying random things into the phone so they can get back to masturbating.
#1. It’s About a Miracle Cure for Obesity, Cancer, or Clean Energy
Any Time You See a Headline Like … “Research Breakthrough Offers Obesity Cure Hope“ Or: “13-Year-Old Makes a Solar Breakthrough“ Or: “A Lifetime Supply of Energy in the Palm of Your Hand” Or: “A Virus That Kills Cancer“
You Should Read It As … “Scientists Continue to Exist and Study Important Problems, So Let’s Use Their Hard Work to Instill False Hope and Get Free Traffic.”
I’m not a pessimist, and I think the future will be awesome. But the vast majority of the positive science news that turns up on Reddit or science blogs or tech sites is pure bullshit.
Sometimes the stories are outright false, like the one about that genius 13-year-old who invented a far more efficient way to collect solar energy, or the group of African teenagers who invented a machine to get electricity from urine (in the first case, it turned out the kid did his calculations wrong, and in the second, the reporters misunderstood what the machine did — the former was retracted a few days later, the latter was debunked by people who have a better idea of what they’re talking about).
Other times the stories are true, but hugely misleading: They’re just taking a very small scale, preliminary result and declaring it a potential savior of mankind — here’s one talking about how a new clean energy technology could “end our dependence on fossil fuels within three to five years.”
The problem is that the average person mistakenly thinks science works this way. When we were in school, we heard about how polio and yellow fever were suddenly wiped out overnight thanks to one genius who stumbled across the cure, and movies teach us that massive technical advancements are invented by Doc Brown in his garage or Tony Stark in a cave.
So headlines play to this misconception by portraying every minor discovery as a potential magic bullet — and each time further research debunks it and it just quietly goes away … only to be replaced by the next miracle cure headline.
So if you actually Google the subject of the clean energy link above (in this case, thorium nuclear reactors) instead of, say, instantly forwarding it to all of your friends, you will be immediately kicked in the balls by Wikipedia’s giant wall of text describing the many problems with the technology.
It’s not that clean energy will never happen — it totally will. It’s just that it won’t come from a wild-haired scientist running out of his basement screaming, “Eureka! I’ve discovered how to get limitless clean energy from common seawater!” Instead, it will come from thousands of scientists publishing unreadable studies with titles like “Assessing Effectiveness and Costs of Asymmetrical Methods of Beryllium Containment in Gen 4 Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors When Factoring for Cromulence Decay.” The world will be saved by a series of boring, incremental advances that chip away at those technical challenges one tedious step at a time.
But nobody wants to read about that in their morning Web browsing. We want to read that while we were sleeping, some unlikely hero saved the world. Or at least cured cancer.
Yeah, cancer is another big one.
I don’t think I’ve ever been linked to an article as often as this one that came with the provocative title “Scientists Cure Cancer, But No One Takes Notice.” It claims that a drug called dichloroacetate (DCA) cures cancer but that Big Pharma has suppressed the results. I think every six months that story explodes across Facebook and Reddit, and that’s just one example — the Internet is awash in astonishing cancer breakthroughs and cures, all of which, the fine print reveals, work great … as long as we’re talking about tiny, short-term studies and/or mice.
Hey, you know what else scientists are constantly curing in mice? Obesity. Just over the last few months alone I’ve seen the headline “Obesity Crisis Over? Scientists Discover Way to Turn ‘Bad’ Fat into ‘Good’ Fat” (in mice!), “Possible Answer to Obesity Found at Emory University” (a “magical compound” of proteins, they say — it works great in mice!), and “Obesity Cure Claim by Irish and U.S. Researchers from Trinity and Harvard” (they’ve found immune cells that do the trick! In mice!).
And on and on.
If you were to go back 20 years, you’d see the same thing (here’s one from 1994 — they found the obesity gene! In mice!). That’s because about every five minutes for the last few decades, someone somewhere has successfully cured obesity in a lab mouse. Now, I don’t want to disparage anybody’s hard work, but if you can’t cure obesity in a mouse at this point, you are a garbage scientist. You have total control over the animal’s diet, and it doesn’t have the million social, psychological, and physiological factors that make humans overeat — successful mouse diets are not news.
Yet any time a news outlet needs to fill a spot, all they need to do is go grab from the giant pile of “Hey we also cured fat mice!” press releases and slap a “Potential Obesity Cure Found” headline on it. Free traffic.
At this point, the biggest struggle seems to be coming up with original headlines. My favorites so far are “New Flab Jab Could Be Cure for Obesity” and “Could Obesity Be Cured by Injecting Our Guts With Fecal Bacteria from Ancient Mummies?” (you’ll note the use of the “We know this is bullshit” question mark at the end). But when it comes to drawing clicks, who is ever going to beat “How Marijuana Could Help Cure Obesity-Related Diseases“? Hey, they’re not lying. They’ve gotten great results! In mice! I’m telling you, if your pet mouse struggles with obesity, help is on the way.
But here’s the reality: Nothing cures obesity in humans, other than the surgery that just shuts off your stomach so you can’t fit food in there. Even if they give you weight loss drugs, you’ll soon be steamrolled by a junk food and beverage industry that has specifically formulated their products to trigger an addiction response, which will blast you with advertisements every waking moment of your life. So you’ll keep eating while reading about how it’s OK because soon a pill will magically fix your waistline.
And no, there will never be a cure for cancer, either. That’s because cancer isn’t a disease, it’s a word used to describe more than a hundred different diseases that all sort of look the same but have completely different causes and affect completely different areas of the body in completely different ways. Some are more deadly than others, and we’re getting a little better at detecting and treating all of them. But it’s boring to write a headline pointing out that, for instance, you could save millions of lives with nothing more than improved training for doctors who do colonoscopies.
No, what we want to see is a picture of a scientist holding a glowing green vial that says “CANCER CURE” on the side. We want solutions to be simple and exciting, and most important of all, we want to be the first to tell our friends about them when they happen. So we blindly forward the news along and the whole cycle of bullshit continues.
David Wong has written a New York Times best-seller that is also one of the all time best-reviewed books on Amazon. Also, his movie about dong monsters starring Paul Giamatti IS AVAILABLE FOR DOWNLOAD NOW ON iTUNES, AMAZON INSTANT VIDEO, YouTube, and any other streaming service you can think of.
We felt like doing a new blog post because we had just received new desk chairs that are made of leather and we all feel like big time news people. However, we are are still waiting for the delivery of our new internal hard drives (which were ordered over a week ago) and our servers are moving slow due to our hard drives slightly malfunctioning. But these new chairs are extremely crazy comfortable!