Fear is at an all-time high in our society. Inflamed fear has caused us to cease to have the relevant conversations that address serious issues such as racism, poverty, and police brutality. We have opted into primitive problem-solving methods such as race batting, demonization, burning books, and good ole fashioned tribalism.
In many ways, the problem AND the solution lie somewhere between the intricate relationship of the internet, social media, the news media, and how we interact with these entities. These are all areas in which we receive and disseminate information.
Over time these areas have been polluted with algorithms and activists intent on engaging our amygdalas while starving our sense-making and critical thinking skills. This is my understanding of how to navigate information online and offline and how to make sense of the world around us.
Self-awareness, genuine curiosity, understanding, and critical thinking are the only things that stand in the way of us repeating history. These character traits have been derided by those who believe they have it all figured out.
We may already be doomed, but I’ll be damned if I go down without a fight. There is no way our diverse society can solve problems together if there isn’t a certain level of objectivity on how we disperse knowledge and information.
The internet via blogs, videos, social media, forums, and chat rooms, and audio rooms has given us immense power to know. The news media gatekeepers no longer guard that power. Many news media outlets have resorted to sensationalism and emotional manipulation in response to people turning elsewhere for information.
As with any freedom, there are many pitfalls to the decentralization of information. Q-Anon and Flat-Earthers are the best examples to date of how misinformation can mislead and galvanize the disenchanted. It all starts with critical thinking and understanding.
However, if you yearn for confirmation and hate mental challenges, this may not be for you. After all, most of us have more important things to do than scouring the internet for “truth.” If you intend to learn, grow, and understand, then you’ll find the process enjoyable.
The vast majority of events you see on a screen, whether that screen is a television screen, phone screen, or laptop screen, are outside of your influence and have little to no effect on you personally. Why wrap up your emotions into something outside of your reality?
It is crucial to understand this. That Instagram model that comes across your feed, the Coca-Cola ad, the nightly news you see every night at 10, ALL of it has been catered, researched, and manipulated to generate a specific reaction from you.
Everything from the makeup they wear, the immutable characteristics of the people presented, the graphics they use, the words they say, and the topics they cover, it’s all intentional.
It’s a curated reality packaged to sell, not packaged to make you a better person, solve your problems or help the people you love. The very least you can do is not get your emotions caught up in the mechanisms of a curated world.
10 Tips For Conducting Online Research without Getting Bamboozled.
As a digital marketer of over ten years, I’m fully aware of the marketing and advertising strategies used to persuade and sway the actions you take and how you view the world. In light of this, here is my list of steps you can take to make sense of an online world that has bled out into the mainstream over the past few years.
- Be keenly aware of your own bias. We all have biases, but not all of us are aware of our biases. This means that when conducting searches online, we more often than not find ourselves seeking confirmation instead of information and starting with a conclusion in mind. Free your mind of predisposed ideological positions.
- Every news story has its sources. I rarely trust articles that cite other articles that cite other articles as their sources. It is a common practice for “news” sites to simply copy stories from other sites. So be sure to make sure you are looking at the original article. Don’t be played by the classic telephone game that can easily distort real events and take thoughts or statements out of context.
- Be suspicious of headlines and articles that use an excessive number of modifiers such as adjectives and adverbs. You can spot a fluff or an opinion piece disguised as a factual account by looking at how many modifiers are used.
The writer has priorities other than disseminating accurate information. Their focus could be to convince you of how smart they are (read the typical movie review), push a narrative, paint someone or something in a bad light, shame, or cancel someone. Or it could be Hanlon’s razor.
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence. The writer could be lazy. Regardless, excessive modifiers take away from factual information and paint a picture of an event that could be a deviation from what is objectively true.
- Be aware of headlines that presuppose a conclusion. These headlines do more than state a fact or event. They work on coloring the event with what seems like context but frequently is hearsay.
- If the piece is a blog from a random website, check the website’s Domain Name Registration Data. WHOIS data gives you an idea of where a website’s owner resides based on their registered domain name. It will let you know how long the website has been in existence. Clickbait and phishing scams use recently created websites and pages.
- Make use of your search engine’s time selection. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen false or misleading “breaking news” that was old news. I’m an AVID fantasy football player, sports better, stock speculator, and cryptocurrency enthusiast. I need the most accurate, up-to-date information possible. I use the time selector DAILY.
This feature is beneficial for ever-changing situations in which new information is continuously coming to light. Selecting the appropriate time range often weeds out older articles that show up on the first page because of their domain authority.
- Always check the date on online articles. Same as what I said above, a ton of misinformation is spread just by sharing out-of-date articles related to current events.
- Using an internet trust rating tool such as News Guard is not as good as ole fashion critical thinking, but it does give direction to a ton of searches. Most people aren’t aware that satire sites exist and are pretty good at masquerading as genuine sites. News Guard can quickly identify this issue.
- When conducting a search, use a privacy browser to make sure you have covered your basics. The two that come to mind are Duck Duck Go and Brave. I believe Duck Duck Go is better than Google since Google attempts to personalize your searches instead of giving it to you straight. Duck Duck Go will send you unfiltered search results without ads or privacy concerns.
- Use Birdwatch. I’m no fan of Twitter and its CEO. However, Twitter has done one thing right. And that is their creation of the crowdsourced fact-checking project, Birdwatch.
Birdwatch is a fact-checking project that allows users to flag and annotate misleading or inaccurate tweets. This project is separated from the biased, fact-checking sites such as Snopes and Politico, who are doing nothing more than fact-checking opinions and serving as the ideological waitstaff for politicians they like.
Escaping Social Media Tyranny without Looking like a Far-Righter
Entire YouTube channels, videos, and other posts have been erased offline to be never be seen again. Specifically, videos and coverage of the riots that involved Kyle Rittenhouse and the hundreds of days protests in Seattle and Portland have been erased by Big Tech.
In light of the “Great Purge” after the Capitol Building riots, there has been an emergence of alternative communication methods that have at least a moderate following. This doesn’t mean that racism, death threats, and blatant bullying are condoned, but it does mean that these apps dont police conversations the coddled would find offensive.
I have created a shortlist of social networks I believe have a promising future outside of dissenting voices. Things have only gotten worst. These issues are exacerbated.
- Locals — Locals has the most promise. Locals is much like Facebook groups. You create or join a community. The difference between this app and the major social media giants is that they do not sell your information to digital marketers. They do not censor you or serve ads. More importantly, there aren’t any algorithms manipulating and radicalizing you.
With freedom comes responsibility. Although there are features available for free, you have to pay a subscription fee to get the full value of a Locals’ community. I believe it’s worth it. I interact with people like Tulsi Gabbard personally, and the conversations have depth.
As Nas said, “a real conversation is needed.” Well, here it is. “Clap back” and “cancel” culture are non-existent. The level of civility that comes from having to pay to participate is surprising. This is my number one bet for success. My community is Lee Stephens Digital.
- Vero — Vero’s claim to fame is that it is ad-free, algorithm-free, and they do not sell your data. But more importantly, I love the design, look and feel of this app. It feels like a combination of Instagram Reels, Facebook, and Tik-Tok. I’m just a little unsure how it will compete against the likes of Tik-Tok, Periscope, or Instagram.
- Minds — Minds feel similar to Facebook. However, there is a significant distinction. Users can earn cryptocurrency for posting on Minds, and tokens can be used to boost their posts or crowdfund other users. This app is similar to Steemit in that regard. Earning crypto is a winning strategy in my book.
However, I have to ask the question, are they too early? I’m not sure. The other drawback with Minds is that it harbors some unsavory characters booted from mainstream social media since it touts free speech and privacy.
- Voice — Voice is another blockchain application with one factor that separates it from Steemit and Minds. It has a beautiful interface. We can not underestimate the power of aesthetics when it comes to social and cultural tech.
- Portfolium — Portfolium is a wild card in this list. Why? Because it’s quite popular for its intended purpose. And that purpose is for college students and potential employers to engage with each other. Students can display their projects and extracurricular activities they are passionate about.
I’m at heart a speculator. And I sense sneaky young Facebook vibes. Portfolium is at worst a better version of Linkedin and at most another major social media platform in the making. There’s a chance that it could grow beyond this purpose as education is decentralized and democratized.
- Rokfin — Rokfin is pretty new on the scene, founded by Martin Floreani, a prominent businessman in the wrestling world. The platform is similar to YouTube, works on a subscription model, and promises to properly compensate content creators. I’ll keep my eye on it.
As for now, we still have to contend with Google, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter as the guardians of information published by everyday people. Many people don’t understand how important social media is to communication and the dissemination of information.
Therefore they trivialize the threat to free speech these monopolies present. I imagine that these same people watch the news every day and believe they are getting a fair shake on what’s going on.
Searching for Specifics Involving Major World Events
The past 24 months have seen a worldwide pandemic, worldwide and nationwide riots and protests, a riot at the US Capitol Building, and a weird US election.
These events had one thing in common, a hyperbolic, disjointed news media intentionally skewing reporting, ignoring other events, and aligning with other entities to crush dissenting conversations and movements.
No worries, there is the internet.
Below is my process that I have used in the past in order to get to the bottom of major world events. I started this process back in 2003 when the news media helped Bush push the fraudulent narrative that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destructions”. No, I don’t forget.
Start by searching online for the police records, court records, and official statements and documents from official parties such as the local police department, local elected officials, judges involved, and the local news. Remember the points I made earlier and make sure to use the Search operators that I cover below.
Try to go as far back as possible. Search for press conferences and public hearings in and around the incident. These usually can be found on YouTube, Twitter, Twitch, Vimeo or Facebook, and Instagram. Most news outlets and public institutions post to YouTube by default. Ask generation Zoomer, YouTube is the new television and it still has a few more years left before it operates 100% at the behest of corporate interests.
Most local news outlets are apart of the larger networks of ABC, NBC, CBS, or FOX. These outlets often times have their own websites and possess their own profiles on YouTube and Twitter.
Almost all police departments post updates on Twitter, so tracing information will undoubtedly lead you to a couple of Twitter profiles. Also, almost every local news station has a “superstar” journalist with a good following on Twitter they regularly nurture.
As a matter of public communication, police departments and local public officials usually issue timely updates as well. You can find links to documents such as warrants, affidavits, and written statements posted from Twitter as well.
With high-level events such as protests, rallies, or civil unrest you can corroborate the details of what police and city officials are announcing or reporting with individual users who post videos online from various platforms, mediums, and websites.
Every industry and subject-matter have their well-known influencers, champions, and activists. Whatever you’re interested in there are influencers. Learn and follow proponent independent journalists who have a long reputation for being on the scene and digging up the truth.
Every single news network, major paper, and major news aggregator has a social media account that they use fervently. As a matter of fact, many mainstream journalists have made a living by simply posting on Twitter. What’s more, is that it evens the playing field for not only journalists but also those who they are reporting on.
Police departments and other local public service institutions use social media just as much as everyday people. Stop underestimating the power of social media and the role it plays in your everyday life.
If you’re older than 30, eliminate your paradigm that “social media” is for the kids. Social media IS the media. Social media is more of a reflection of the real world than anything you see on television. That is both exciting and extremely disturbing.
One last point to remember is that “social media” applies to more than the Big Tech giants. Check out the more civil social media sites of Quora, Medium, Reddit.
Making Sense of Scientific Claims when Conducting Online Research
Who do you believe when it comes to science? This is not an easy question. Especially since some well-known scientists such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson can be dogma purveyors. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are “wrong.” “Dogma” can be described as a belief held unquestioningly and with undefended certainty.
While I agree with Neil DeGrasse Tyson that the Earth is not flat, I do not agree with how he addresses the issue with dogma instead of taking their claims seriously and getting to the real issue of why people are predisposed to such ideas. That same underlying train of thought will only lead to more conspiracy theories.
Dogma only enforces what people should believe instead of teaching people HOW to think. That is the fundamental problem that underlies most of our society’s issues regarding information and another reason why our education systems are failing to produce more Nikola Teslas, George Washington Carvers, Galileo Galilei’s, Johannes Keplers, Issac Newtons, and Charles Darwins.
When it comes to scientific analysis, remember these simple, shoe-string rules of thumb.
Science is usually messy and hard to understand. Be wary of perfectly woven stories or hype trains. Hyperbole usually indicates something is missing.
Journalists are incentivized to keep you reading but are NOT incentivized to get it right. Many journalists skip the hard data and math and opt for a semi-sensationalized conclusion that usually doesn’t tell the full story that data can tell.
Words matter. For example, the difference between: “missing”, “not present,” not found,” and “not available” could be astronomical. Just because something was “not found” doesn’t necessarily equate to: “it does not exist.”
If you are reading an article, there should always be a reputable academic source. The most reliable sources are the actual scientific papers.
Check to see if a study has been peer-reviewed or if the experiment has been replicated and verified within the scientific community.
Make sure you have a solid understanding of the scientific method AND falsifiability. Falsifiability is our current method of understanding the world.
The basic premise of falsifiability is that while it is reckless to make an absolute empirical statement about most things (since there are many things we do not know or have not seen. You can’t say all swans are white since you could not possibly examine every swan that exists.) at the very least, we can ask the question: Can this statement be proven false? If the statement can not be proven false, then it doesn’t meet the criteria of being a scientific query. It’s unfalsifiable.
The things we do know and that our society accepts are true are things that have been tested repeatedly without being proven false. These “things” produce scientific theories.
Remember, do not confuse a scientific theory with every day “theory.” A theory in everyday speech is simply a hypothesis. A scientific theory has been tested, verified using the scientific method by many parties, and widely accepted by the scientific community.
This one is easy, find a highly regarded scientist dedicated to informing the public in a non-sense manner and soaking up their knowledge.
Stop being a “believer” and become a “learner.” Curb your need to believe or at least your desire for the conclusion. Most situations are ongoing and require context. All human beings are fallible. Your favorite scientist is just as prone to mistakes as you are. They have more experience failing in their area of expertise than you.
Understand science and truth chances. Change is the only constant in life. Brad Branton, the writer of Radical Honesty, once quoted: “Yesterday’s truth is today’s bullshit, even yesterday’s liberating insight is today’s jail of stale explanation.”
Nothing in our world is absolute. Our current understanding of the world is by no means final, and our knowledge of the universe is finite, with the possible understanding being infinite.
Advanced Tools for Using Search Engines
Need to search for specific things online? I want to introduce you to search operators. Search operators refine your search to particular parameters making it easier to find the information you need.
Let’s say that you are attempting to interview someone without a resume. You can easily search online using that person’s name and limit your search to “pdf’s” or “doc” using the filetype search operator.
Or let’s say that you are looking to find out if a person works for a particular company. You can limit your searches to that company’s website using that person’s name.
Example — site:thesolarrepublic.com Mars
This operator is my favorite. Most sites either do not have a search feature or it is poorly implemented. By using this operator, you can search a site quickly for keywords or phrases.
Example — google analytics regex filetype:pdf
This is another one I use often. This search takes you directly to downloadable files such as PDF, DOC, XLS, PPT, and TXT. It matches only a specific file type.
Example — related:grammarly
This search return sites that are related to a target domain. I use this regularly to gauge alternatives and competition for certain businesses.
Example — intitle:“Digital Marketing”
Using this operator returns search results of websites with words or phrases you specify instead of one or more within the title of a web page. Use exact-match (quotes) for phrases.
Example — inurl:digital marketing
This operator finds a word or phrase in a URL or the link. If you forgot the actual URL of a website you want to visit but remember a few words from the URL, this can be useful.
Example — intext:four hour work week
Search for a word or phrase (in quotes), but only in the body/document text. This is a good one to identify hard-to-find terms.
Example — Elon Musk AROUND(3) titan
This operator searches for terms containing two words or phrases within X words of each other. For this example, for the search above, the first two search results were “What does Elon Musk think of colonizing Titan? — Quora” and “Elon Musk loses a Titan in six hours as Tesla share price plunges”.
Finding Information on a Person when Doing Online Research
For most searches, a person’s name, phone number, city, job, college, and age, in order of importance. Using these parameters, a simple search should get you results, especially on most social media networks. Last names are golden since you could find family members juxtaposed. They can lead you to identify a person.
Here is a search operator I often use to find information on a person I would like to reach out to collaborate with:
quincy bingham (site:twitter.com | site:facebook.com | site:linkedin.com)
The parathesis indicates a group of search operators and the bar is the equivalent of using “OR”.
Using this search operator brings up my social media profiles and displays the profiles of my friends on other profiles. Anywhere my name comes up on these platforms.
The most reliable and non-spammy apps I use are Hunter, Spokeo, and Zoominfo. Facebook and Linkedin are the most indexed sites online that people are more inclined to upload personal, searchable data such as their real names, phone numbers, cities, and careers.
I hope these pointers help you navigate the complex online landscape. The most damaging and unspoken myth is that we, you, me, and everyone alive today have everything figured out, from the science we teach to the moral standards that we uphold.
We are no better than the international community that engaged in the slave trade, the Christians who persecuted scientists who discovered the Earth are not the center of the universe, the Communists who sent people to the gulags, or the Nazis that believed they were genetically superior to other races. We are only human. Once we let go of this modern-day narcissism that we have all the answers, we can get back to work, learn, grow, and make the world a better place.
To further navigate information, misinformation, and disinformation checkout:
- 17 Key Terms for Clear-Cut Critical Thinking in Our Daily Lives
- Are All Conspiracies Bad?
- Identifying Why Misinformation Is So Prevalent & What YOU Can Do About It
Here are some books outside of college that have assisted me in making sense of the information age and the challenges we face.
- The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck — Mark Manson
- The Selfish Gene — Richard Dawkins
- The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark — Carl Sagan
- Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts — Annie Duke
- The Theory of Poker: A Professional Poker Player Teaches You How To Think Like One — David Sklansky
- Radical Honesty: How to Transform Your Life by Telling the Truth — Brad Blanton
- The Art of Learning — Josh Waitzkin