The Bullshit Prevention Protocol

Michelle Nijhuis offers a method for recognizing fake news stories via training in what she calls a "Bullshit Prevention Protocol" (BPP).

The protocol essentially zeroes in on the old Golden Rule of hoax-detection, which is that "Information is only as good as its source." So to spot fake news, one should spend the time to ascertain how credible the source of the news is.

She uses an article recently published by the Daily Mail to illustrate how the BPP should work. The article claimed that "China starts televising the sunrise on giant TV screens because Beijing is so clouded in smog." But analysis of the news source would quickly have shown that the writer was based in Brooklyn and had no first-hand knowledge of events in Beijing.

But the problem with the BPP, as Michelle notes, is that it's time-consuming. In fact, it would be impossible to apply the BPP to every news story we read, because in the modern world we're confronted with SO MANY news stories every day. We have to take the majority of them on trust.

So what I would add to her analysis is that we also have to learn when it's worthwhile to take the time to apply the BPP.

One strategy is to know that some publications are more trustworthy than others. For instance, the Daily Mail is very low on the trustworthiness index, so we're more likely to have to apply the BPP to its stories.

But this strategy is undermined by the fact that other, more trustworthy publications often pick up on stories from less trustworthy publications and report them as news. So it's not always evident what publication is the original source for the news. This is exactly what happened with the Beijing sunrise article.

Another, broader strategy is to try to develop a built-in BS detector that will flag questionable stories, telling you which stories to apply the BPP to (regardless of what publication the story appears in). But developing a built-in BS detector is far more art than science. It requires one to be able to sense when something in a story sounds ridiculous or unbelievable, and acquiring this sense for the ridiculous is a skill that's learned over time. It can't easily be reduced to an algorithm.

In the case of that Daily Mail article, it's well known that Beijing has a really bad smog problem, so the idea that Beijing might be televising sunrises didn't seem that ridiculous to many people, including journalists, and flew right past their inner BS detectors. Plus, there was a photo that seemed to offer first-hand evidence of the claim.

Michelle suggests another strategy: "you could sit tight for a couple of news cycles and let a professional journalist check into it—we do still have a few of those, after all."

In other words, slow down. Time is the enemy of hoaxes (and haste is their friend). Don't feel the need to repeat news stories right away, because, given enough time, fake news stories usually will get flagged by someone.

But again, here's the catch. Time is exactly what most journalists and bloggers don't have a lot of. They feel pressure to stay current with the most recent news.

If we had enough time, we could all apply the BPP to every news story we come across. But we don't have that time.

In other words, I don't think that there is such a thing as a perfect, foolproof Bullshit Prevention Protocol. The more rushed we are, the more easily BS will sail past our defenses.

And that's why fake news will always continue to slip through the cracks.


Posted on Fri May 02, 2014


And the fact that common sense and using ones brain is becoming less common.
Posted by TMB  on  Fri May 02, 2014  at  04:05 PM
That, and "news" providers like the Daily Hate actually don't want to check their stories for bullshit, and prefer to publish some obvious hogwash as long as it feeds into their readers' (and Paul Dacre's) racist mindset, rather than a factual story which might lead one to realise that those sand-niggers are actually human beings, too.

Seriously, the Daily Hate is a festering pot of lying, slanderous pus, and anything printed in it is ipso facto unworthy of an intelligent person's attention; and its editor is a vile, spiteful, hate-ridden manlet whose political views are somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan.

And that wouldn't be so bad if it were the only one, but there are more, on both sides of the spectrum.
Posted by Richard Bos  on  Sun May 04, 2014  at  05:09 AM
I don't trust any media outlet, but the biggest application of the BPP should be towards posts on Facebook.
Posted by Mr R  on  Tue May 06, 2014  at  03:37 AM
Is it beyond likelihood that the pushers of 'news' are deluging us with as much 'information' as they can, precisely to try to overwhelm our discernment filters and slip evil 'illuminati' type propaganda past us?

i've had the same answer to that question from what i believe are probably reliable people. If you and your mates had been allowed to believe you were 'in charge', and you weren't all pretty wary against such perceived powers corrupting you, what do you think you would end up doing? Probably lying (first white, then black), influencing then manipulating, controlling then killing. Just like those deranged blighters dousing us all in toxic metals, fluoride, deliberately released radiation, etc, etc, etc.

Time to rein them in, not them us.
Posted by matt derrington  on  Fri May 09, 2014  at  03:16 PM
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