Last week I posted an article about the Phil Robertson fiasco, and, very surprisingly, it went viral. It was a fascinating experience that really got me thinking about the content we consume online. I consume a lot of information online everyday. I am betting you do too. As such, I want to encourage caution by offering four red flags to help you decipher internet treasure from internet trash.
Thinking about this, I thought about Jason Bourne (primarily the first one – the others were too much action with too little character development). He is one of my favorite movie characters. I love that he had within himself far more power and knowledge than even he himself realized, and we get to follow him as he rediscovers it. One of my favorite scenes from the first movie is when he sits in a diner confused by the way he thinks when he enters a room.
I come in here and the first thing I am doing is catching the sight lines and looking for an exit… I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you our waitress is left handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs 215 pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab of the grey truck outside, and at this altitude I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking. Now, why would I know that?
He knows those things because he was trained to look for those things. The following four red flags are what I have instinctively trained myself to look for whenever I click on a link to an article or blog. The whole process takes less than one minute, and the result is that I rarely waste time reading internet trash.
- Who wrote what you are reading or edited what you are watching? In the second Harry Potter book, The Chamber of Secrets, one of the kids in the story receives an excellent bit of advice from her father, “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.” Paraphrasing for our context: Never trust any article if you can’t tell whose mind is behind it. Every time I follow a link to something that catches my eye, I immediately look at the about me/about the author section. What someone says about himself tells you a lot. Is he or she trying to be funny, academic, contemplative, objective, etc? Are they writing for fun, for a career, to clear their head, or to fight for a cause? Also, look at those with whom the author affiliates him or herself (affiliates are especially informative when dealing with spiritual or Christian posts). If you cannot find anything on the author, you should not blindly trust anything the author says.
- What other topics does this person or group write about and discuss? There are only two types of people who write and discuss the same thing all the time: experts and crackpots. Experts have worked very hard to get to where they are, and they will not hide their expertise. If you cannot find traditional proof of expertise (academic degrees, track record of success, or affiliation with experts on the subject), yet this person or site only writes about one thing all the time, they are probably crackpots producing internet trash. I know that sounds harsh, but if someone continually covers the same topic over and over with no substantive recognition as an expert on the topic, then they probably don’t get the topic as well as they think they do.
- Do they communicate well? About once a month at our church we will receive a photocopy of a handwritten note explaining the heresy of the trinity and the singularity of God in Jesus. This note is always written in half cursive and half print with Scripture references squeezed in between the crooked and serial-killer-ish looking handwriting. I have never read past the first attempt at a sentence. I do not need to waste my time thinking about what this person is communicating because they cannot “waste” the time to communicate it well. The effort put into communicating well shows the importance of the topic to the communicator. Application of this point: never read a blog post or article with more than two typos. If the author can’t read it twice, I promise you do not need to read it once.
- Do you see bias or blindedness in what you are reading? Every person has a bias, therefore every article, video, or or link produced by a person shares their brand of bias as well. Expect bias, but beware of blindedness. Our current President, who must be one of the most polarizing figures in modern history, is great example of this principle. There are many voices out there who will support anything that speaks badly of the President, accuracy in reporting and truth in charges just get in the way. They blind themselves to nuance in order to grandstand against a straw man. You have to delineate between those who are simply biased and those who are deleteriously blinded. (Secret Hint: anytime you come across a comparison between the holocaust and a nonviolent disagreement or act of discrimination, you are seeing blindedness, not bias.) Expect bias, identify bias, but reject blindedness.
Use these four filters every time you follow a link and you will save yourself the frustration of wasted time and wasted thought.
Perhaps the best advice my dad ever gave came when I was younger than 10 years old. As he helped shape my love for reading and learning he cautioned me early and regularly to be very careful about what I read, because what you read becomes part of who you are. So, after recognizing that my own blog post would not have passed my test of trustworthiness while thousands were reading and sharing my article, I felt the pastoral need to provide guidance in the vital art of cautious and thoughtful reading.
Take care to guard what you allow into your mind, taking every thought captive to Christ, because your mind is a great gift and a terrible thing to waste.