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  • Pauline Hoffmann

Where did you get this? (Publication and Format)

I read everything - or nearly so. Magazines? Yes (my former mail carrier used to call me the Magazine Lady - could be worse monikers, I suppose). Newspapers? Three a day. Books? If only I had more time to read more books! Junk mail postcards? Yup.

Oh, as an academic I suppose I'm obligated to say that I also read academic journal articles. I do, but not as frequently as the above with the exception of junk mail postcards.

What specifically do I read? I read The New York Times, The Buffalo News and The Olean Times Herald (international/national, regional, local). I need to know what's going on. I also like the actual physical newspaper over the online version. Magazines? What don't I read! I am sad that several of my favorite magazines are either no longer published or are available as online versions only. My favorite? National Geographic. Gotta keep my nerd cred.

Academic journals? I don't read any regularly but I do find myself looking for research on infodemics. You may or may not be surprised to know that you can find all sorts of research on this topic - or variations of this topic - in many journals. I like that it has interdisciplinary attention.

Why do I go into this detail?

The publications you read or get your information from matter. The format may also matter. I tend to find reputable publications. How do I know? Oh, recall my reiteration of the things to consider when evaluating materials (continued shout out to the Library at UC Berkeley). The following re: publication and format is taken from its site:

  • Where was it published?

  • Was it published in a scholarly publication, such as an academic journal?

  • Who was the publisher? Was it a university press?

  • Was it formally peer-reviewed?

  • Does the publication have a particular editorial position?

  • Is it generally thought to be a conservative or progressive outlet?

  • Is the publication sponsored by any other companies or organizations? Do the sponsors have particular biases?

  • Were there any apparent barriers to publication?

  • Was it self-published?

  • Were there outside editors or reviewers?

  • Where, geographically, was it originally published, and in what language?

  • In what medium?

  • Was it published online or in print? Both?

  • Is it a blog post? A YouTube video? A TV episode? An article from a print magazine?

  • What does the medium tell you about the intended audience?

  • What does the medium tell you about the purpose of the piece?

Whew. That seems like a lot to consider. You just want to read something or watch something. You don't want to think! Many of the considerations above relate to other areas we've already discussed like Authority, Purpose, and Date of Publication. Let's unpack things a bit more.

Let's suppose that I Google "incidents of voter fraud in the US." (I have not done this so the following is completely made up by me to show as an example.) I am concerned about voter fraud because mid-term elections are coming up, I am an election poll worker, I am a concerned citizen, I don't want democracy to die while I am alive. (When I'm dead, all bets are off.)

Let's suppose I see a piece from CNN (a rather reputable news outlet that tends to lean left). I see another piece from Pew Research (very reputable research organization that is about as unbiased as you are going to get). I also see a blog post from someone calling himself Dr. Phil Ballott. I've heard of CNN and Pew Research. In fact, I often cite Pew Research. I will look at this post but I am also interested in Dr. Ballott. I've never heard of him yet he is showing up in the search. What does he have to say?

The post leads to a rather well-organized website with a picture of a stereotypical academic (mussed hair, goatee, blazer with suede elbow patches all taken in front of a messy shelf of books - hey, I know my stereotypes). His bio indicates that he is a political science professor from Stanford University. He has done work at Pew Research (extra points for Phil). His site is dedicated to educating the public about the dangers of our voting system in America. He and his team of graduate students have studied this extensively and are here to report what the media won't tell you! (Please recall newsletter issue 2: There are no coincidences...or...) He has several blog posts on the topic. He has not one post that is academic, though. No references to academic journal articles and no references to any interviews he may have done with major media organizations. Looking at his social media outlets, it looks like he has 100K followers on Twitter and another 50K on Facebook. Wow, he has a community!

I am fascinated because Dr. Ballott seems legitimate.

Or does he?

In case you aren't familiar with academia and that would be understandable because many academics live in this ivory tower that isn't easily explained even by them. (Yes, I'm an academic but I'm a proud anti-academic, academic. Unpack that one.) If Dr. Ballott is a professor at Stanford or anywhere, I should be able to find him on the university's website, right? Of course I should. Hmmmm.... a search of Stanford's website doesn't show this guy at all. (Dear readers, I made this guy up. If one of you goes to Stanford's website and finds a Dr. Ballott working in the political science department, I will eat my shoe.) Stanford is an incredibly reputable institution. If this guy works there he has to have some research chops. He would tout that loudly on his website. Nope. Also, he would be searchable on Google and other academic-related pieces would show up. And I have yet to meet an academic who has that kind of social media following! (Now I'm just being mean.)

When I Google him what do I find? (Again, making this up for example's sake.) I find that some folks questioned his legitimacy and were commenting on it on Reddit. I look at the Reddit thread. I don't take everything I see on Reddit at face value but it is often humorous and can lead you to other information that might be helpful.

I see that someone on the thread "exposed" Dr. Ballott. I do some further digging and find out that Dr. Phil Ballott is actually Chad Hanger from Florida. He is a conspiracy theorist who writes posts for this website from his parent's basement. He also likes nachos and Alex Jones (Facebook reveals much). Suddenly I don't care what Dr. Ballott has to say.

Sadly, he is posting and others are reading it and they aren't paying attention to who he is or that he is lying. He is spreading disinformation for his own pleasure. He clearly has an itch to scratch (and if he's eating nachos in the basement, those crumbs might get pesky and he might have a literal itch to scratch - I don't judge except that I do).

You might think this is harmless, but remember that he is appealing to many emotions here. People finding his untruths may also be worried about democracy and he may be playing to their fears. Perhaps there are others who feel as he does so he now has a community - and a sizable one judging from his social following.

Neither his website nor his social media posts are "peer reviewed." For those not familiar, peer review indicates that folks in your field have reviewed your work and deem it to be worthy of publication. You always hear peer review in the context of academic journals and research but I argue that you see it in other areas like actual book publishing (not self-publishing), newspaper editorials, etc. I can write a wonderful piece for The New York Times editorial page and the editors in charge might say, "um, no, thanks for playing." They are my peers and they are reviewing my work for acceptability and publication.

Dr. Phil Ballott also has a clear editorial slant. Generally speaking - generally speaking (it bears repeating), reputable outlets are unbiased. We can argue, and I have, that you can never truly be unbiased. Let me rephrase that statement then. Reputable outlets are as unbiased as is possible.

Dr. Ballott also used a phrase we are to be wary of, right? The media wont' report this! Of course the media is going to report something like this if it is legitimate. That just lends to the fear and appeals to the community of those who feel like media outsiders.

The example I used may be an easy one to unpack and may be obvious. The work I did to unpack it may seem arduous and it is. If you see something that seems too good to be true or seems suspect in any way, dig deeper. Scratch your own itch! Remember that publication and format are important considerations in determining the truthfulness of a piece.

Happy vetting!

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