When you read a news story, do you take it at face value until something raises a flag or do you look at the source and decide in advance whether you're going to read with a skeptical eye? Are you more likely to believe news if it fits neatly into your existing worldview or are you really objective? Without a healthy skepticism, we would fall for every sales pitch on TV -- but by trusting some sources less it follows that we trust some sources more, and that leaves us vulnerable to carefully placed deceit. I wonder if there's any way to reduce that weak spot without losing trust altogether.
I like to think of this site as having a special interest in evidence-based debunkery. emptywheel's book, Anatomy of Deceit, is a great example. DemFromCT's FluWiki is another. The rest of us have our own pet projects, from Kagro X putting the lie to "we don't have the numbers" to DHinMI putting the fool's cap on fraudsters and conspiracy theorists. My own little project recently has been to show up a series of anti-science lies from PETA that recently crossed over into the mainstream press. Besides exposing the lies themselves, it's worth talking about how they spread and how they've been unspread.
The lies -- which falsely claim that a scientist in Oregon named Charles Roselli is (1) a homophobe, (2) trying to cure gayness in humans, (3) has already cured gayness in sheep, and (4) is cutting open sheep brains, attaching electronic devices, and injecting their brains with hormones to do so -- began last August, and after debunking these claims I wrote a post laying out a strategy I'd used for "unspreading" the lie, and detailing how well it had (and hadn't) worked. In short, the method was first to write a detailed factual post that corrects the lies, then to use search tools to identify blogs repeating the lies, and finally to systematically visit those sites and write comments referring the bloggers to the correction post (without trying to convert them ideologically, and sticking strictly to correcting the facts). That exercise last August proved to be a small-scale practice run for the onslaught of misinformation that followed when the story crossed into the mainstream press about three weeks ago. The basic model has held up fairly well. Here, I'll run through how well it scales up and what improvements may be made. The question to keep in mind is whether a story simply has a life of its own, or how much its spread depends on its source -- and what that implies for debunkery.