“Consider the source.” That’s advice too seldom heeded, especially when it comes to information on the Internet. The problem is exacerbated by the rise of what I’ll call social referencing, where the average reader relies on other people they may or may not know personally to find what’s interesting. We see that “Fred” found X interesting. We like other stuff Fred liked, so we go there. Site X gains a certain credibility from Fred’s pointing to it that it may not deserve.
For example, I recently got directed to a site that appeared to offer independent news commentary about the financial troubles in the United States. There was something about the rant that made me wonder, “Who is this guy?” A little digging led to a surprising finding. The show is hosted by Press TV, which is funded by the Iranian government. Ahhh. That rant against Wall Street that seemed to indict the whole evil capitalist system was making a little more sense. Unfortunately, I doubt most of the people drawn there have any inkling of the Iranian connection.
You also have to be careful not to let a trusted source lull you into complacency. We often do that when we suspend our critical faculties if a familiar expert expresses a viewpoint. I was reminded of this when reading about Goldman Sachs in Marketwatch.com. David Weidner was writing about the book The Accidental Banker by Jonathan Knee. Knee, who joined Goldman fresh out of college, explains how the firm’s reputation led Fortune 500 CEOs to trust him despite his lack of experience. As Weidner explains, Knee found that “working for Goldman carried weight when he proposed sometimes unorthodox ideas that might have been dismissed had they come from other bankers.”
Lesson: When assessing information, don’t just consider the source, consider the substance. And a corollary is never fall for the line that stock swindler extraordinaire Bernard Madoff used: “What I’m doing is brilliant, but it’s too complicated for you to understand.”
Most important: Don’t be fooled by appearances. In the first case above, the news looks like it’s an independent production, and in the latter, the bank presents an image of trustworthiness and financial expertise, as did Madoff.
Famed debunker James Randi tells audiences that con men, like magicians, get you to see things that aren’t really there by relying on the human tendency to make assumptions “when they are properly suggested to you,” which is to say when the right window dressing is provided.
Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber who seemed the poster boy for the well-adjusted immigrant pursuing the American dream, is another example of how appearances can be misleading.
It’s a challenge to constantly turn a critical eye on all information and situations, yet it’s the only way to minimize the risk of being conned by the pros. But don’t take my word for it.