Finding Good Information in the Disinformation Age

Benjamin T. Awesome
8 min readMar 29, 2021
Image of Labyrinth on the portico of the cathedral of San Martino at Lucca, Tuscany, Italy.

Social media is an irredeemable dumpster fire of disinformation. We knew this before The Social Dilemma aired on Netflix, but now it is folly to even pretend to be safe from algorithms that shunt us into echo chambers. And beyond social media, algorithmic news aggregators and search results are no better. If Google feeds us what it determines we want to read, and what we want to read flows from the silo into which Facebook has deposited us, then everything we see is likely to be a reflection of our own biases. If we want to believe a certain thing about Iran, climate change, a protest movement, or life on Venus, this preference can be met by content producers whose incentives align with reinforcing that belief.

This is the Disinformation Age, because if we are searching online to better inform ourselves, but the information to which we are directed stems from biases and preferences forged from the very ignorance that has us questing for information in the first place, then surely we are being disinformed. Taken to its extreme, it explains why QAnon adherents believe Donald Trump, a man seen in photographs and videos partying and joking with the most notorious pedophile and human trafficker in modern history, Jeffrey Epstein, will save the world from a supposed worldwide satanic pedophile ring that congregates in pizza parlor basements.

Extracting ourselves from this ecosystem requires effort. It will not happen by scrolling Twitter, liking TikToks, or interacting on Facebook. It will not happen if we tumble down algorithmic YouTube rabbit holes looking for answers. We cannot simply watch The Social Dilemma, agree that social media and the disinformation infrastructure of the internet are massive problems, and then return to our same habits. At the heart of The Social Dilemma is the argument that when we cannot agree on facts, we cannot agree on anything. Facebook, Twitter, Medium, YouTube, Google search results, and so on, with their individuated user experiences, where no two people see the same collection of articles, links, images, or commentary, is a metaphor for nobody “being on the same page.” We’re not on the same page, even when we are on the same webpage. The illusion of homogeneity reminiscent of a time when everyone was watching the same three network television newscasts that now arises from everyone visiting the same handful of websites is shattered by simply searching on Google while signed in from different accounts, different browsers, or different locations.


If our eyes are open, we see the problem. Even when we are deep in our own disinformation labyrinths, we are aware that other people, such as the aforementioned QAnoners, are being rendered less capable of critical thought by the day to a stupendous degree, as their social media bubbles open conduits to 4chan, 8chan, or Infowars, filling their heads with the very same types of antisemitic conspiracies and nationalistic fearmongering that underpinned Hitler’s rise to power. We can see plainly they are being led to metaphysical oblivion. But what about the rest of us? We’re not all conspiracy theorists. True. We are not, but we are all susceptible to being duped.

My suggestion is to assert control. If we want to avoid being conspiracy theorists, then what we are saying is we want to base our epistemology on facts. The most valuable solution I personally got from The Social Dilemma about this quest for facts (and personal privacy, which is linked to freeing your mind from disinformation bubbles) came in the closing credits, when an interview subject mentioned a good alternative to Google known as Qwant. If you look through the Wikipedia entry for Qwant, you see that it is not perfect, but it is the most pragmatic and usable Google alternative I have found, when we consider not only privacy, but also search quality.

Controlling our search environments is the bare minimum we can do. It is not going to protect us if we use Qwant, then follow the results to all the same counterfactual media outlets to which we were exposed through Google or social media links. They are all still there, the sensationalist garbage that garners clicks and attention, but that fails to deliver concrete facts. It hardly matters if we end up at a PragerU video via Twitter or a Qwant search; it will be equally nonfactual either way. It is a propaganda site regardless of how we get there. And this is where I have observed serious shortcomings in users (including myself). We see an article or video and we are instantly swayed, or at least primed to be misled. I am a skeptic who spends time trying to corroborate stories, looking to see where studies cited in articles first appeared and whether they have been replicated, and keeping tabs on which media outlets are funded by which think tanks, and I still get caught off-guard. There is no way to be immune; we can only use available resources to train ourselves, familiarize ourselves with fact-based reporting, and give ourselves the best shot we can of not being deceived.

In the world of political and cultural reporting, I look to a handful of tools to make determinations about sites and sources. The first filter to which I subject the source of articles is Media Bias/Fact Check. This is by no means a perfect solution. It is one step of many for processing information to determine its veracity and value. We can see from its Wikipedia entry that it has shortcomings, and it says nothing about the specific information in any given article; it only tells us about the tendencies of a media outlet. But, it is a great way to rule out total garbage. A site that comes up at Media Bias/Fact Check as a “questionable source” or “conspiracy/pseudoscience” can generally be treated as such.

Another similar site I use is AllSides. This site makes a point of looking for coverage about the same topic from a variety of sources, and serves up one source for each bias: left, center, and right. It is a good practice to corroborate the biases from sites, by crosschecking AllSides against Media Bias/Fact Check. Much of the time these sites agree in their assessments of where a given media outlet falls on the left-right spectrum, but not always. Fortunately, the point of this exercise is not find an authoritative, objective source for adjudicating the worthiness and biases of various purveyors of information, but to move our minds away from passive acceptance of social media algorithms and toward critical thinking. The point is to build media literacy. And, on the subject of media literacy, another great resource for that is Columbia Journalism Review, which is a site devoted almost entirely to analysis of the media, itself.

I should say here that my personal bias is extreme left. I am skeptical of the value of viewpoint diversity or “listening to all sides” on an issue when one side is based on facts and the other is not. The global warming “debate” is a prime example of that. The entire debate was manufactured by special interests on the right. In truth, global warming is happening, and it is happening for measurable, obvious reasons. As Stephen Colbert said at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.” We see this in how global warming has been discussed, and how movements such as QAnon or The Boogaloo took root in the far right, and have no equivalent in the far left (annoying Twitter tankies are not remotely equivalent to violent right-wing conspiracy theorists in depraved corners of the internet, plotting terrorist attacks). We can also see plainly that actors, such as the aforementioned PragerU or its allies in the Intellectual Dark Web, spend an inordinate amount of time arguing for the sacrosanctness of viewpoint diversity, and use that to shoehorn terrible, nonfactual ideas into serious discussions where said terrible ideas do not belong. To all of that I say be suspicious of anti-bias arguments on their own. Viewpoints should merit inclusion on the basis of something other than the alleged sacrosanctness of including all viewpoints.

Fortunately, these media analysis sites also contain assessments of the degree to which media outlets are fact based. They document instances where the outlets they assess have failed fact checks. And it was through this type of analysis at both Media Bias/Fact Check and AllSides, that I took note of a site that I had seen mentioned over the years, The site, to the best of my ability to determine, is as advertised. Its mission statement starts, “We are a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. We monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. Our goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding,” and I believe that is what they try to do. And Media Bias/Fact Check and AllSides believe that as well, as both sites assess as highly fact based. The site is a product of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, and is completely transparent about this affiliation.

If, like me, you care that a credible institution hosted by the University of Pennsylvania is behind (not to be confused with non-credible institutions hosted by Ivy League universities, which unfortunately also exist), and you are generally interested in who is behind sources of (dis)information, the last sites I will mention are SourceWatch and OpenSecrets. The former, which is admittedly left biased, has information about which think tanks and investors are behind various media sites, and the latter is an awesome campaign finance database that lets you see who has contributed to political campaigns and PACs. This, again, in no way directly addresses the information in a given article. It could be the case that an article about personal privacy or fracking produced by a media outlet that is funded by a think tank that, itself, is funded by Peter Thiel and Koch Industries, who perhaps used a PAC to contribute to the campaigns of a politician whose positions are advocated in the article, is legitimate, but knowing all of this cannot hurt when it comes to evaluating it.

Even when we actively work to improve our media literacy, staying a step ahead of disinformation remains an uphill battle. We are up against algorithms that get more powerful by the second. Every Google search, every Twitter refresh, every Facebook like, and every social media link we follow on our location-enabled smartphone, feeds data into this ecosystem. In the process of trying to inform ourselves, we supply potential adversaries with information, and as we have seen from such films as The Great Hack, which was in many ways the predecessor to The Social Dilemma, this data can be turned against us. While we can think of a lot of public policy that might help stem the flow of disinformation, such as shoring up local media with public funding or updating the economy to incentivize information over disinformation, right now we are, in many respects, alone in the wilderness, and it falls to us to take ownership of our media literacy and remain capable of discerning fact from fiction.

Useful Sites Mentioned

Media Bias/Fact Check

2024 Update: Qwant disallows ad blockers now. Use DuckDuckGo instead.



Benjamin T. Awesome

Just the facts: Writer. Gamer. Feminist. Educated in Astrophysics. Professional Gambler. Student of Language. Satanist. Anarchist. He/Him.