Reading this blog shows that you are very smart

I occasionally drop by on dilbert.com and read the strip and Scott Adams blog. During the US election I saw him employing a scheme which I saw on other sites as well and which I call the "reading this blog shows that you are very smart" scheme.

It's a simple scheme to enchant readers. Adams uses it by questioning well known facts like climate change. He picks subjects which he knows are controversial and whose antithesis (ie. climate change is not real) has a small but vocal following. He very rarely takes any position in the argument himself and prefers just asking questions in a very suggestive way, letting the reader jump to conclusions rather than taking the burden of conviction on himself. While some will assume that he shares their own preconceived notions others will feel like he opposes them. But Adams himself often avoids any direct involvement in any argument by masking his true position, for example by saying

So I’ve decided to endorse Hillary Clinton for President, for my personal safety.

or more recently:

As I said above, I accept the consensus of climate science experts when they say that climate science is real and accurate. But I do that to protect my reputation and my income. I have no way to evaluate the work of scientists.

If Adams was simply encouraging the readers to start their own critical thinking process I wouldn't have a problem with this. But the questioning of climate change is a perfect example where the author is not interested at all in encouraging the reader to do more research. For blogs like Adams' it's a simple trope to stir up controversy by first muddying the waters (ie. making both sides valid positions) and then purposely making his own statements vague enough to cause a maximum of controversy. However such sites are rarely advancing a critical debate but rather simply serve as trigger for toxic discussions - it's no surprise nearly all of them have a comments section.

This is worrisome because it reflects a broader trend in journalism and the way we consume news. Traditional outlets struggling for revenue are confronted with a torrent of independent news sources, which have little journalistic integrity and mainly stay profitable by enticing the people who engage in the most vivid discussions. However for the sake of controversy these independent news sources often conflate facts and make the reader feel smart by questioning well established facts - often by pretending that we live in some sort of Orwellian dystopia where a secretive ruling elite is hiding the truth from us. They encourage people to distrust any form of authority outside their filter bubble and are thereby inadvertently tearing at the fabric of our society. They are a threat to public opinion making, create an atmosphere of hostility and discourage people who are interested in a genuine discussion from ever taking part in it.

Update 7/12/16: A good example of how outlets with journalistic integrity can counter poorly researched opinion pieces: The weather channel uncovers how Breitbart news misrepresented facts to support their "global warming is a scam" narrative.

Update 8/12/16: An interesting article I found on the NYTimes today, regarding fake news:
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/06/us/fake-news-partisan-republican-democrat.html

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