It goes by many names. On the scary side: fake news, disinformation, Cambridge Analytica, yarns. On the (typically) lighthearted side: realistic satire. We all know that much of the internet’s content is misleading, which can lead to a worrying insecurity about the facts we use for decision making.
As SYM’s Chief Investment Officer, allow me to share a few of the primary techniques we use to guard our decisions against untrue input. This is not a full dissertation on research techniques or a guide to vetting every fact. Rather, it is meant to be a practical highlight reel for those wishing to put in some effort and gain confidence in the facts that guide your thinking.
My four favorite safeguards:
- Consume news from Reuters.
Years ago, I tried to study news from “all sides” and then triangulate the truth somewhere in between. We consume a great deal of news and other information in a day. I found that amid this volume I could recall hearing an argument, but it was difficult to remember whether I read it in a reputable publication. And even the most diligent of us are biased toward our preferred version of the facts… this old approach risked studying an extreme viewpoint that I would be predisposed to adopt, as the “both sides” of a topic included my side. I think even Dr. Spock (Star Trek, not the pediatrician) wouldn’t have been immune to the 2022 internet.
In response to this, I spent several hours studying news outlets themselves. What is their mix between factual reporting and injected opinions? Do they tend to lean left or lean right politically? Do they have a statement of Standards and Values that prioritizes the accuracy that I seek? All three of these considerations pointed me to Reuters, and I’ve been very satisfied with the news I receive ever since. It’s not the only source I check and nor is it the only source containing facts, of course, but it’s my go-to, and gets the lion’s share of my news attention.
- Avoid opinion section articles.
I’m shocked at how biased and self-serving many of the opinion pieces are, even in big-name publications. Of course, in my seat I occasionally get forwarded these opinion pieces warning of a doomsday investment threat. With a little research I can see that the author is in the business of profiting from the other side – they often have a monetary (or political) incentive to work people up.
Opinion pieces are not held to the same journalistic standards as the Wall Street Journal, for example, even if that institution prints the opinion. I’m not picking on them – the WSJ explains in its ethical FAQ that the news department operates independently of the opinion pages (which are not covered by the Editor in Chief Matt Murray). The two have totally separate literary aims. “The news pages offer readers the highest standards of rigorous, factual, impartial news reporting, while the opinion pages offer a panoply of contributors who add to societal debate in the U.S. and elsewhere….” – About Us, The Wall Street Journal, accessed 11/30/2022
- Use incognito mode when researching anything divisive or with major conflicts of interest.
The search engines memorize what you like. They make money when you click advertisements. Over time, the technology can “learn” what you’re most likely to click – perhaps a scary thing that’s important to you.
If I am conducting investment research, political research, and sometimes even parenting research, I try to use incognito mode in Google Chrome or InPrivate window in Microsoft Edge (control + shift + N activates it in both browsers) as much as possible.
What kind of clickbait do I receive? Topics that I Google in a typical (not incognito) browsing session. That’s right! I’m learning about extreme northern pike fishing lures and brutally demanding running races. Temptation welcome.
What clickbait garbage do I almost never receive anymore? “Secret genius warns upcoming market crash will be 15 times worse than the great depression.” “The government is about to seize your 401k.”
- When asked about something that sounds questionable or unbelievably shocking, research it from scratch rather than clicking the forwarded article.
When a friend asks what you think of an article, they’ll probably share a preview over text, Facebook, or email. The preview likely includes the bold claim in the title or a caption. Rather than clicking the shared article (especially if it’s from a source that you’ve never heard of), Google the headline’s topic, and see if you can find a Reuters article (or a series of other prominent sources) discussing the material. You can even include Reuters in the Google search. If the material is nowhere else on the internet, keep your guard up. If the topic shows up repeatedly, but on a dozen websites you’ve never heard of or only on highly partisan websites, keep your guard up. If it shows up repeatedly on reputable sites, study away.
And if you’re reading on a website for the first time, it’s probably a good idea to click the “about us” section. Some of the smartest people I know have fallen for (and shared) satire pieces.
Some of my SYM colleagues share additional perspective worth considering:
Michelle Hipskind, CFP®, a SYM financial advisor with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Indiana University shared her perspective. “In our increasingly complex and information-saturated environment, it’s hard to know where to get reliable information about world affairs and financial markets. Social media provide quick reads from multiple news outlets in an easily digestible format customized just for our interests. This sounds good; however, social media algorithms ultimately work to reinforce our existing beliefs and attitudes but fail to enlighten us (Ever notice how you “like” just one article on social media and all your other views now feature similar content?). This endless cycle of validation deepens existing opinions and can result in anemic perspectives.”
Steve Saylor, CISM, IT Manager for SYM, keeps strict protocols in place to keep the firm and our clients’ data secure. He views this topic through a security lens, “Cybercriminals have no conscience and have no qualms about manipulating you with news items. While there are plenty of people out there that are only trying to get your eyeballs on their content so they can sell advertising, there are also very sophisticated and savvy malevolent actors that will spoof ‘trusted’ news sources to illicit a click. I coach our team here at SYM to have a healthy paranoia about all electronic communications (email, websites, SMS and other instant messages, voicemail, and voice calls) because the bad guys will use any avenue they can in attempts to trick you. Be wary of randomly clicking on interesting news articles, they might contain something much more dangerous than the sensational snippet that drew your eye implied.”
It’s not all bad.
It’s an exciting time to be a researcher. Both the data and the tools we use to analyze it seem to be dramatically improving every year. With a little caution around misinformation, we can make the most of it and spare our valuable time in the process.
And by protecting against false misdirection, we stay focused on what we can affect. SYM employees are invested in the same portfolio selection in which our clients are invested. We believe in evidence-based investing. This means we understand that near-term market swings are unpredictable and much of the noise that surrounds it is best ignored to protect against emotional decisions hurting the plan. We remain guided by peer-reviewed academic inquiry and stay focused on delivering strategies to help you make the best of this bear market through harvesting losses, charitable giving, evaluating tax efficiency in your various accounts and continuing to invest while the cost of entry is low.
Disclosure: The opinions expressed herein are those of SYM Financial Corporation (“SYM”) and are subject to change without notice. This material is not financial advice or an offer to sell any product. SYM reserves the right to modify its current investment strategies and techniques based on changing market dynamics or client needs. SYM is an independent investment adviser registered under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, as amended. Registration does not imply a certain level of skill or training. More information about SYM including our investment strategies, fees, and objectives can be found in our ADV Part 2, which is available upon request.