Socrates supposedly once said that one should just accept that one’s own ignorance is the only thing to be certain about. In my experience, a lot of our own ignorance is formed and shaped by how we choose to inform ourselves. The less you think about the sources you get your information from, the more easily you will become and stay ignorant and misinformed.
People often fail to realise the connection between their political or social views and the media sources they prefer. How one’s beliefs are formed is a bit of a chicken and egg problem when it comes to media sources – which came first, being right-wing or watching Fox News?
But I maintain that if you care (personally or professionally) about getting to the bottom of issues, you will have to select the best possible information sources, amongst them primary sources.
First, you have to face a basic problem: our current media landscape is not helping you staying informed. The New York Times has no real interest in reporting the objective truth. They have an interest in selling their product as often as possible, which means maintaining an effective illusion of reporting the truth for as big of a market of potential readers as possible.
You may think people care about the truth. Don’t be mistaken. Look at which newspapers have the highest circulation numbers: mostly those who have effectively locked down a geographical market or serve a general world-view. And that’s for people who even buy newspapers, who are probably more interested in informing themselves (or at least upholding the appearance of doing so) than the mean.
So when reading newspapers often makes you rather misinformed, what is one to do in order to truly learn about issues one cares about?
Select the issues you truly care about and read primary sources!
You cannot reasonably be well-informed about a lot of issues so you have to select those you truly care about – there is only so much time in a day.
For those issues you do truly care about, Clay Johnson has helpful hints to give. He is the author of a new book, “The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption”, in which he makes an excellent point on the importance of reading primary sources:
“All too often, we consume information at the top of the trophic pyramid of truth, and as such, we’re getting only the information that has been selected for us by a network of operators interested not in telling us the truth, but in giving us what sells. (…)
We have to move towards the base of the pyramid if we want to see what’s really going on.”
If you had read every news piece the mass media published about these emails during the first 24 hours of their publication, you would have come away with a lot of misconceived ideas and story-lines about what StratFor is and is not (‘do they sexually exploit their sources?!’) and what information they are privy to.
If you had spent about 2-3 hours reading the actual first 230 published emails, you would have gained very interesting, if a bit superfluous, insights into how an intelligence organization like StratFor actually works (which is similar to how the CIA etc works) and what regional issues they care about. Their analytical guidance e.g. for Germany from 2009 lists Neo-nazi, radical right wing and anti-immigrant violence as the ‘main internal threats to Germany’, which has proven to be very well-founded during 2011.
You would also have learned e.g. the following information, which was mostly not reported in most media reports about the leaks:
- Israel may have already succeeded in destroying most of the Iranian nuclear infrastructure
- Mossad may have contracted out the Dubai murders and the Iranian physicist hit
- Chavez’ cancer may have spread to the lymph nodes and into the bone marrow already and there may be all kinds of shady background deals going on as to becomes the successor
- US Democrats may have committed election fraud during the Presidential election of 2008 in Philadelphia and Ohio
- “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy may have been orchestrated from the very beginning and the Imam may have been an operational asset of the FBI
- Karl Rove may have a close personal/working relationship to Kerry Cammack, whose wife happens to have been elected to the Texas Supreme Court
- Osama bin Laden’s body may have been flown to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Bethesda for examinations etc before allegedly being buried in the sea
- French businesses may pay some of the highest bribes in the military procurement business
- Estimates of drug profits from Mexican sources may be wrong to the order of tens of billions of USD
- Turkey may want to lead the Islamic world
- Several mid to senior level Pakistani Intelligence service and military personnel (including a retired General) may have known about Osama Bin Laden’s safe house arrangements; the United States may know which ones
- Russian Prosecutor General / Attorney General may have been a source for StratFor; there may be a lot of specific criminal activity going on in all kinds of Russian institutions
- 1 of 19 Pakistani brigadiers recently promoted to major generals may be a StratFor source
- German Bundeswehr may have failed dramatically in their stabilisation efforts in Afghanistan due to not understanding counterinsurgency operations
All this may or may not be true – given the nature of the leaked emails – but at least you can read the primary sources for yourself and make up your mind about them (insofar as one considers the emails the primary sources in this case and not the StratFor sources/analysts themselves). Journalists instead are often bound by internal guidelines and will not report about certain information at all or may just be under too much time pressure to spend a few hours reading and evaluating. Not to even mention that most journalists don’t really know their covered topics that well – they are just not incentivized to truly know or to care.
Also, these primary sources and the information contained within may or may not surprise the most hardened analysts whose very job it is to stay informed about these topics. Which is a point that is often mentioned in relation to Wikileaks publications – how “there is nothing new” in the leaks. But there is a lot of new information for the general public and most probably for you and me. At least, most, if not all, of this information surely didn’t become public knowledge beforehand.
So if you care about an issue, do not outsource your information gathering. Read primary sources. You will learn a lot and become less misinformed in the process.