The problem with “doing your own research:” most people are bad at it

Originally published on Sumner Newscow on September 17, 2021

Happy Friday. Before we get into the meat of the article, I think it’s important to list my qualifications. I have:

  • Listened to every Nicki Minaj album since I first heard Itty Bitty Piggy in 2010;
  • Went to a Nicki Minaj Concert during her Pink Friday tour and twice since
  • Doxxed someone online.

For all intents and purposes, I am a Barb.

That’s why it was so upsetting to read Minaj’s tweets on Monday claiming she hadn’t received the COVID vaccine yet. Nicki cited her Trinidadian cousin, whose testicles swelled and forced him into impotence. That claim has already been disproven by the Trinidadian government and it’s far more likely that her cousin has untreated gonorrhea, but the damage was done.

Nicki’s opinion carries a lot of weight among her fans (called the Barbz) and beyond. One only needs to look at the tidal wave of news coverage her wild claim has induced since her series of tweets. So, when Nicki says she’s worried about the vaccine, thousands will listen.

It’s important to note that Nicki says she will receive the vaccine because she’ll need it to tour and to protect her son. But with an important caveat: she won’t get it until she’s “done her research.”

And it’s that specific phrasing that’s the real issue here.

Doing one’s research is really important especially for researching restaurants to see if one’s allergic to anything on the menu. Or researching a hotel to see if they adequately clean the rooms. Or researching a college to apply to.

The only problem is most people are really bad at researching.

The most basic tenet of good research is using good sources. Without a credible source, any of the information pulled from that source can be called into question and, more often than not, it will.

The phrase “do your own research” has also become a popular dog whistle among the far-right to seek out alternative facts (lies) when the truth no longer meshes with their worldview. You’ll see it on TV and the internet from Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones (both vaccinated) all the time. Two men, by the way, argued in a court of law that they are bad sources.

In a slander case from 2018, Carlson’s lawyers stated that: “The “‘general tenor’ of the show should then inform a viewer that [Carlson] “is not stating actual facts about the topics he discusses” and is instead engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘non-literal commentary.’ ”

In Alex Jones’ divorce proceedings, his lawyers argued that “no reasonable person would believe what he says.”

Other popular “alternative” sources where misinformed people like to do their own research include Facebook, YouTube channels hosted by white nationalists, and any website that tries to sell you pills for genital enlargement. The point is, without the basic due diligence, doing your own research is worthless, and oftentimes, harmful.

So, when popular artists and celebrities claim that they won’t get a vaccine that every credible scientific publication has endorsed, it’s calling into question those sources’ validity. When you’re asking questions about disease information, it makes sense to ask the Center for Disease Control or the World Health Organization.

But when you have right-wing hacks – sorry, “political news personalities” – like Tucker Carlson arguing that the CDC and WHO are “in on it,” it’s willfully lying to their viewers.

In my article, 25 COVID vaccine myths debunked to convince you to get the shot, I did my own research, and, more importantly, I cited every source I used. If your new sources aren’t citing their sources, or the sources they are citing are wild accusations from Reddit users, it’s fair to say you shouldn’t trust them.

This isn’t just a far-right problem either. One News Network, or OAN (another terrible source of information), sued Rachel Maddow for libel in 2020, and although the case was dismissed, the Judge clarified that “The context of Maddow’s statement shows reasonable viewers would consider the contested statement to be an opinion.”

There’s nothing wrong with having an opinion, I do it every time I write for this paper, but it’s important to note that I write an opinion column. When I’m writing a City Council story, the news is front and center and my personal feelings take a backseat. Rachel Maddow should do the same.

CNN also does its own brand of disingenuous reporting, albeit to a different extent. Rather than misrepresent their hosts’ opinions as fact, they over-focus on political scandals at the expense of important news stories. When was the last time you heard CNN cover a story on gun violence or police brutality rather than trying to “both sides” a political conversation of the filibuster?

But the granddaddy of all misinformation is, naturally, Fox News.

Fox News’ entire platform these days is almost entirely opinion-based, but it didn’t start that way. Media Matters, a far-right media watchdog, wrote an excellent timeline breaking down the fall of the “news” division within the company.

So, what channel should you watch for news? None of them! Television isn’t the bastion of journalistic ethics it once was, and you should reserve that platform for entertainment purposes only.

Or, at the very least, understand the TV does have the news, but it’s also fighting with other stations for ratings and that news could be sensationalized.

Instead, look for your news from their original place: newspapers. Online journalism is in its golden age and there are literally thousands of places to look for information. But the important thing to remember is to check their sources. If the source doesn’t lead back to a credible piece of information, that’s a red flag.

If you’re one of those people who likes to “do your own research,” you should at least do it competently. Paperpile has a great list of ways to get started.

Meme of the week

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