Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, April 18, 2014

Genealogists are not immune to propaganda

This past week has been extremely interesting. Oh, by the way, my use of the word "interesting" is always interesting. It can mean anything from life threatening to having a wonderful time. One thing has become apparent to me is that genealogists, just like members of the the communities they live in, are not immune to propaganda. In fact, a lot of what I see out there in the genealogical marketplace would easily qualify as pure, unadulterated propaganda and it is passed around as the truth, usually without question.

Now, you are probably asking what brought this on? Well, there are several things, but one of the most recurring issues involves questions of privacy and identity theft as they related (or do not relate) to genealogy. But first a definition of propaganda. The most inclusive definition is as follows:
Propaganda is a form of communication aimed towards influencing the attitude of a population toward some cause or position.

Propaganda is information that is not impartial and used primarily to influence an audience and further an agenda, often by presenting facts selectively (thus possibly lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or using loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than rational response to the information presented. Propaganda can be used as a form of ideological or commercial warfare. See Wikipedia: Propaganda.
Our modern world of global instantaneous communication is virtually saturated with propaganda and the genealogical community does not escape. Here are some simple rules you can use to identify propaganda and learn to avoid the impact it may have on your life:

Rule #1: Always investigate the source of any information you receive that seems to want you to take some action or form an opinion. 
Not all declarative statements or calls to action are based on propaganda, but many of them are. For example, consider this question:

Do you think identity theft in the United States is:
  1. A major problem and a threat to everyone's safety both online and offline
  2. A problem that needs to be the concern of every person in the United States
  3. Entirely misunderstood and not nearly as prevalent as it is represented to be
  4. A problem in certain very limited circumstances
  5. None of the above
Now, do you further consider that identity theft is a major crime and that it is one of the fastest growing criminal activities in the United States? Consider these questions instead of the ones above:

  • What is the definition of identity theft?
  • How many convictions for identity theft are reported in the United States each year?
  • How do the statistics on the conviction rate for criminals guilty of identity theft compare to other criminal acts in the United States?
  • Where are statistics concerning convictions for identity theft maintained?
If you can not answer these four questions does that make you reconsider your answers to any of the five previous questions? Would it help you to know that statistics for "identity theft" include many different and in some cases, unrelated criminal activities and that few of these involved what you might be inclined to consider as identity theft? 

So where are the statistics coming from? It is very common that the statistics come from "industry sources" or in other words, people who are trying to sell you some kind of identity theft prevention. Here is my challenge. Make a Google Search on these words: "dramatic increase identity theft" and see what you get. See if you can find one resulting article claiming a dramatic increase in identity theft that references a specific source. This goes for statements from the IRS and Social Security Administration as well as private businesses. See if you can find any statistics about actual criminal convictions and determine what they are based upon. 

Other types of propaganda are more subtle and harder to detect. Anticipating comments, under my definition above, many of the posts in this blog could be considered propaganda. Now, don't get me wrong. Not everything that falls under the definition of propaganda is necessarily bad. If you are told to lose weight, brush your teeth, keep a journal, exercise to keep fit, and many other admonitions could be considered to be propaganda and separating out the "good" messages from those that are not so good or bad can be really difficult. Not all advertising is propaganda. It is also true that the term has taken on a decidedly negative connotation. 

Why I used the identity theft example is simple. I find that there is little or no support for the extravagant claims and I frequently encounter genealogists who have become obsessively preoccupied with concern over the issue and have curtailed unrelated activities because of those fears.  I don't think genealogists have the same level of concern about some of the other advertised issues. 

Rule #2: Weigh the facts, if there are any.
Never accept claims of success, popularity, effectiveness or any other subjective claim that is unsupported by sound sources. 

Rule #3: Always check the source before you accept the representations.
As genealogists we should be aware of the need to cite our sources. We should also be aware of the need to review the sources cited. If the claimed facts are supported only by some weak reference to "authority" or to "government studies" or whatever, then you can discount nearly everything that is said. 

Rule #4: Listen or read carefully as to what is not being said.
It is easy to make a claim but if certain vital elements of the claim are left out of the discourse, then this is an immediate reason for doubting the validity. Here is a classic example of the type of reporting that is mostly propaganda from NBC News in an article dated 19 February 2013 entitled "ID theft on the rise again: 12.6 million victims in 2012, study shows." If you take the time to read the entire article, you will see some really interesting "facts." Such as the following quoted from the article:
  • It's important to note that despite the rise in new account fraud, simple credit card fraud still accounts for about two-thirds of all ID theft.
  • The survey was sponsored by CitiGroup, Visa, and Intersections LLC, which provides identity theft prevention services to consumers.
  • Javelin's data is based on telephone surveys of U.S. adults, with consumers self-reporting details of their ID theft to survey takers and results extrapolated from their answers.
Notice the following:
  1. There is no actual reference to the study. It is only referenced as a study by Javelin Strategy and Research, which is not further identified. 
  2. The sponsors of the study include those who would most benefit from the public believing the results of the "survey."
  3. The survey questions are not identified. 
  4. There is no followup to see whether any criminal activity or complaints resulted from the problems supposedly reported by the survey.
This type of article is not uncommon. You might guess that a copy of the "survey" will cost you money to purchase. Interesting. Make money at both ends of the propaganda. 

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