August 17, 2006

Fake Neutrality: Procon.org

Procon.org is a new set of websites claiming to promote informed citizenship by providing “both sides of the issue” in a number of topics of debate or political interest. Its pages are designed so that students will easily notice all of the indications of reliability that information literacy instructors have taught them to look for in a web page: the group’s 501(c)(3) non-profit tax status and non-partisanship is prominently located in the upper left; contact information is easy to find; it’s at a dot org domain; and it is written in cool and measured prose. And the organizing principle of the site – providing the “pros and cons” – especially invites students to trust it.

I find Procon.org’s websites dangerous for undergraduates but useful in educating librarians to be better information literacy instructors.

Spending a good chunk of time with these sites provides an object lesson in how control over the way a question is framed and control over what information gets applied to it can go a long way in determining how people answer that question. The site presents questions to students, such as “Is the United States a Christian Nation?,” provides pro- and con- statements relating to them, and lets students feel that they are answering these questions for themselves. It is what you might call “guided thinking.”

Procon.org’s claim of non-partisanship and neutrality is a deceptive strategy designed to influence students’ thinking about topics like the war in Iraq, homosexuality, the ACLU, medical marijuana, and the Pledge of Allegiance. Its presentation appears at first glance to be so neutral and harmless that I fear many librarians will be fooled by it. Certainly many students will.

It is potentially very useful, however, in demonstrating the power over a debate that you enjoy if you define its terms and control the information that’s brought to bear. That’s a principle that any librarian doing information literacy instruction should understand deeply.

Links to Procon.org’s issue sites are showing up all over Wikipedia as “see also” resources. So far Wikipedia editors don’t appear to be wise to the site and its strategy of disguising bias; at first glance it seems very much in line with Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View policy, which is all about providing balanced views (and a first glance is all that many people have time for when checking the edits of pages they’re watching on Wikipedia).

Don’t be fooled by this site. I encourage librarians to use it in information literacy instruction as an example of a biased website. A website can have all of the features students are traditionally taught to look for to establish reliability and still be propaganda. This site is an example of why we need to go a little deeper in our teaching about how to evaluate websites and how to detect bias.

It’s a sickening deception.

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28 Comments »

  1. One cannot help but notice that you provide not a single example of anything deceptive, whether sickening or not. There is quite a bit of verbiage on that site. Surely you can gin up something.

    Comment by Art Deco — August 17, 2006 @ 6:55 pm

  2. What is deceptive is the presentation of biased information under the pretense of objectivity and neutrality. It’s fundamentally a lie, and I find it offensive.

    Comment by Rory Litwin — August 17, 2006 @ 7:26 pm

  3. You still have not provided an example.

    Comment by Art Deco — August 18, 2006 @ 7:44 am

  4. “Sickening deception” – Very strong words.

    I agree with your premise that whoever frames the questions controls the arguments. However, everyone, whether they be politically, socially, morally, religiously liberal or conservative, does this.

    Rory: “What is deceptive is the presentation of biased information under the pretense of objectivity and neutrality. It’s fundamentally a lie, and I find it offensive.”

    And of course, those with viewpoints opposed to yours might say the same thing about many of the web sites you find to be more neutral. Who decides?

    I think the key is to allow the other side access where they can comment beyond the “pro” and “con” statements those on the web site have chosen to display (web 2.0 stuff), where a critic can say, “I don’t agree with the way you’ve framed the issue because…” And then, in fairness, to allow them to frame the questions the way they want to (where the other side, can then say “I don’t agree with the way…”).

    Eventually, you get down to deeper and deeper assumptions that each side holds, and these can be examined by each party, if they want to do this (many times, we balk here).

    Of course, this assumes that one has hope that talking about issues at a very deep level actually can promote understanding and civility!

    I looked at the site briefly, so I don’t know if they already allow this or not.

    Comment by Nathan — August 18, 2006 @ 8:05 am

  5. I just want to add that I think anyone who attempts to understand the arguments of, and to accurately represent someone with an opposing viewpoint, should be commended rather than blasted.

    Why shouldn’t I try to understand those who seem to think quite differently from me in the most charitable way possible?

    Of course all of us who try to do this do it imperfectly. Of course we all frame the questions in the ways that seem most pertinent, relevant, or appropriate to us. Of course sometimes we may not even realize that others may think that there’s another, more legitimate, way to ask a question!

    I think there needs to be a little bit more charity here. Am I wrong?

    Comment by Nathan — August 18, 2006 @ 8:18 am

  6. Nathan – I do not agree that the ProCon.org people are attempting to accurately represent opposing viewpoints. I think they quite deliberately present weak arguments to represent the views they oppose. The problem with the site is not that I disagree with its point of view but that it is dishonest in claiming to fairly present both sides of its debates. For example, while it presents impassioned opposition to the word “God” in the pledge of allegiance and refers to historical precedent for the separation between church and state, it doesn’t explain the reasons why people have believed the separation between church and state is important. Consider also that the “wrong” view is always stated first, and is followed by the “right” view on the right-hand side of the screen.

    That said, your points about the difficulty of holding a neutral position that everyone would agree is neutral is well-taken. I think perhaps there is an inherent problem with “presenting both sides of the issue;” there is a speaker so there is a point of view involved. It’s not a very Web 2.0 site; it is really designed to direct people’s thinking in a particular way. You might be right that the same techniques wouldn’t bother me so much if they were promoting views that I agree with, but it wouldn’t be any less wrong, and it would be vulnerable to the same criticism. I think that puts something like Wikipedia in an interesting light, because there the aim of presenting “both sides of the issue” actually gets pursued cooperatively by people with different viewpoints…

    Comment by Rory Litwin — August 18, 2006 @ 9:23 am

  7. Rory- You need to add examples in your posting. What side do they take? What is their political stance?

    Comment by Bill Drew — August 18, 2006 @ 9:26 am

  8. The issues they address are medical marijuana, the Iraq War, the ACLU (through the loaded question, “Is the ACLU good for America?”), the Israel-Palestine conflict, electronic voting machines, and whether homosexuality is innate. If you explore their site and analyze their presentation of these debates, I think it is fairly clear that they are opposed to medical marijuana, support the US war in Iraq, opposed to the ACLU, favor Israel, support electronic voting machines (and downplay their vulnerability to tampering), and believe that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice. They provide weak arguments in opposition to the views that they support, and legitimize arguments that have little medical or scholarly support. For example, even raising the questions “ACLU, bad for America?” or “Homosexuality, are people really born with it?” are direct challenges to accepted views, not neutral, balanced presentations.

    Something to consider about the “pros and cons” format is how it can be used to advance any idea by claiming that it is a subject of even debate. “Jews: did they kill Jesus?” “Blacks: are they better at sports for genetic reasons?” Posing a question says, “This is the debate: you decide,” but it’s hard to ask a neutral question; its neutrality has to be measured against informed opinion. I think the ProCon people are skewed to the politically conservative side of informed opinion.

    The site presents a lot of information in the form of answers to questions, but the questions themselves have to be looked at. On their Iraq war pro-con site, for instance, they ask whether Saddam Hussein “pursued or acquired” weapons of mass destruction, though President Bush’s claim was actually that Iraq acquired them. Asking the question in this way sets up an answer that is favorable to US policy but distorts the issue.

    Comment by Rory Litwin — August 18, 2006 @ 9:56 am

  9. I agree with you Rory that this site is “sneaky.” The whole Pro/Con set-up makes it appear to be objective, when it actually isn’t. Here are my examples:

    A topic that might be framed as “Gay Rights” is listed here as “Born Gay?” We’re asked to consider the entire question of queer people’s relation to society within the frame of the nature vs. nurture idea.

    Going from the sub-issue menu “discrimination” and choosing “Should society protect individuals from 
job discrimination based on their same-sex attraction?” we get a pop-up box in two columns, with the “pro” on the left and the “con” on the right. As you noted, generally people will read the left column first, so the “con” side is essentially a rebuttal, not a comparison. The first pro comment is from the ACLU, following this comment is a link to the ProCon.org topic “Is the ACLU good for America?” This undermines the argument presented as “pro.” No such disclaimers appear on the “con” side.

    For the question “Does homosexual behavior present more of a health risk than heterosexual behavior” the pro side is anti-gay. So, this looks a little more balanced because you read the con side second. However, the language of the arguments also raises a perception issue. On the pro side the quotes are very simple and to the point. While on the con side the quotes are longer and more complicated, so the message doesn’t come through as clearly.

    The site also uses a 5-star “credibility rating.” In the health-risk question above the first argument is from an MD, who receives a three-star credibility rating. But, it’s quoting a report he prepared for the right-wing Corporate Research Council.

    I think this site would be a great resource for teaching the subtleties of credibility and manipulation of information.

    Comment by Mags D — August 18, 2006 @ 10:48 am

  10. Rory, I think you have misread the material as having a conservative bias. According to the biography of Steven Markoff on the site itself, he is the “Director of the non-profit ACLU Foundation of Southern California since 1979.” That being said, I have so far not seen the bias you claim to see–in either direction. As a librarian who teaches students to evaluate websites, I will seriously consider using this site as an example of a fair and balanced consideration of the issues.

    Comment by Jan Sauer — August 18, 2006 @ 10:52 am

  11. Jan Sauer wrote: “According to the biography of Steven Markoff on the site itself, he is the “Director of the non-profit ACLU Foundation of Southern California since 1979.’ ”

    It is indeed written on his biography, but if you link to the ACLU of Southern California, you will not find him listed anywhere. Their executive director, according to their annual report, is Ramona Ripston.

    This is a good example of the need to independently validate information for any site that looks suspicious. Students should be taught this as well.

    Comment by kcf — August 18, 2006 @ 11:31 am

  12. KCF – Thanks for looking into this. However, I think it might come down to the difference between ACLU of Southern California and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, which are different legal entities (because of laws regarding lobbying and such). It is interesting and I have to admit to feeling a little confused by this.

    Comment by Rory Litwin — August 18, 2006 @ 11:43 am

  13. I’m not entirely sure what you could usefully say about this site in an information literacy course. While I agree that most of the arguments presented seem to have a definite slant, is there an easy lesson to be learned here? The only idea that jumps to mind is that you should use multiple sources to verify your research. Maybe also something about examining primary reasearch so we could see those quotes in context?

    Procon.org seems to be a really good example of a site that presents a certain viewpoint without being easily identifiable as biased.

    Comment by Alex Grigg — August 18, 2006 @ 12:07 pm

  14. For example, even raising the questions “ACLU, bad for America?” or “Homosexuality, are people really born with it?” are direct challenges to accepted views, not neutral, balanced presentations.

    Views accepted by whom, Mr. Litwin? The American Civil Liberties Union is a sorely controversial organization which has counted among it critics Alan Dershowitz and (with regard to certain local affiliates) Nat Hentoff; the aetology of homosexual attractions remains to this day a mystery.

    For the question “Does homosexual behavior present more of a health risk than heterosexual behavior” the pro side is anti-gay. So, this looks a little more balanced because you read the con side second. However, the language of the arguments also raises a perception issue. On the pro side the quotes are very simple and to the point. While on the con side the quotes are longer and more complicated, so the message doesn’t come through as clearly.

    That may have something to do with the substantive characteristics of the argument being made.

    Comment by Art Deco — August 18, 2006 @ 12:29 pm

  15. Rory:

    They provide weak arguments in opposition to the views that they support, and legitimize arguments that have little medical or scholarly support. For example, even raising the questions “ACLU, bad for America?” or “Homosexuality, are people really born with it?” are direct challenges to accepted views, not neutral, balanced presentations.

    and

    but it’s hard to ask a neutral question; its neutrality has to be measured against informed opinion. I think the ProCon people are skewed to the politically conservative side of informed opinion.

    Rory, you are right that sometimes questions are not asked in the best way, or may be offensive to us, but I think the idea of a neutral question, or “informed opinion” is a misnomer. After all, there are highly intelligent people who don’t always accept the mainstream or status quo (for example, they think that there is evidence that is not being dealt with and that a new more comprehensive framework is necessary for dealing with the suppressed or un-dealt-with data) – think of folks like Einstein. Further, what exactly, constitutes “accepted views” anyway in your opinion? Finally, in what way is “majority opinion” a good measure of truth? I’ve often wondered how I would have done in Nazi Germany. On what basis would I have stood up to what was the majority opinion there?

    Comment by Nathan — August 18, 2006 @ 12:31 pm

  16. I said:

    Finally, in what way is “majority opinion” a good measure of truth? I’ve often wondered how I would have done in Nazi Germany. On what basis would I have stood up to what was the majority opinion there?

    Sorry, you never said majority opinion, but rather “accepted views”. So accepted views can replace majority opinion in both instances above.

    Also, I realize that you would undoubtedly make a distinction between “accepted views” and “informed opinion”, but sometimes these are not always so easy to untangle. Of course depending on the topic being dealt with, one must ask what kinds of evidences are important in helping one to revise one’s views/premises/presuppostions in a given area.

    Comment by Nathan — August 18, 2006 @ 12:36 pm

  17. Nathan – I’m all for challenging accepted views with rational arguments, but this site, in my opinion, is dishonest in the way it does this, because it misrepresents that status of these debates within society. Posing questions like “Gay people – born that way?” pretends to offer a neutral view while advancing a perspective. It’s not advancing a perspective that bothers me, its the pretense of neutrality.

    Comment by Rory Litwin — August 18, 2006 @ 2:20 pm

  18. Alex Grig: You’re right – the site is a good example of a biased site that’s not easily identifiable as biased, and that’s exactly why I think it’s a good one for discussion in an information literacy course. Our students shouldn’t walk away with the idea that evaluating a resource for bias is always a simple, easy, and clear-cut thing. We should communicate to them that it isn’t always easy, and give them strategies for dealing with this reality. In actual fact many of the sources students deal with are going to be subtly biased, and they should know that these sources need to be approached thoughtfully and skeptically. Having a simple checkoff list that weeds out some extreme cases without calling the majority of resources into question does not teach students very much.

    Comment by Rory Litwin — August 18, 2006 @ 2:25 pm

  19. “Neutral” Websites That Aren’t…

    Rory Litwin at Library Juice writes about Procon.org, a neutral-looking news site that claims to give you the straight dope on various controversial subjects, when in fact it’s really a deceptive effort to push certain agendas. His post begins: Procon…

    Trackback by Question Technology — August 18, 2006 @ 11:11 pm

  20. At my institution, Websense blocks procon.org as an “Advocacy Group”. According to the Websense web site advocacy groups are “sites that promote change or reform in public policy, public opinion, social practice, economic activities, and relationships”. I usually don’t agree with Websense’s choice of filtering but this time it is right on the money. Hopefully it will throw up a red flag to my students if they come across the web site.

    Comment by Christina Williams — August 21, 2006 @ 8:13 am

  21. What an important and interesting discussion. Rory, although I obviously disagree with your conclusions, I think you are right to question an organization’s claim to nonpartisanship. There are many entities claiming to be unbiased that are not, so your skepticism is certainly understood by me.

    That said, I appreciate all the specific examples of alleged bias you have elicited in this discussion. The only reason ProCon.org exists is to present controversial issues in a nonpartisan manner. We feel this neutral, credible perspective is missing from so much of media that we have a critical void to fill.

    We have no agenda, and we believe that taking a position or even seeming to take a position may undermine our efforts. Therefore, we have diligent methods and specific written policies regarding balancing content that guide our day-to-day research and publishing work. If you spot bias, then please tell us exactly where because we want the opportunity to improve those areas immediately. If you have better arguments for us to use, then by all means, please send them along.

    I’ve printed this entire Library Juice discussion so I can review the specific comments with our staff. I encourage you or others at Library Juice to send us emails where you spot areas that can or should be improved.

    Thanks for sparking this important conversation and feel free to contact me directly should you have any additional questions or concerns.

    Sincerely,

    Kamy Akhavan
    Managing Editor, ProCon.org

    Comment by Kambiz Akhavan — August 21, 2006 @ 10:12 am

  22. Rory and Jan:

    In response to your discussion of Steven Markoff’s connection to the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, I’d like to direct you to their 2005 Annual Report which lists Mr. Markoff under Board of Directors.

    http://www.aclu-sc.org/attach/a/annual_report_2004_5.pdf

    Ramona Ripston is the Executive Director of the ACLU of Southern California.

    I hope this information helps to clarify Mr. Markoff’s ACLU connection.

    Thanks, -Kamy

    Comment by Kambiz Akhavan — August 21, 2006 @ 3:10 pm

  23. It is possible that our own biases are making us see bias. NPR carried a story on a study of perceptions of bias in the media, which seems relevant.

    http://www.npr.org/programs/totn/transcripts/2006/jul/060731.vedantam.html

    Comment by Mike Monaco — August 23, 2006 @ 9:22 am

  24. Let me pose the question: Does the world need a site which IS totally unbiased, and DOES present both sides of issues? And what would be the process for proposing new issues? Would such a site eventually be overrun by one demographic?

    Comment by Pancake Schmeckendeugler — September 11, 2006 @ 2:45 pm

  25. Hi Pancake.

    When I saw your name I thought your comment would be heckling in nature but actually I think your question is good. I think it is the right question. Regardless of how it’s answered, however, I see a problem in a site that purports to give an unbiased presentation of both sides of a number of issues, and uses a full set of cues to indicate that it is unbiased, when it is actually doing something else.

    Comment by Rory Litwin — September 11, 2006 @ 2:57 pm

  26. I found this discussion very interesting and thought I would mention my project as one that approaches this situation from a different angle.

    We’ve been building a site, whereIstand.com where any topic is fair game and where the issues and positions are composed in collaboration by the users. It isn’t very nice to look at yet, but we’re working on that. See, as an example, the “featured issue” on the main page of the site.

    You’d need to be registered to see the part that pertains most to this comment.

    Essentially, any user proposes an issue and people debate the wording, the options, etc. It’s only when the experienced users that have become “editors” in a topic determine that there’s a consensus on the validity of the question, that it’s “approved”. At that time, anybody coming to the site can “take a stand” on it.

    We also use this to gather information on where “public figures” stand on the issues. Users post publicly available information that provides “evidence” of positions. Other users have to vote in agreement before the site will show the public figure as having “taken a stand”. We’re hoping to get far enough along with this before the elections to be a useful voter resource.

    We still only have enough users to support development, so the content is not yet where it needs to be. There are more than a few issues that we know need to be archived and replaced, but as the users drive this, they’ll get to that when they feel it’s necessary. Anyone can join the site and push for that type of change.

    There’s a lot more to this than I’m writing here. I only wanted to write enough to support the point I wanted to make: Combining structured issues with the “open source” model can eventually present “[“all”] sides of the issue.”

    Thanks,
    Nick

    nick@whereIstand.com

    Comment by Nick — September 24, 2006 @ 8:03 am

  27. It’s funny how the definitions of “right” and “wrong” or “objective” and “biased” depend on who is speaking.

    To assume yourself to be unbiased toward anything is unrealistic.

    Comment by Rich Burnham — October 30, 2008 @ 9:51 am

  28. […] as much as I do in the possibility and beneficiality of neutrality. Of course, I am aware that there might be some people who are not convinced on this point. I know that a lot of people detest all attempts at neutrality and insist that it is […]

    Pingback by Citizendium Blog » Is ProCon.org neutral? — December 15, 2008 @ 3:19 pm

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