unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation

unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation


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The founders of FactCheck.org teach you how to identify and debunk spin, hype, and fake news in this essential guide to informed citizenship in an age of misinformation.

Americans are bombarded daily with mixed messages, half-truths, misleading statements, and out-and-out fabrications masquerading as facts. The news media is often too intimidated, too partisan, or too overworked to keep up with these deceptions.

unSpun is the secret decoder ring for the twenty-first-century world of disinformation. Written by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the founders of the acclaimed website FactCheck.org,unSpun reveals the secrets of separating facts from disinformation, such as: 

• the warning signs of spin
• common tricks used to deceive the public
• how to find trustworthy and objective sources of information

Telling fact from fiction shouldn’t be a difficult task. With this book and a healthy dose of skepticism, anyone can cut through the haze of political deception and biased eportage to become a savvier, more responsible citizen.

Praise for unSpun

“Read this book and you will not go unarmed into the political wars ahead of us. Jackson and Jamieson equip us to be our own truth squad, and that just might be the salvation of democracy.” —Bill Moyers

“The definitive B.S. detector—an absolutely invaluable guidebook.”—Mark Shields, syndicated columnist and political analyst, NewsHour with Jim Lehrer

unSpun is an essential guide to cutting through the political fog.”—Mara Liasson, NPR national political correspondent

“The Internet may be a wildly effective means of communication and an invaluable source of knowledge, but it has also become a new virtual haven for scammers–financial, political, even personal. Better than anything written before, unSpun shows us how to recognize these scams and protect ourselves from them.”—Craig Newmark, founder and customer service representative, Craigslist

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400065660
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/24/2007
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 108,772
Product dimensions: 5.21(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.47(d)

About the Author

Brooks Jackson runs FactCheck.org and was previously an investigative reporter for the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, and CNN. He is the author of Honest Graft: Big Money and the American Political Process and Broken Promise: Why the Federal Election Commission Failed. Jackson lives in Washington, D.C.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson is the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She has written more than a dozen books, including Dirty Politics: Deception, Distraction, and Democracy and Everything You Think You Know About Politics . . . and Why You're Wrong. Jamieson lives in Philadelphia.

Read an Excerpt


Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation Chapter 1

From Snake Oil to Emu Oil

A century ago a self-proclaimed cowboy named Clark Stan- ley, calling himself the Rattlesnake King, peddled a product he called Snake Oil Liniment. He claimed it was “good for man and beast” and brought immediate relief from “pain and lameness.” Stanley sold it for 50 cents a bottle—the equivalent of more than $10 today—as a remedy for rheumatism, toothache, sciatica, and “bites of animals, insects and reptiles,” among other ailments. To promote his pricey cure-all, Stanley publicly slaughtered rattlesnakes at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

Stanley was the most famous of the snake-oil salesmen, back before passage of the federal Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. And he was a fraud. When the federal government finally got around to seizing some of Stanley’s product in 1915, the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Chemistry (forerunner of today’s Food and Drug Administration) determined that it “consisted principally of a light mineral oil (petroleum product) mixed with about 1 per cent of fatty oil (probably beef fat), capsicum, and possibly a trace of camphor and turpentine.” And no actual snake oil. Stanley was charged with violating thefederal food and drug act. He didn’t contest the charge and was fined $20.

Are today’s pitchmen and hucksters any less deceptive? We don’t think so. “Snake oil” has a bad name these days (at least in the United States; in China, it is used to relieve joint pain). But in 2006 we found another animal-oil product that—according to its marketer—is “much better than Botox! [and] Makes Wrinkles Almost Invisible to the Naked Eye! . . . Look as much as 20-years younger . . . in less than one minute.” The maker even claims that the product won’t just hide wrinkles, with repeated use it may eliminate them: “It is possible your wrinkles will no longer even exist.” The name of the product is Deception Wrinkle-Cheating Cream. How appropriate.

According to Planet Emu, the marketer, this scientific miracle contains “the only triple-refined emu oil in the world,” but we quickly determined that this product is nothing more than triple-refined hokum. Emus are those big, flightless Australian birds; the oil is said to be an ancient Aboriginal remedy. But when we asked Planet Emu for proof of their claims, they cited only one scientific study of emu oil’s cosmetic properties, and it had nothing to do with wrinkles. It found that emu oil was rated better than mineral oil as a moisturizer by eleven test subjects. We searched the medical literature for ourselves and found some scanty evidence that emu oil may promote healing of burns in rats. We found no testing of emu oil as a wrinkle cream, much less any testing that compared it with Botox.

That’s where a century of progress in product promotion has gotten us: from baseless claims for snake oil to baseless claims for emu oil. The products change, but the techniques of deception (small “d”) are as underhanded now as they were in the days of Clark Stanley. Meanwhile the price has gone up. “Deception” emu-oil wrinkle cream, at $40 for three quarters of an ounce, costs four times more than a bottle of its snake-oil forebear, even after adjusting for a century of inflation.

Bunk is fairly typical of beauty products. “All the cosmetics companies use basically the same chemicals,” a former cosmetics chemist, Heinz J. Eiermann, told The Washington Post way back in 1982. “It is all the same quality stuff.” Eiermann was then head of the Food and Drug Administration’s division of cosmetics technology. His conclusion: “Much of what you pay for is make-believe.”

Cosmetics advertising is just one example of the rampant deception that surrounds us. Spin pervades both commerce and politics, and most of it is not so funny. As we’ll soon see, any number of products with household names are marketed with false or deceptive advertising. Whole companies have been built on such deception. Elections have been decided by voters who believed false ideas fed to them by manipulative television ads and expressed in “talking points,” and if you voted for a presidential candidate in 2004 the odds are you were one of them. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq wasn’t the first American war fought with the passionate support of a public that believed claims about the enemy that turned out to be false.

We’ve found that whether the spin is political, commercial, or ideological, and whether the stakes are trivial (as with $40 wrinkle remedies) or, quite literally, life and death, the ways by which we are deceived are consistent and not so hard to recognize. The first step in confronting spin is to open our eyes to how often we encounter it. It’s so common, so all-pervading, that we can’t avoid it.

Prescription-Strength Malarkey

Some examples from commercial advertising:

•Bayer HealthCare once advertised Aleve pain medication as “Prescription Strength Relief Without a Prescription.” It wasn’t. The maximum recommended dose of Aleve is less than half the usually prescribed dose of Anaprox, a prescription counterpart.

•Munchkin, Inc., said of one of its products: “Baby bottles like Tri-Flow have been clinically shown to reduce colic.” But look behind the “clinically proven” claim and you find the test was of a competitor’s similar bottle, not Munchkin’s.

•NetZero claimed its dial-up Internet service allows users to “surf at broadband-like speeds.” It doesn’t. Cable modems are several times faster.

•Tropicana claimed in TV ads that drinking two to three glasses a day of its “Healthy Heart” orange juice could reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. The Federal Trade Commission said those claims weren’t supported by scientific evidence, and prohibited the company from repeating the claims in future ads.

Political Snake Oil

Deceptive product promotion is a minor problem compared with political spin. Compare claims for snake oil and emu oil with those routinely made about crude oil—petroleum. In the 2004 presidential campaign, both John Kerry and President George W. Bush spoke to voters of making America “energy independent.” Toward the end of the campaign, Professor Robert Mabro, who was then the director of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, told The New Yorker magazine: “The two candidates, with due respect, are lying to the people, or they don’t know what they are talking about.”

Our guess is that Bush and Kerry knew exactly what they were talking about. Actually achieving “energy independence” would require huge changes that neither man cared to propose. One independent study, by the Rocky Mountain Institute, projected that the United States could eliminate the need to import any oil from abroad by 2040, if we took such measures as a heavy tax on gas-guzzling vehicles, a federal program to buy and scrap old gas-gulping clunkers, and generous subsidies from taxpayers to help low-income persons buy more fuel-efficient autos. The projected cost of such measures was $180 billion, at least $150 billion more than either Kerry or Bush had pledged, and even so it is probably far too little. Others say that what’s required for independence is a government program on the scale of the project that produced the Apollo moon landings.

Sure enough, oil imports continued to rise after Bush was sworn in for a second term, so much that in 2005 the United States imported 59.8 percent of the oil it consumed, up from 58.4 percent in 2004. The increase came despite enactment of a Bush-backed energy bill, which was predicted only to slow the growth of imports modestly, not to reverse it.

The crude-oil spin continues. In his 2006 State of the Union address, the president said the United States was “addicted to oil.” But this time he set a more modest goal: cutting imports from Middle Eastern countries by 75 percent. That was less deceptive than speaking of “independence,” but deceptive nonetheless. Only about one barrel of imported oil in every five was coming from the Middle East, so cutting that by 75 percent sounded like a bigger step than it really was. The biggest suppliers to the United States actually were Canada and Mexico.

In his speech to Congress, Bush proposed a mere 22 percent increase in government spending for clean-energy research, called “shockingly small” by Severin Borenstein, an energy economist at the University of California–Berkeley. This expert added that Bush’s plan was “hardly the Manhattan Project equivalent on energy that we need.”

It comes as no surprise that candidates want to avoid discussing politically painful solutions during an election year, or ever. But there’s real harm in pretending that there are easy solutions to big problems, or that the problems don’t exist. Accepting the spin means letting the problems fester; meanwhile, the solutions become even more painful, or the problems overwhelm us entirely.

The Profits of Disinformation

Deception is highly profitable. Consider the case of one California huckster calling himself “Dr.” Alex Guerrero. He appeared on TV infomercials claiming that his “natural” herbal remedy Supreme Greens (containing grapefruit pectin) could cure or prevent cancer, arthritis, osteoporosis, fibromyalgia, heart disease, diabetes, heartburn, fatigue, or even “the everyday ravages of aging,” all while promoting weight loss of up to four pounds per week and up to eighty pounds in eight months. A one-month supply cost $49.99, plus shipping and handling. And as incredible as “Dr.” Guerrero’s claims might seem, he sold enough Supreme Greens to drive around in a Cadillac Escalade. When the Federal Trade Commission hauled him into court he agreed to settle the case by halting his claims and either paying a $65,000 fine or giving the government title to his flashy SUV. And he was just one small-timer in the FTC’s bulging case files.

According to the FTC, “consumers may be spending billions of dollars a year on unproven, fraudulently marketed, often useless health-related products, devices and treatments.” Worthless weight-loss products alone have proliferated so wildly that in 2004 the FTC launched “Operation Big Fat Lie” to target them. As of October 2005, the commission said it had secured court orders requiring more than $188 million in consumer redress judgments against defendants. And since the FTC relies mostly on negotiated settlements, which are like plea bargains, that $188 million is most likely a fraction of the actual ill-gotten gains from weight-loss scams.


Excerpted from unSpun by Brooks Jackson Copyright © 2007 by Brooks Jackson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
kkid1 More than 1 year ago
This book helps you verify statements and teaches you what to look for in a statement that may be truthful yet misleading. The danger of dis-information should be shrinking instead of growing in the information age and this book helps to do just that! un Spun will show you several different sources of fact verification and methods to achieve those facts. A short yet insightful read.
RedWriter More than 1 year ago
When I begin a new research project, I feel like Little Red Riding Hood heading into a pathless forest of information with no way to know what is accurate. The temptation is to assume all smiling authorities are correct and those who snarl and growl are lying. But Unspun gave me the tools to be skeptical, not cynical, and gave me specific techniques to evaluate each claim for myself. These methods have been useful not only in research, but listening to news, even conversing with others. I am no longer a passive listener or reader; in the disinformation forest, I have a chance of finding my own way to Grandmother's house.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is so good, I'm rating it on two websites! It was designed to be accessible to a wide audience, from the easy writing style to the affordable paperback cover. While their political leanings aren't completely invisible, the authors do an excellent job of showing how politicians of any party as well as advertisers and others spin their messages. They also, more importantly, offer resources for checking facts, key tricks to watch out for, and a free website with updates to their book. I was surprised at how many recent examples of spin in ads and campaigns that I not only recognized but also fell for, even being the questioning cynic that I am. Buy two - one for yourself and one for a friend.
kellymaliawilliams on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Excellent tool for sorting disinformation from truth in the modern world
slothman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An excellent, concise introduction to the numerous ways we humans make thinking errors and the ways in which they are exploited in the worlds of commerce and politics, from the brains behind factcheck.org. The book has numerous examples to illustrate its principles, and explains how the folks at Annenberg Political Fact Check go about their work of verifying claims.
tshare on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A must read for anyone who wants to protect themselves from scams and know how to find the truth. A great place to start if you want to base your understanding of the world on evidence rather than propaganda or ideology.
jwcooper3 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The anecdotes and examples are fascinating but the hidden message of this book is that Americans, by and large, have stopped thinking. We've come to accept anything that comes out of the TV, internet and news media in all it's forms as the truth largely because we can't be bothered to take the time to think and search for the facts behind the spin, half-truths and out 'n' out lies. If nothing else, this books points out the need for a return to common sense and healthy skepticism without cynicism.
kaelirenee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love factcheck.org, so when I found out some of the contributors were writing a book, I had to get it. Not only does it drive home the need to check sources and not believe everything you hear or read on the net right away, it explains why we're so willing to believe some things or disregard others so quickly.This book explain to the reader when spin typically happens, how to recognize it, how to be on the lookout for it, and how to verify what the facts really are. Reading it and the examples given, I was suprised by how much I do. I have quite a bit of experiance verifying sources, questioning numbers, and scouring reports to see how the numbers have been crunched (I'm one of those librarians they mention in chapter 7), but I get taken in too-I had one of those Ab belts and thought that the bin Lauden family was allowed to fly out soon after 9/11. Of course, I had to read this book with an equally critical eye-I still wonder how some of the questions were formed in all those studies they cited...Oh, and if you're like me and immediatly start looking for the bibliography-it's on their web page, not in the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An excellent source to help anyone get through the maze of information and disinformation that we are surrounded by,
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