The Internet is the Wild West of our era: lawless and replete with snake-oil salesmen and traveling vaudeville performances. You know the types—the ones who run websites with names like "911Truth.org" and spend inordinate amounts of time proselytizing their absurd convinctions to gullible readers, barraging the public with warnings about the alleged existence of FEMA camps and false-flag operations conducted by our nefarious government.
Fortunately, we have a new sheriff in town, and he's tirelessly working to drive off these delusive fabulists. His name is Ross Elder, and he considers himself an investigator—by definition a skillset common in skilled journalists—ensuring people get the facts by verifying questionable stories, digging up trustworthy sources, approaching the topic from multiple angles, and seeking truth without an agenda.
Nate: Thanks for agreeing to an interview, Ross.
Ross: Thank you, Nate. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you. I have to begin by saying I am a big fan and I am looking forward to your next offering.
N: I appreciate the kind words! Now, in regards to your work, what compelled you to start doing this? It looks as though you've really made this something of a personal mission.
R: I started reading about conspiracy theories many years ago. The more research I completed on them, however, the more I was refuting them rather than supporting them. I began to see a pattern. Those who create and promote false theories are typically in it for the money and many of them do make a living doing it. I needed an outlet upon which I could lay out my own findings with regard to some of the more common theories. That is how my website was born. I think it is fair to say that I have made it my personal mission. I began to take it personally that so many people are deceived by these charlatans, people I know and care about. So, I took it upon myself to help set the record straight.
N: Some websites and social media pages are obvious about their biases and blatant untruths. But what about those news stories that permeate the Internet and aren't immediately recognizable as stemming from radical or untrustworthy sources, or do actually contain a kernel of truth? Do you approach your investigations any differently in those instances?
R: Yes, I do take a different approach to some sources of information. When something is blatant, like say a headline that reads "Obama signs executive order to confiscate all personal firearms," you can immediately shake your head and assume it is garbage. Researching that is typically a five-minute tour through Google. So, those are fairly easy to dispute.
Others are very crafty and, as you said, may contain a kernel of truth. In those cases, you really have to drill down on the information being provided and analyze every phrase and word choice. They may be "hinting" that this particular thing is "possible" in their actual writing, but the impression it leaves with the reader might be definitive. Depending on how many "possibly" and "potentially" and "I believe" or "I feel that..." phrases appear in the article, you can judge the writers biases and figure out if they are trying to lead you astray while parsing their words in such a way as to give the impression the information has actually been vetted.
N: In an age of rampant misinformation, what advice do you have for the casual Internet surfer to drill down to the facts?
R: The new information phrase is "Don't believe the mainstream media." People seeking information now avoid the major news outlets and rely upon "alternative media" outlets like InfoWars, Prison Planet, Gateway Pundit, and an ever growing assortment of similar websites. The problem is that, regardless of your political leanings, the mainstream media is vastly more reliable than any of those alternative media websites. I encourage people to learn how to filter out opinion and conjecture in media reports and just focus on the facts. One of the chapters of my book, "Just Stop," covers that topic with some examples. Learning to filter out the chaff in your news coverage will go a long way to help you feel confident you are understanding what really happened.
One example from current events is the "ISIS captures Al-Asad airbase, 300 Marines in peril" articles that have appeared in just the last couple of days. It isn't true. Not at all. But, several "alternative media" websites started putting it out and many others linked to it or copied it on to their pages and BINGO. Thousands, if not millions of people believe it actually happened.
N: What is the most ridiculous story you've debunked to date?
R: I think the most ridiculous conspiracy theories I have dealt with thus far are those related to the United Nations take over of the United States and FEMA Camps. That would include the secret train cars with shackles for the citizens and guillotines being purchased by the U.S. government. The entire thing is so absurd it was a struggle for me to write an actual article about it. It was very hard not to turn it into a comedy routine and just ridicule those who promote these theories. I really had to buckle down and provide legitimate, verifiable information in order to counter the conspiracy theory.
N: You remember when CNN's Don Lemon posited that supernatural forces or a black hole might have been responsible for the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370? When journalists of some repute pander to conspiracy theorists or propagate absurd theories like this, what impact does it have on viewers, readers, and the work you do?
R: Yes, I remember that and I remember having the reaction of, "Wait... what?" I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It immediately reminded me of Representative Hank Johnson who was concerned that the island of Guam could capsize if we place more Marines and their families on the island. Although it made for great comedy routines on late night television, it was a very sad commentary on the people we send to Washington to represent us.
Largely, the effect of these sorts of off-the-wall reports and theories is that people either stop believing anything, or start believing everything. I encounter people every day who believe everything they read on the Internet. Conversely, I encounter others who don't believe anything they read or hear on anything remotely mainstream. The end result is that both groups of people are so uninformed that they actually know nothing and, knowing nothing, they will argue with you for hours about nonexistent things.
There has been a lot in the news lately regarding journalistic credibility thanks to Brian "Danger" Williams and his apparently inflated record. I was willing to give him a little slack on misrepresenting one incident because he came out and admitted it. But, now we are learning that many other supposed experiences in his career were also embellished or fabricated. I think he is done. The alternative crowd will use this as a shining example of why the mainstream media is simply there to manipulate your thoughts. The damage isn't only to that journalist or newscaster. The damage is to journalism as a whole and the stain of it will touch many more people than just the one who got caught.
N: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Ross, and best of luck with your future work!
Check out Ross' website, here.