What is misinformation?
Misinformation is information that’s been distorted in the communication process. Think of a child’s game of “Telephone.” If the first child in a chain whispers the message “Green golf shirt” to their neighbor, but the last child is told “Gandalf is hurt,” then misinformation has occurred.
Sometimes misinfo happens because of literal mishearing and sometimes it happens because the message becomes overlaid with outside information like personal beliefs, but the principle is the same. Usually, misinfo doesn’t have a negative intent behind it.
What is disinformation?
Disinformation is either intentional distortion or telling lies. The intent behind disinfo is negative. By negative I don’t mean demonically evil; I mean that the intent is to limit access to accurate information.
Both misinfo and disinfo are present in the spiritual community. The truth is out there, too—as well as within—but whether you’re searching for it online or in your inner being, you will likely meet with lies at some point. Lies can be uncovered by common sense and intuition, like by noticing fakeness in a presenter’s voice or body language. Sometimes, however, detecting bad information takes a process of reasoning.
So this short article will focus upon recognizing signs of misinfo, or disinfo, that you’re likely to encounter. It will hopefully help you build your discernment. Take what works for you and leave the rest.
The signs were chosen, in part, according to these assumptions:
(1) logic is a helpful tool for evaluating spiritual information;
(2) information from a high spiritual level is free from: (a) condemnation, (b) favoritism;
(3) genuine messengers of spiritual information are clear and concise, although the ideas they present may be complex or metaphoric;
(4) genuine messengers advocate going within, testing the information, deconstructing it, and re-synthesizing it. Spiritual information isn’t copyrighted, and its genuine messengers aren’t profit-motivated.
(Look For: Emotionalization, Oversimplification, & Slogans)
When propaganda isn’t spotted for what it is, look out; done well, it will convey certainty and will echo the clarity of a truly wise being. Propaganda is information that is spread for the purpose of promoting a cause. Of course, because information is propagandist doesn’t mean that it’s untrue, but it does mean that there is an agenda—and agendas create a win/lose situation. And if genuine spiritual messengers are not-for-profit, then creating a win/lose situation in which they stand to gain something would be an ethical violation for them. Therefore, information that’s been treated with propagandist techniques is unlikely to be spiritually-sourced.
The three most common signs of propaganda are: emotionalization, oversimplicity in the face of an issue with many variables, and the presence of short, catchy slogans that allow people to begin serving an agenda through the collective use of mantra.
Propaganda can be subtle, but by necessity it’s aimed at your emotions. The emotional approach always gives propaganda away. Presentations that are loaded with symbols, archetypes, and sentimental images are dead giveaways.
The Charismatic Christian movement is a good example of spiritual misinfo that’s being spread through propaganda. At Charismatic churches there is an emphasis on boisterous group singing and dancing that’s often accompanied by video projections of crosses and clouds and captions like “He died for us.” I’m certainly not anti-fun, but the emotionally revved-up singing and dancing together with slogans like “Let Go, Let God” and stressing the crucifixion story again and again and Sunday after Sunday mimics the methods of propaganda. Granted, information can be unconsciously emotionalized, oversimplified, and fit into slogans without serving an agenda. But even without an agenda, those three characteristics are disempowering as they foster reactivity, put forth magical single-step solutions, and create cookie-cutter testimony.
(Look For: Inconsistency & Logical Fallacy)
There are already many books written about logic and logical fallacies, so I’ll be brief. The litmus test for logic is consistency. If information is inconsistent then it’s illogical. There are spiritual truths that revolve around paradox, of course, and realizing those truths requires transcending the logical mind. But there are also religious and spiritual systems out there, based upon misinfo or disinfo, that are full of contradictions and inconsistencies bearing no relation whatsoever to a higher mystical understanding. Logic may not be able to deliver you to the highest spiritual state, but it helps you part way.
So look for inconsistencies. That’s where you’ll find the distortions and lies. And keep an eye out for fallacious reasoning. Logical fallacies are deliberately employed by disinfo artists because they play upon common weaknesses: believing might makes right, worship of authority, fear of change, and linear thinking. The logical fallacies corresponding to those weaknesses are Appeal to Popularity, Appeal to Authority, Appeal to Tradition, and Post Hoc (thinking that A causes B because A happened before B).
Wherever there are constellations of logical fallacies, many of them grouped together, beware. It takes a lot of mental work to imbed red herrings and set up straw man arguments. Obviously, a person could do that subconsciously in an attempt to justify his or her belief system, but it could also imply that there’s intentional distortion.
(Look For: Lies, Omissions, & Distortions)
Yes, this sign is self-evident; but I bring it up because it’s all too easy to rationalize away a blatant inconsistency or lie in the face of other information that gets you good results and checks out logically and intuitively. But living according to a belief system with a glaring lie in it is like continuing to eat a sandwich with moldy cheese because the meat and bread are still fresh.
If you discover a falsehood it’s important to keep evaluating because it may reveal a longer ribbon of bad information. Finding a falsehood and following it to its source is what will objectively confirm whether you’re dealing with disinfo or misinfo.
If you’re dealing with disinfo, then the most obvious piece of false information might relate to how the information came into being. This seems to be a pattern specific to disinfo. If you’re dealing with misinfo, then the pieces of false information will reveal themselves through their relationship to the rest of the information.
I list falsehoods third on the list because it’s a much easier task to track down falsehoods after you have at least two standards of judging information. If a source of information shows signs of both propaganda and poor logic, there’s a high probability it will contain falsehoods or distortions.
Consistently Extreme Point-of-View
(Look For: Forcefulness)
By extreme point-of-view I mostly mean views that are judgmental or condemning. In American politics, this sign takes the forms of liberal-bashing or Bush-bashing. In the spiritual circle, an example is the fundamental Scientologist’s take on drugs and psychology, or even the fundamental Buddhist’s take on eating meat. An Always or Never-type of extremism creates categories of good and evil based upon memorized lists instead of being based upon the work of discernment. It may be technically true that eating meat lowers the soul’s vibration, but ask yourself, is it never useful to lower it?
Extreme views very often reflect or lead to bad logic. In the case of the fundamental Scientologist I’ve heard “All psychology’s bad.” Certainly some psychology is bad, but saying “all” is bad logic. It’s hasty generalization. Extreme views are very often anti-intellectual or driven by moral judgment.
You may notice, too, that extreme views are often accompanied by emotional force or zeal. A quick way for determining whether you might be dealing with an extreme or unbalanced view is to determine in what way the view is being presented (With force? With calm?) Also notice if their words match their energy.
Again, extreme views are very often anti-intellectual so the views need to be believed rather than reached through reason or inner guidance. “All aliens are loving and kind” is an extreme, New Age view requiring belief. If you ask a New Ager, “Why?” pay attention to the answer. You’ll probably receive a circular answer or reasoning that’s self-referential.
In the least, extreme views defend a position at the cost of missing the big picture.
(Look For: Verbosity Without Substance)
At best, vagueness is a sign that the material under consideration is linguistic masturbation. You can tell if this is the case by noticing the lack of practical suggestions. This type of material is mostly or all theory. At worst, vagueness is a sign that a carrot is being dangled in front of a donkey. The donkey gives the dangler a free ride, or does his work, all the while stretching for the carrot but never eats. Somewhere between these two cases, the best and worst, is the common bullshit artist or hack that energizes you but is ultimately un-filling.
I think people fall for stuff that’s vague, but clever and pretty-sounding, because it can be a palpable thrill to read it. It feels good. An author I would put into this category is Wayne Dyer. His work, to me, fits the “tastes good, less filling” bill. It’s verbosity with little substance. I don’t think the guy’s a disinfo agent at all, but I think he makes a living by quoting great people, working people up emotionally, and then feeding them vagaries like: Persevere! Have a good attitude! Actually, I wouldn’t even go as far as saying his work is misinformation, but it is watered down. I’m uncomfortable being critical of someone so seemingly really positive, but his wisdom is nickel and dime to me.
Maybe it’s all about what level you’re on. There are people out there who’ve never experienced a good attitude. And those people probably benefit from Wayne Dyer telling them that they must be kind in order to receive kindness. Often the simplest stuff counts most, but there is a way in which simplicity leads you to naivete and to spinning your wheels without understanding why you’re stuck.
Lastly, vagueness can also be a lack of organization. Lack of organization doesn’t mean that material is disinfo, but I think it means that there is an obstruction between a higher self and lower self somewhere. Again, this article is being written on the assumption that genuine messengers of spirit speak clearly. Clear communication doesn’t mean dumbed-down, or artistically pleasing, or imply perfect grammar. Some spiritual ideas are complex, take time to digest, and require learning. But clear communication does mean, I think, being able to be understood without having to read things into things. The higher self doesn’t give all the answers but it does give a general direction. To me, something is vague or disorganized if it offers no direction whatsoever.
(Look For: Commanding Verbiage)
This is a biggie. People who’ve spent a few long years exploring alternative ideologies rarely fall for this one, but because it exploits such a common weakness of the ego (being impressed by power) even seasoned seekers fall for it.
Maybe there’s a part of us that likes being told what to do, even if begrudgingly. I think the victim archetype is programmed into the human mind or the collective mind.
And all it takes for the archetype to be activated is a spell of uncertainty. In a moment of confusion an authoritarian voice can feel like the voice of God solely because of its forcefulness.
Luckily though, all it takes to get free from an oppressive authority figure is to realize that forcefulness doesn’t equal truth. Certainty doesn’t even equal truth. You can be dead certain and dead wrong.
Authoritarianism is a sign of misinfo or disinfo because spirit isn’t interested in leading—only ego is. (See assumption #4 at the beginning of this article). Genuine messengers of spiritual truth don’t want to direct you; they want you to direct yourself.
Authoritarianism is identifiable by an abundance of commanding verbiage: ...you should, you ought to, you have to, you must… always… never…” etc. More subtle authoritarianism is revealed by definitive statements that leave no room for outside opinions. Or it’s revealed by its lack of acknowledgment of each person’s ability to get their own answers.
Signs that are related to authoritarianism are: namedropping and overusing special titles or credentials.
A friend of mine once said that a true guru is a person who spreads the message hidden in the spelling of the word of guru: “Gee, you are you” (G-U-R-U).
(Look For: Holier-Than-Thou Mentality)
There isn’t much to say on this. Stuart Wilde said that there are essentially two journeys: ego to spirit or spirit to ego. The ego is all about feeling special, chosen, one-of-a-kind. And those feelings can be created through affirmation of the ego or through rejection. Specialness is a trap with two doors: delusions of grandeur and delusions of worthlessness. And maybe a third door is a delusion of aloneness. I think there are websites out there—the ones that regurgitate Gnostic doctrines with a stench of paranoia—that exploit, and even heighten, a seeker’s sense of isolation. Feeling alone can be converted to food for the ego.
When you watch a movie or a play you might be able to tell if an actor is enjoying the attention of the audience. I think 99% of the time that that coincides with atrociously bad acting. The good actors are the ones who are involved in the scene so much that their concern for the audience is close to 0%. It’s the same in life. If you’re doing what you’re doing for an audience, then you probably aren’t fulfilling your purpose as well as you could.
Sources of information that promote specialness promote destructive egoism.
(Look For: Complicated Terminology)
Whenever I pick up a spiritually-themed book with a glossary at the back explaining a long list of special terms, I usually put it back down. Of course, special vocabularies are needed in technical fields. For instance, I’m a massage therapist and in learning massage it was useful for me to learn many different terms describing essentially the same thing: massaging. To release a trigger point (a muscular knot), it’s far more effective to use static compression than it is to use effleurage. Static compression is leaning into, or pushing on, an area of muscle with your thumbs, fingertips, or hands without moving. Effleurage is lightly gliding over the skin, usually with full open palms. Both are massaging. If my teacher, when I was learning trigger point therapy, just told me: “Okay, now treat the trigger point,” I wouldn’t have known what to do.
I think spiritualistic jargon is sometimes useful, but most times…not so much. What it does is requires you to read primer material to understand the main material. It requires you to get a teacher to teach you the jargon. You can’t just take what you want. If the jargon is especially thick, you almost have to become a devotee and accept the point of view before really understanding it as a whole.
To me, what makes something jargon is: (1) when it isn’t immediately obvious what is meant by a term, (2) when the term isn’t clarified by looking at a dictionary because it isn’t in common usage, (3) when the term can’t be clarified with asking a simple question and getting a simple answer.
Of course there are complex spiritual ideas that aren’t immediately obvious because of your present spiritual level of development. I would be hard-pressed to define enlightenment in a single sentence with surety. However, the word enlightenment is pretty self-explanatory even if you can’t explain it operationally. En-light-en-ment: getting lighter. “Self-actualization” is closer to jargon. “Focus 23” is definitely jargon. “STS” and “STO” could be called jargon, but they can be clarified by simply asking what the letters stand for. “Service-to-Self” is pretty self-explanatory.
Spiritual jargons create categories of people who are in-the-know and people who just need to read this, take that workshop, and re-train their brains to think like the rest of a group. Jargons can create a common ground for discussing your experiences with others, but they also are capable of narrowing your vision and tricking you into thinking you have all the knowledge you need.
In relation to disinfo, jargons are dangerous. They’re dangerous because they may be reinforcing false beliefs. The belief is rendered reasonable and given the appearance of legitimacy because it has a neat name. Jargons are also used to obscure the truth. Politically, I think the most obvious example of this is “collateral damage.” Spiritually, I think the most obvious example of this is “the shadow self.” The term “Shadow” is often used to explain away the reality of negative entities and it deters the search for meaning. Example: I have a disturbing dream about masochistically cutting on myself and I wake up and say, “Wow, what a shadowy Shadow Self I have” without an attempt to look for or understand any message. I label the experience instead of letting myself feel.
Jargon allows you an opportunity to discard anomalous experiences as less meaningful than they really are.
A variation of jargon is labeling. In the Mormon Church, in which I was raised, people are frequently referred to as “members” or “non-members.” Of course, the term “non-member” can be invoked with greater or lesser moralistic judgment, but by itself the term is excluding—it says “not-a-part-of-the-whole.” In Scientology you have people who are “clear” and people who are “toxic.” Certainly there are people out there who are sick, but invoking a term for it over and over again stops you from actually trying to understand the sick in their own language. In short, jargons create judgmental Know-It-Alls.
Discouragement of Critical Analysis
(Look For: Insistence Upon Feeling The Truth)
This sign will seldom be obvious. There are belief systems that are openly anti-intellectual, but most hide it or it’s subliminally discouraged through the net effect of the individual beliefs. Other than finding a general air of anti-intellectualism, there are two hints relating to sign #9: an emphasis upon verifying the material through prayer, or verifying it through feeling.
Whether or not a system or teaching is “anti-intellectual” can be determined in a few ways. Do the teachings ask for obedience to rules without explaining the purpose of the rules? Are the teachers hostile to hard questions? What type of learning is encouraged? Learning by rote memorization? Or learning by a discussion of concepts? Does the belief system ignore large bodies of information that contradict its beliefs?
Another test for anti-intellectualism is the test for propaganda (see sign #1). Propaganda is meant to bypass the analytical mind by stimulating a gross emotional response and herding people into desired behaviors.
An emphasis on prayer for verifying truth is a potential trap, too. Now, I’m hardly anti-prayer. I pray all the time. I think prayer is great. Yet I do see dodgy groups using prayer against people. All the facts stand against them, but that doesn’t stop them from twisting prayer to “prove” their belief system is right. “Just pray on it,” they say. “You know it’s true.” “God/The Light/Whoever will tell you it’s all true.” If prayer was a totally secure line between you and your higher self, then this wouldn’t be a problem. If the mere act of praying automatically silenced the ego, cancelled outside interference, and protected you against peer pressures, then… well, there would be no worries. I do believe a person can pull through accurate information using prayer, but I think prayer can be more much effective if you’re aware of the risks of it. If you learn to recognize the sub-verbal intonations of your ego, and learn what foreign energies regularly affect you (your mommy, your friends, whatever), it’s much easier.
On the darker side of things it’s also possible that prayers are influenced by discarnate beings working through the advocates of the disinformation. I have a friend who joined a church based on a mystical experience he had when missionaries prayed over him. I don’t mean to appear arrogant, but after years of contemplation and research, I know the church he joined is false. It has its redeeming qualities, but it’s based on disinformation. It may be that the positive mystical experience he had was genuine and that, for whatever reason, it was right for him to join. Perhaps he’s raising the integrity of the organization by taking part in it. However, knowing him as I do, I know he’s bought into the disinfo. He’s a smart man, and was originally critical of the group he joined, but he threw his criticism aside after being overwhelmed by the power of his visionary experience.
Lastly, a critical frame of mind is discouraged by an overemphasis on feeling. New Age channeled texts, I have found, ask for feeling-verification a lot. It typically appears in gently authoritarian commands like this: “You are ___. You know this to be true. You feel it (...in your core, etc.)” This could be nothing more than suggestion. Books written in this mode may eventually hypnotize you into feeling what you’re being told to feel through simple repetition. As you read on and on into this type of material you may stop critically reflecting and asking yourself, “Is that really true?”
Relying on feeling alone to validate information is chancy because the information may only appeal to the ego. The information may make the ego feel dandy. And so, if you steer by feeling alone, then you’ll probably wind up doing a lot of things that are great at first but turn into a total nightmare.
The intellect seems to be out of vogue in the present age. I think that’s mostly because people crave the specialness of being psychic, of being an “intuitive.” In fact, it’s en vogue to view the intellect as anti-spiritual and as the chief obstruction to being spiritual. There’s definitely something to that view, but carried to its extreme, it invisibly creates an assumption that what we are now is not okay. It invisibly creates invalidation.
If the highest level of spirit is non-judgmental (see assumption #2 at the beginning of this article), then any material spreading invalidation doesn’t come from the highest level of spirit.
I don’t pretend that this is a complete list. But I would argue that if a piece of information contains all of the above, then you’re dealing with disinfo.
An easy method for evaluating suspect information is noticing in what context a falsehood exists once you find one. Once you find one, work outwards from it. If the lie is presented in a context of propaganda, or within a constellation of logical fallacies, or with unrelentingly bellicose views, or with a lot doubletalk, or by invoking heroes, by stroking the ego, with a bunch of terminology, or by encouraging you to act before think, then it’s probably disinfo. Of course, it takes time and mental energy to notice these things. The only shortcut is intuition, but if you develop your intuition without developing your intellectual discernment, you remain vulnerable. Our intuition, like everything else, has rhythms, good days and bad days.
I shied away from citing many specific examples of what I actually think is misinfo or disinfo because I feel that if the principles of higher spiritual truth—and of manipulation—-are understood, then mis/disinfo won’t really be a problem.
Take what works for you and leave the rest.
(CC) Creative Commons, 2006. By M.I. Bennett