Truthiness: Raising the Bar in the Blogosphere

“And that brings us to tonight’s word: Truthiness. Now I’m sure some of the word-police, the “wordanistas” over at Websters, are gonna say, “Hey, that’s not a word!” Well, anybody who knows me knows that I am no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true, what did or didn’t happen…” — Stephen Colbert

The other day I came upon a fiction author’s blog—we’ll call her Snazzy. In Snazzy’s latest post, she recommends a particular breed of dietary supplements capable of “preventing colds, lowering the risk of cancer and heart disease and stimulating weight loss” in one fell swoop. She doesn’t work for the supplement or wellness industries (that I know of) and simply wished to share her good fortune with others. Commendable, right? To a point…

The supplements the well-intended Snazzy praised are responsible for a slew of serious side effects. And numerous large-scale studies showed not an ounce of effectiveness. I know because I’ve read the studies and interviewed the researchers.

As a journalist, I spend a great deal of time reading clinical studies and interviewing experts, from physicians and psychologists to sports physiologists and dietitians. These individuals invest extraordinary amounts of time and energy into gaining knowledge, typically in hopes of bettering the world. My heart aches when I think of their vast knowledge and efforts going down the toilet because an unknowing (or careless) blogger with a larger social microphone decided to speak up inappropriately against it.

Now I realize that blogging varies from journalism and other literary forms in numerous ways. Many blogs feature one person’s “musings,”  entertaining quips or videos, philosophical insight or all-things-hilarious. The voice is usually more colloquial than newspapers and texts. But anything goes, right? Many of us use our blogs to inspire, help or guide others. All good stuff! But I feel it’s important to recognize that as bloggers we are self-published authors, even if we go the traditional publishing route elsewhere. The ability to cover any topic our hearts desire brings crazy amazing perks, along with risks and responsibility.

Was it illegal for Snazzy to detail benefits of the supplements she knows little about? Nope. But it was, in my humble opinion, irresponsible and potentially damaging to readers and the literary world as a whole. If we bombard the web with “truthiness,” without revealing it as such, we lower the bar for writers, readers and researchers alike.

While we can’t very well eliminate truthiness from the blogosphere, bookstores or other media singlehandedly or overnight, we can do our part by boosting the authenticity and accuracy of our own work.

Simple Ways to Boost Blog Accuracy (and the Blogosphere as a Whole):

  • Become a responsible reader. Want to write about stopping bullying? Don’t simply say, “More kids get bullied than ever before, especially boys.” Go to Google Scholar and read the latest studies. Interview a psychologist or sociologist. Or quote books published by field experts.
  • When you state statistics, facts or other findings, provide readers with the source. When possible, insert a hyperlink.
  • Address both sides. If you’re presenting a controversial issue or finding, seek out and share an opposing viewpoint. If you prefer to stick to a particular side, simply reference the opposers. (“While not everyone agrees, I believe ______…”)
  • When you state an opinion, present it as such. “In my opinion….” (Think like the judge on “The Good Wife.” ;)) Remember, stirring up some healthy debate is a great thing.
  • Incorporate supportive research, even while covering topics in your area of expertise. Psychologist Michael J. Breus does a great job of this here: Kava Continues to Be A Mystery.
  • Avoid using sources that lack legitimacy, like Wikipedia, outdated books and studies, tabloids and personal home pages.
  • Do rely on universities, newspapers, hospitals, qualified experts and current studies.
  • When addressing theories, don’t mislabel them as facts.
  • When possible, opt for large scale studies or research reviews, which compile findings from numerous studies. (If you simply polled your friends, make it known. “100 percent of those asked…” only means so much when you asked your mom, dad and hamster.)
  • Take articles, blog posts and books not supported by legitimate sources and research with a boatload of salt.
  • If this sounds all like too much work, stick to fiction, opinions, personal narrative and musings. And duh, call them that. 😉

Putting more time, effort and research into our posts makes for better reading, increases our odds of gaining readers’ trust, supports hardworking researchers and adds smartness to our hardworking brains. Sounds like an all around win-win to me.

So what do you say? Am I off my blogger-rocker?? If you hit up heavy topics or offer advice in your blog, do you seek out optimum sources? Or do you leave that up to the reader? Any suggestions to add? Wanna learn more? I love hearing from you!

Leave a comment

67 Comments

  1. This is wonderful advice. As a day-jobbing fiction-writing blogger with a background in journalism, a lot of the times I have to stick to your advice about “what to do when it is too much work.” If a topic sparks me enough to WANT to take those extra steps and do the research, then it probably won’t lead to my best writing anyway. And I always try to make it abundantly clear when something is “IMHO” and also that my opinion has been known to be flawed before : ).

    Thanks for following Hawleyville – based on this one I greatly look forward to reading more of your posts!

    Reply
    • So glad this resonated with you. Weighing out our personal interest in a topic is a great way to determine whether its worth pursuing. May many bloggers take your lead. 🙂 I look forward to your posts as well!

      Reply
      • Sounds like what I like to
        call my “comidic muse.”
        A real – life wonder that
        may cause me to become
        temporaraily funny.

        Granted I don’t dissguss
        things that aren’t silly – so
        I usually use wikipedia,
        I really don’t think It will
        hurt anyone if the facts
        concerning giant yarn
        bunnies and purple cows
        are not completely right.
        As for something that
        might get you killed – I’de
        give my readers a fare
        warning that I was no
        expert even If I had the
        worlds best sources.

  2. Well, OK – that should have said “if a topic DOESN’T” spark me enough to want to do that research it won’t lead to my best writing anyway. Finish-coffee-before-commenting is a rule I need to be better at obeying : ).

    Reply
    • Ha… We’ve all been “guilty” of that. Ever the fact-checking journalist, right?? My rule is no posting after 9PM, when my mind turns to jelly…

      Reply
  3. Thanks for a great reminder August. I’ve included references in my Child Abuse series for the reasons you mentioned in your post. It’s imperative that we separate fact from fiction and opinion. Too often opinion is passing for fact and that irritates me.

    as always, a great message.

    Reply
    • Ditto to that! I adore fiction and nonfiction, but work hard to appreciate the difference. 😉 Thanks for putting such care into your child abuse series, Louise.

      Reply
  4. You’re not off your rocker. I think you’re spot on in fact. My day job involves all that research, and so I’m used to editors expecting me to be able to produce my sources (sometimes sending them scans/photocopies with the parts I quoted highlighted). We have the same responsibility to get it right or at least present both sides or make it clear that it’s our opinion when blogging. Especially given that more people are using the internet now to research than ever before and not everyone will double check what we say to make sure it’s true. Blog posts that are meant to educate are much different from those meant to inspire or entertain.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your support, Marcy. I relate to (and appreciate) editors’ clarification requests big time.

      You’re so right regarding the internet. Having endless information at our fingertips is a tremendous blessing, but also carries responsibility…whether we recognize it or not. And unfortunately, many sources that seem legit at first glance are far from it. I’m so grateful for respectful writers like you. 🙂

      Reply
  5. This is an excellent post, especially since there ARE some blogs that employ serious journalists. The line between “recreational” and “professional” blogging/writing is becoming more and more blurred. I suppose this is why the FTC Guidelines came out in the first place, although I still think very few bloggers comply.

    I think you are correct to inform bloggers that we are all self-published authors. I’d never thought of it that way before, but it’s true.

    That said, I think readers have the responsibility to consider the source of their information and set their expectations appropriately. If we sit down to read a romance, for example, we shouldn’t be expecting gore and mystery. Likewise, if we’re reading a fiction writer’s blog, we shouldn’t treat the information provided there as if it’s coming from a medical journal.

    It’s a complicated topic, and I think you’ve done a fantastic job of providing suggestions for doing at least a minimum amount of research before posting anything as a “fact.” Providing links to scholarly information so the reader can then do their own research is even better.

    As always, very thought-provoking post!

    Reply
    • Fantastic points, Julie. I get the sense that many bloggers remain unaware of the potential risks involved with misleading readers. (Interesting article here: FTC to go After Blogger Freebies: http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-10269962-38.html)

      I agree that readers should take responsibility, similar to the way patients should become their own advocates in medical arenas. Your point about reader expectations has my wheels turning (in a good way! ;)). So glad you find my suggestions practical… Encouraging to say the least.

      Reply
  6. There needs to be more accountability for bloggers certainly, and some bloggers have been taken to court for slander and libel and other personal suits for making unsubstantiated claims on their blogs. Bloggers need to remember that they’re not journalists, in the traditional sense, and aren’t given the same rights and protections (protecting sources, for instance). Something else to keep in mind. Thanks for posting.

    Reply
  7. I think you are right. Which is why I never post facts or things involving numbers. I’m all about personal experience & opinions. I’ll leave the facts to people who like check sources. As a reader, I just skip over the part with statistics so I can get to the good stuff. In my head it reads like “insert numbery stuff here.”

    Reply
    • Ha! I love it, Emma. You’re a woman and writer who knows herself. Best we draw on our interests and strengths, right? And if we decide to step outside of our expertise or comfort zone, do so appropriately.

      PS A few editors have caught my math faux pax…so I relate to you there. 😉 My calculator gets more use than my reference books some days. *sigh*

      Reply
  8. SJ Driscoll

     /  January 17, 2012

    I agree, August, BUT: where’s the responsibility of the reader? Readers can also check facts. People need to process facts through their own minds. If they don’t think and just swallow information uncritically, half the responsibility of the result is theirs. Maybe more than half if they choose to act on the material. BTW, this goes for following the advice of “authorities,” too.

    Reply
    • Well said, SJ. We should ALL be responsible readers, whether we relay the information on to others or not. Excellent point regarding “authorities.” Taking medical advice from a doctor of philosophy, as brilliant as that individual may be, generally isn’t the best move.

      Reply
  9. Great post, August.

    While I think it is fine for bloggers to voice their opinion, there should be at least a level of personal responsibility involved when making recommendations that affect health. I tend to do a lot of things in a more natural/less traditional way, but if I choose to share those things with my readers, I’m sure to back it up with the reasons why I recommend it (beyond “it makes me feel great!”) and the fact I am talking based on my own experiences.

    Now, while it doesn’t sound like it applies to the situation you bring up, there is a case where studies to support information are scarce – not because they are not legitimate, but because studies cost money. So, it’s good to keep in mind that just because there are studies exist in support of something, doesn’t mean that those studies hold more value than smaller, more obscure ones.

    Unfortunately, even when it comes to science, money talks.

    Reply
  10. I wish more bloggers and readers, would get this message….especially the part “avoid using sources that lack legitimacy, like Wikipedia, outdated books and studies, tabloids and personal home pages”.

    People are trusting and are generally willing to believe what is sincerely presented, even when it’s a load of hooey. The internet is such a wonderful resource for sharing and disseminating information but a modicum of common sense and a few citations can’t hurt.

    Excellent post. = )

    Reply
    • Thanks, Lesann! We certainly are a trusting culture, right? Sadly, lots of non-credible sources are so well disguised as credible, it makes the reader’s ability to differentiate tough. (The “health” section of the book store is loaded with questionable material that appears textbook-like or scientific…)

      Reply
  11. August, first of all, you know that everything that I write should be taken 100% as gospel-truth! Second, because I use The Onion, Cracked.com, and wikipedia as my sources shouldn’t give them any less credence than say The Harvard Review. At least I’m not using the judge from The Good Wife as a source!! 🙂 *with not a hint of sarcasm*

    Seriously, August, this is a great reminder for a lot of “serious” bloggers who don’t use credible sources. Great post as always, and please forgive my facetiousness, I just can’t help myself sometimes. 🙂

    Reply
  12. Anyone reading my blog for enlightenment will leave either disappointed or extremely confused(they often do regardless), because I just want to make people laugh. Telling people how to live their lives or ways to improve them is a huge responsibility and I, for one, am hugely underqualified. I agree; if you’re dispensing serious advice, you better know what you’re talking about.

    Reply
  13. I tend to avoid coming off as an expert and giving my opinion on anything serious, but I will be blogging about my heart and surgery sometime in February and will use many hyperlinks in that post.
    There was a story in the news yesterday about bloggers becoming unreliable news sources. I vaguely remember hearing something about that. You may want to check it out.

    Reply
    • I’ll check that out. Thanks, Susie!

      Eager to read your heart and surgery story as well… Personal stories are often the most powerful. Additional sources, while not always necessary, can certainly enhance them.

      Reply
  14. EllieAnn

     /  January 17, 2012

    This is why I like to rely on personal experience. If I’m interested in blogging about a topic, I like to find professionals and interview them, or … (like in my recent post on bullying) interview a victim of bullying.
    I love your Colbert quote, hehe! He’s so funny.
    This is a good reminder for me to find data and research when blogging about something controversial. Thanks, August!

    Reply
  15. I completely agree with all of those who commented before me. This is a great post and something that should be read by every blogger out there. The simplest concept of giving the complete story is so important. I don’t think it is a bad thing to post things that you can’t back up with good research as long as you tell your readers that. People’s opinions are important and the ability to put them out there is important. But when you don’t put that caveat in there that it is just an opinion it is misleading and can be potentially damaging.
    I also agree with the responisble reading comment. That is equally important. Ultimately both the blogger and the reader need to ensure that what they write and read is accurate and truthfull.

    A great thing to start my work day with. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Keeping the reader informed is indeed the key. And I agree—people’s opinions are invaluable, as long as they are kept in perspective.

      So glad this resonated with you! Thank YOU for brightening my (almost) afternoon.

      Reply
  16. August, you’ve put your finger on a significant weakness of the blogosphere, for sure. Thanks for the good reminders!

    Reply
  17. Kourtney Heintz

     /  January 17, 2012

    August, I think it’s fine to give personal testimonials, but bloggers should be careful when presenting opinion as fact. There is a definite recklessness in recommending supplements of any sort without proper evidence to back up the claims.

    It’s funny because I have been noticing how many people in real life state opinions as certain fact. Everyone seems to fancy himself an expert in everything. It’s gotten to the point when I have to add “In your opinion” to each statement people make to me.

    Reply
    • Terrific points, Kourtney. Many of the distorted facts people share in everyday conversation stem from untrustworthy media sources. As a couple previous commenters said, reading responsibly is also important…particularly before we crown ourselves “expert.” 😉

      Reply
  18. Can’t disagree with anything you’ve said here, August! While it’s always my take on the subject, and often a “what worked for me” approach, my blogs tend to be fact-based. The only problem with that is the time it takes to do the research – but when the alternative is to be less well-informed (or even wrong), I take the time.

    Reply
  19. I am enjoying this discussion. Like so many areas of the web, I do my best to research multiple sources for information. I’ll be adding Google Scholar to my arsenal. Thank you for a new resource.

    Reply
  20. paywindow7

     /  January 17, 2012

    I agree with your post—unfortunately.
    The word “unfortunately” is directed, not at your comments, which I believe are spot on, but at the social phenomena where serious study and thoughtful contemplation are pushed aside in favor of the sound byte, and flash editing. Part of the answer was stated above by SJ Driscoll, one of your readers here, that we should all become more responsible readers. That in itself sould raise the bar considerably.
    I really enyoy your posts by the way.

    signpilot

    Reply
  21. Really good post, August. So much on the Net has to be taken with a grain of salt. My sister is always groaning about this issue. But I also agree with Sally and Julie. Readers should know the difference between a professional report and a casual blogger.

    Reply
  22. You are right on the mark, August, and I’m willing to bet that any and all bloggers with whom you are connected will agree.
    But then there are many, many others who march to the beat of their own brainfarts…or, um, drum, … let’s face it, the reality of the internet is that anyone can be or say anything they wish. So ultimately, in my opinion (…judgelike, as you suggest) the responsibility rests with the reader to verify the accuracy of the information if they are going to use it for anything more than their reading pleasure.

    Reply
    • Ha! Brain farts. How can I not laugh in response to that?? Indeed, many bloggers in my close circle are savvy and responsible to boot. If this post makes even or two bloggers think otherwise, I’ll be thrilled.

      I do believe that some bloggers post what they believe as factual and simply don’t lack the wherewithal or experience to investigate or back them up with research. I also feel that making readers aware of our research is important… I know lots about nutrition, for example, but I still provide external sources and information in related posts. The BF-drummers, well… I suppose the world will always have some of those. The more of us who lead by example, the better…IMHO! 😉

      Reply
  23. Gosh I wish more bloggers could read this, like most of them. Excellent advice, August! It’s so easy to just plop in front of the computer and write whatever we feel like, but there is a responsibility inherent in everything we put down. Even when I do a silly post on my crush of the month, I check my facts with at least two legitimate sources. We’ve all got opinions, but we don’t always have the facts. It’s best to have one to back up the other. ; ) And I love that you add in there to have something from the opposing opinion. Most people don’t bother with that, but in high school on my debate team (I’m such a geek at heart), we often had to debate from the viewpoint we didn’t agree with. It taught me a lot about looking at something from many angles. Also I learned that my opinion isn’t always right.

    Reply
  24. Great advice. With the mainstream media putting out truthiness and calling it “news” every day, it’s more important than ever for individuals to check their facts. So often I will see sensational headlines and, upon a bit of digging, find out that’s only half of what’s happening. Bloggers have the potential to do some real good and bring some quality and integrity to the information party. Failing to check facts when it’s all at our fingertips is not only lazy, it’s the difference between being on an information highway and being in an information cesspool. I definitely prefer the highway. Thank you for your blog, August.

    Reply
    • “Failing to check facts when it’s all at our fingertips is not only lazy, it’s the difference between being on an information highway and being in an information cesspool.”

      Beautifully said, Piper. Indeed, the highway is the *high* way. Thanks for your wonderful support!

      Reply
  25. journalpulp

     /  January 17, 2012

    Anyone can say whatever he wants about anything, but that doesn’t necessarily make it true. And I actually do believe that from a legal perspective this is all perfectly okay — not that I countenance deception, distortion, dissembling, prevarication, or anything of the sort on a personal level, of course. I’m merely saying that I regard censorship as twice as deadly and twice as dangerous, and for this reason I’m anti policing-the-papers or the internet — and more: I believe — and have history on my side — that a laissez-faire approach to speech (which includes writing) results in greater discoveries, by opening up the discussion and thereby bringing truth to the forefront. As our hostess has done here. Of course, under such a system, one must flense through a lot more rodomontade, but that’s okay.

    In short, I second what August McLaughlin sagely says: become a responsible reader. Airborne? Echinacea? Cold Eeze? Chiropractic? Acupuncture? Mercury in fish? Caveat emptor.

    It’s a bit of a chore.

    Reply
    • Fascinating insight, as always, Ray. I see censorship as the virtual opposite of the same coin. Not having the freedom to share our opinions, findings or thoughts is at least as deceptive as purposely or blatantly stating falsehoods.

      Reading responsibly, I believe, lends itself to writing responsibly…and vice versa. Yes—may the “buyer beware.”

      Reply
  26. What you’ve said is so true, August. I blog about light, fluffy topics, so I don’t need anything but personal experience to back me up. But if a blogger is advising people on something, then it’s ultimately up to the reader to beware.

    Great post. Thanks!

    Reply
  27. Coleen Patrick

     /  January 17, 2012

    Google scholar! I didn’t know about this–thanks for informing me August (and always in such an entertaining way!)

    Reply
    • You’re so welcome! Glad you found it entertaining.

      Google Scholar is terrific. Not all studies of the studies are free, but many are. And you can typically get at least the abstract for free.

      Reply
  28. Excellent Point August. We had this discussion last year at work when a water cooler talk between co-workers went bit argumental (not a word in dictionary, but I guess it’s a fair game!). The person was arguing on a fact found on Wiki. Well wiki does ask you to provide reference for anything you post there. Guess what, the reference to that fact on wiki was someone’s blog! I think common sense is to verify the information from an authentic source. Blogging is free expression of thoughts … not sure how much you can curb on that. I read blogs for entertainment, for information I go to the authentic source.

    To answer your question – Do I offer advice in my blog? Well I blog on Sanity & stupidity equally. When I talk on sanity I put forward the wisdom I have learned or acquired through experience. I leave it up to reader’s judgment to grasp. And when I talk about being Husband, I have absolute confidence & clarity on what I am talking about. A decade of living & breathing of every moment, so anything I say there is next to absolute truth!!

    Reply
  29. Marc Schuster

     /  January 17, 2012

    Coincidentally, this is exactly what I’m always trying to stress to my students — that just saying it doesn’t make it true. An argument or claim needs evidence, and this is especially true in a public forum like the internet. Thanks for this post!

    Reply
  30. Great post August and definitely spot on. I think we all need to keep your great advice at the forefront of our minds. It’s a definite concern for me whenever I write my impaired driving posts – I want to make sure that I am not just pulling statistics and numbers out of my butt. I want to know that the info I am providing is from a reputable source and if I can’t provide the source, I should use the material.
    A lot of people read our blogs and it’s important to take that responsibility seriously!
    Fantastic stuff!!!

    Reply
  31. Wow, August. You’re right. We were definitely on the same wavelength! Really great post. You know I agree wholeheartedly!

    Reply
  32. Am I off my blogger rocker? LOVE that! And no you’re not!

    I think it was gracious of you to kindly bring up to our attention the importance of truthfulness. I would be scared to put something into print that I wasn’t sure about knowing it would come back and bite me in the butt! And if you ever catch something I’ve said a little borderline truthiness, please bring it to my attention. You’d be doing me and all my readers the greatest of favors.

    Take care August! 🙂

    Reply
  33. Kathleen

     /  January 17, 2012

    Excellent points, and post. As a university professor I constantly see the challenge of teaching people to know the difference between personal opinion, which can have its own validity, and factual information.

    Reply
  34. Great advice, August. I’m guilty of using Wikipedia, but I usually use it alongside other sources. I promise to stop talking to my hamster as well!

    Cheers

    Reply
    • I use Wikipedia–and I didn’t say that I was “guilty” of that. 🙂

      I wouldn’t use Wikipedia in place of scientific studies or rely on it for hard numbers, but for getting the overview of a situation, phrase, belief, etc., I think Wikipedia is perfectly legit. I would be more discerning if Wikipedia was my only source for the main point of a fact-based post than if it was merely the starting point of a opinion-based conversation. So I think it depends on the context and content.

      Reply
      • I don’t see a problem with using Wikipedia as a starting point in the research process or for opinion pieces. I just wouldn’t count on it as a fully qualifiable or sole source. It’s open to anonymous and collaborative editing, meaning anyone can make a Wikipedia page full of fiction and call it fact… It remains active until someone examines and removes the false info.

        As with all questionable sources, the material should be backed up with the most reliable available research, particularly when giving advice, attempting to prove a point, writing journalistic pieces, etc. And you’re absolutely right, Jami. The context and content of what you’re writing is a hugely important factor.

      • Absolutely! I didn’t mean to sound as though I disagreed with your point. I was just adding to the picture–pointing out where those gray areas are. 🙂

    • I’m glad you did! Thanks, Jami.

      And Nigel, considering the genius of your hamster, she may be a great source… 😉

      Reply
  35. Great tips for ensuring a higher quality in our blogging. I agree that we need to research our topics and provide substantive sources for statements. I can spend hours researching and writing certain posts, and I list sources for my information.

    As a reader, however, I think it’s incumbent on me not to accept as fact what a blogger says without adequate support. I take this approach with news stories as well. In your example, I would never use a supplement suggested by someone else without researching it first for myself.

    Thanks for the wonderful advice, August.

    Reply
  36. snagglewordz

     /  January 18, 2012

    Excellent advice, a reminder of the importance in embracing integrity in every sphere of one’s life. I’m interested to know what sort of response Snazzy received. Did anyone challenge her post when they left comments?

    Reply
  37. What an awesome post August and one that hits very close to home as I love reading and writing non-fiction.(I’m actually planning a series of ‘articles’ for my blog, which is coming soon, so it won’t just be me and my musings).

    I couldn’t agree more with referencing and acknowledging legitimate sources. People will definitely take you more seriously if you have some facts to back what you say. Although, without meaning to sound cynical and controversial, I like to add that we shouldn’t take all ‘proper’ university studies for the Gospel truth. I’ve come across some really weird studies done(I sometimes get the impression that students are bored or running out of ideas and therefore resort to chasing the wind so to speak) and from my own observations(see what I did there 😉 ), many of these studies are based on empirical evidence conducted on a small group of people. Therefore these would not necessarily reflect the true effectiveness of the theory or the experiences of the general public.

    I think what is more important is that we need to be discerning, intelligent readers and use common sense when reading either a personal blog or a textbook written by a Professor. The problem with social media networking is that everybody has a voice and can now be an ‘expert’. If we are interested in something someone has written, I suggest doing as much research and reading as possible on the topic. That’s the only way I can see of combating misinformation… 🙂

    Reply
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