Just like you can’t believe everything you see on TV, the same is true for the internet. Digital media blurs the lines between news, entertainment, propaganda, and advertising. It used to be fact vs. fiction, now it’s accurate facts vs. fake facts. And we proliferate it—whether its true or not—by liking, commenting, and sharing. It may seem harmless to spread unverified information, but as Boston Globe columnist Renée Loth points out in her discussion paper What’s Black and White and Retweeted All Over? “without a set of stipulated facts—or at least a shared way to evaluate purported facts—there is no possibility of rational debate.”
Young people are being taught digital and media literacy in today’s classrooms. However, those of us who are “digital immigrants” rather than “digital natives” may need a refresher on critical thinking and certainly a crash course in fact-checking. Basically, it all boils down to thinking for yourself and doing your own research. Here are some ways to help evaluate the reliability and validity of what you read so we can all be more critical and discerning content consumers.
Just because it’s there in black and white, doesn’t make it true. Make a habit out of constantly questioning the information before you. NPR says to “Expect the source to prove their work and show how they came to their conclusion.”
Read past the headline
Headlines have stretched the truth since yellow journalism emerged in the 1890s. Now, instead of selling papers, they’re after “clicks,” which is why many sensationalist stories that lure readers with exaggerated headlines are called “clickbait”. To make sure you don’t unintentionally mislead others, never share an article without reading it!
Verify facts and assertions before you share
A simple Google search could help avoid the spread of so much misinformation. Furthermore, non-partisan fact-checking websites like FactCheck.org, FactChecker, PolitiFact.com and PunditFact, and Snopes.com weed out the truth from falsehoods.
We don’t have to tell you that you’ll get a different narrative from MSNBC than you will from Fox News. Some would suggest getting both sides of the story, but why not the full-spectrum? Visit AllSides to find out whether a news story leans left, right, or center. To see if a source is biased, type its name into Media Bias/Fact Check’s search box.
Part of practicing skepticism and being open-minded is being aware of and always challenging your own assumptions and biases. As you are probably aware, confirmation bias is our “subconscious tendency to seek and interpret information and other evidence in ways that affirm our existing beliefs, ideas, expectations.” You can find info online to back up just about any opinion. But if you want your argument to hold water, you better make sure it’s from a reliable source.
Consider the source
Where is the information coming from? Any factual assertions that aren’t made by an expert in their field should be backed up by linking to a credible source. Supposing the blog post or news article does cite sources using hyperlinks—are the links legitimate? Just because a website has “news” in the name (aka domain or URL) doesn’t mean it is a trusted journalistic publication. On the same note, just because the website has “health” in the name, doesn’t mean its run by doctors.
Spot fake, misleading, unreliable, clickbait-y, and satirical news sources by visiting Snopes’ Field Guide to Fake News Sites and Hoax Purveyors. Also, be wary of any web address that doesn’t end in “.com” “.org,” “.gov” or “.edu”. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who owns the website based on its domain name/web address. Scroll down to the bottom of the webpage to see what the copyright says.
Does the source even actually say what the post is claiming? It’s like a game of telephone. Articles may take a study that was done on a handful of Swedish women and apply the results to the general population. So frustrating! Circular reporting can make something appear true because many articles convey the same information, but in reality, its as convoluted as can be.
A screenshot’s worth 1,000 clicks
Just like facts and figures, a photo that is presented without a link to the source may as well be garbage. A picture or screenshot on its own with no link to a website with text is probably at least misleading. It may have unfounded “facts” written on it, or perhaps it was photoshopped, or it could be from another time and place than the person who posted it is claiming. The point is, you can’t trust a photo or a meme. Verifying images by using Google’s reverse image search. You should just be able to drag and drop the image into the search box, but if you need further assistance, see this video on How to Use Google Reverse Image Search to Fact Check Images.
In Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers…and other people who care about facts, author Mike Caulfield introduces the fact-checking acronym SIFT, which stands for:
Stop: Check your emotions. If a claim causes strong emotion—anger, glee, pride, vindication—and that emotion causes you to share a “fact” with others, STOP. You must fact-check this claim. In addition, if you get lost, or hit dead ends, or find yourself going down an increasingly confusing rabbit hole during your investigation, STOP. Back up and start over knowing what you know now. You’re likely to take a more informed path with different search terms and better decisions.
Investigate the source: Read what other people say about the source (publication, author, etc.). The truth is in the network.
Find better coverage: Look around to see if someone else has already fact-checked the claim or provided a synthesis of research or provided coverage that gives more useful information about the claim or the context of the claim.
Trace claims, quotes, and media back to the original context: Most web content is not original. Get to the original source to understand the trustworthiness of the information.
Signs it’s fake
As NPR notes, “social media platforms have no financial obligation to tell the truth—their business models depend on user engagement.” Watch out for these telltale giveaways, especially on social media:
Information presented as fact with no link to a real news source whatsoever
Anything that encourages you to share
Anything that says “copy/pasted”
Spelling errors and erroneous capitalization