Facing Facts: A Guide to Verifying Information on the Internet
Harmful amounts of lead in lipstick, flesh-eating banana peels, toxic tampons. These things may sound outrageous, but claims of their mass distribution can be found on the Internet. So it must be true, right?
Thanks to the advent of the World Wide Web, we have a wealth of information at our fingertips. Unfortunately, not all of it is true. Since anyone can post virtually anything online, there is an abundance of misleading, incomplete and inaccurate information circulating social media and even the most respectable sites.
The more shocking stories tend to go viral, enticing throngs of readers to fall victim to false claims. The most convincing emails, posts and articles pair emotion-inducing intrigue with trusted testimonials or scientific-sounding specifics (bet you can’t say that five times fast). So how do we sort fact from fiction?
The first step to determining the veracity of online content is to simply become a skeptic. In other words: Don’t believe everything you read. Sounds like common sense, but no matter how witty or educated you are, you’ve more than likely been duped by a link that’s appeared on your Facebook News Feed because it was posted by someone you trust. To identify questionable content, there are a few red flags that should catch your attention, no matter where the story appears.
1. Excessive exclamation points. Hoaxes are designed to have a strong emotional element. Nothing encourages the spreading of a rumor more than outrage or excitement. Be wary of copy that relies on all-caps, hyperbole or exaggerated punctuation, rather than word choice and facts, to emphasize an idea.
2. An anonymous author. Without a credible, verifiable source, any reported “facts” should be treated with suspicion. If you can’t validate the information by checking multiple (at least three) reliable materials or making a phone call, it’s likely not been tested and proven.
3. Antagonistic claims. Beware of content that relies heavily on encouraging distrust in respected establishments or professions. Take, for instance, an article that suggests that doctors discourage the use of weight-loss pills to keep you unhealthy, thus ensuring repeat office visits. Instead of proving the safety of the pills, they hope to discredit the experts so you’ll purchase their product.
4. Too many testimonials. There’s no way to substantiate support or opposition by others if it’s not backed by scientific or measurable terms and recorded in a reputable publication. Journalists and scientists typically report their methods and procedures for acquiring data in detail so that peers can verify it. When a story relies heavily on hearsay, maintain a healthy sense of doubt.
5. Misspelled messages. Even the best editors have let a few spelling errors slip into print. But, for the most part, credible stories won’t have multiple mistakes. They will have been carefully combed to ensure quality content.
6. Self-promotional language. Anything that insists that it’s not a hoax or urges you to forward the content should be handled with caution. Methinks it doth protest too much.
To believe, or not to believe; just ask some questions. If the content seems legit, take the next step: research, research, research. To get started, make sure you can answer the following:
• Who sponsors or authors the site/article? Are they experts accredited by reputable institutions? Do they directly profit when people trust their message? Are their credentials legitimate?
• Can you determine the primary source of the content? How easily?
• Are there links to a journal, website or resource that could be searched for more background information? Do these links check out and support the claims?
• Does data have more than one interpretation? Does the math add up? Do statistics lean heavily in one direction or can they be explained by multiple factors?
• Is there any affiliation to an organization? How is the content supported (donations, grants)?
• Can you easily contact the organization to check on the content?
• When was the information updated? If it’s a website, how frequently is it updated?
Don’t be coaxed by a hoax. If you don’t have time to fact-check every message, there are several reputable websites devoted to de-bunking rumors, including snopes, truthorfiction, hoax-slayer and factcheck.org. Many of these sites list their sources so that readers can verify the validity of their information.
Once you have the facts, it’s up to you to decide what’s share-worthy and what should get the shaft. But don’t take my word for it. Check it out yourself.