How to be more skeptical about what you read online
Truth and facts are hard to come by these days. Most of us want to understand what is true and what is not. What’s more, we want our kids to understand the difference between fact and fiction. But sifting through our social media -- and even ordinary news reports -- does require some work. I have put together some resources in this blog post to help you discriminate the truthiness (as Stephen Colbert might have said) of what you find online.
And recently Facebook and Twitter took down dozens of accounts that were operated by Russian state actors attempting to influence our 2020 elections.
But it isn’t just wacko conspiracy theories that we have to be concerned about. Even websites can appear to be news-oriented but are constructed exclusively to promote click fraud. The report Simulated media assets: local news from Russian researcher Vlad Shevtsov shows several seemingly legit local news sites in Albany, New York and Edmonton, Alberta. These sites constructed news pages out of evergreen articles and other service pieces that have attracted millions of page views, according to analytics. Yet they have curious characteristics, such as being viewed almost completely from mobile sources outside their local geographic area. Sadly, they are phonies.
Detecting these sites is equivalent to how security companies detect phishing lures -- which could be one and the same for some of these websites. That is explained in a blog post from Avast here.
Narrative “laundering” or transforming something into a “fact” by frequently repeating it through legitimate sounding sources.
Hacking and leaking, by posting content to Wikileaks and other sites that are then picked up by news reports.
So let’s talk about some ways you can get smarter about vetting these posts and websites. First is the “infodemic” project from Mike Caulfield, a researcher at Washington State University. He used the coronavirus outbreak as a case study of how to figure out fact from fiction, using a method he calls “SIFT” for stop, investigate the source, find better coverage and trace claims back to the original source of the content. His blog post linked above describes the process, and it has some simple but useful techniques that can be used by anyone to ferret out the facts. Another source is from the radio program On The Media has assembled an 11-point checklist to help you figure out if something you are reading is true or not.
The Newseum has put together a training class that will show you various videos you are asked to score as true or not. While geared at students from fifth to twelfth grades, it can be used by anyone, but note that you’ll need to create a free account to access the class.
Yes, figuring out your facts will involve some work. But it is best to be skeptical, and take a moment to think about what you are reading before clicking on the “share” button to send the story to all your friends and family.