We are living through strange, polarized times and research shows that people are increasingly relying on the Internet and social media to keep themselves informed. The only problem with that: how does one decide which information to trust and which to discard?
For starters, a basic rule of thumb is to check the credibility of the website and that of the authors. Books and reputable journals are usually peer-reviewed before being put on the market. This is not necessarily the case with websites, which are often outside of any kind of deontological or quality control. Look at the “About” or “Disclaimer” sections of the website and check out the Contact data. Who really operates the platform and what do those entities stand for?
Ask yourself whether the author truly is an authority on the subject. It isn’t rare to find inflammatory articles written in the names of inexistent or shady associations, with no personal responsibility at all being assumed for the published content. Check who is responsible for publishing or editing the content, and when it was last updated.
Speaking of content, have a look at things such as accuracy, reliability, objectivity. Is the article recent and current? Is the argument being made substantiated with valid, verifiable facts? Has it been peer-reviewed? Has it been debunked in the meantime? Is it logically coherent? What are its sources and what’s the angle? Does it treat the topic with objectivity, looking at all possible explanations and weighing them dispassionately, or does it use polarizing language? Does it attempt to inform or influence? Is the title excessively hyperbolic? Is it baiting you to click on it? Does it appeal to your emotions and your fears? In the latter cases, exercise additional caution.
Try to keep a cool head and ask yourself what the purpose of the message might be. Does it attempt to legitimize, reinforce, challenge or subvert certain norms and values? Think for yourself and allow some time for reflection before sharing. You can guess the purpose fairly accurately by looking carefully at the text (word choice, syntax, rhetorical devices) and the context. Every story relies on selective perception. No story contains all of reality. It picks out aspects of it, which it then orders/reorders and develops – often with a certain goal in mind. What is being left out is just as important – if not even more significant! Beware of superlatives, emotional language, or value judgments, and always double-check. Can you corroborate the information from other (independent) sources? Independent is a key word here, since it is not unusual for fake news to be spread through a network of interconnected sites, all referencing each other (or even self-referencing!) for “credibility”. Pick up a book or talk to an actual expert to calibrate your perceptions and interpretations.
How is the message delivered? How relevant are the elements presented? How in-depth have they been researched? Often, distractions and even entertainment practices (news as performance) are used to relax your defenses and get you to engage less critically with the information – or to scrutinize it less (this is called the peripheral path to persuasion).
Remember: for structured fact-checking, you will need the full context around a specific element you want to check, several sources of information, and attention to nuances. Decide what exactly you want to verify: an allegation, a quotation, the feasibility of a proposition, the truth of a fact, the foundation of a legal argument? Enlist the help of experts and accept objective, independent feedback from others before developing strongly-held convictions. It might be advisable to withhold opinion unless you have all the facts of the matter. Do not allow emotions to take over, as they will cloud perception and influence any subsequent evaluation of the facts, leading you to “see only what you want to see and hear only what you want to hear”. As British philosopher Bertrand Russel used to say, a lot of forces “depend for their power upon the prevalence of emotionalism and the rarity of critical judgment.” (Russel, B. – What I Believe, 1925)
While emotion can lead to belief, only knowledge can lead to understanding.