Guide to Misinformation and Fact-Checking
The internet makes it easy for billions of people to access information with a few simple keystrokes. However, it also makes it easy to spread false information, which can have disastrous effects on both individuals and society as a whole. For this reason, it’s important to fact-check sources of information.
Fact-checking is important because misinformation can sway your opinion. In turn, your opinion can largely inform your actions. If you base your actions on false information, you can easily make the wrong decisions. These decisions can lead to unintended consequences. For example, if you share fake news on a social media platform and people find out it’s fake, it could negatively impact their opinion of your credibility. Or, the fake news you share could go viral and shape the outcome of an election.
The best way to counter fake news is to conduct your own research. Through this guide, you’ll learn the basics about misinformation and fake news, how to evaluate sources of information, where to find reputable information, and where to look for fact-checking tools.
Misinformation Definition: What Is It and Why Is It an Issue?
By its simplest definition, misinformation is incorrect or misleading information. However, when Dictionary.com named misinformation the 2018 word of the year, it did so with the addition of a phrase that reflects our modern predicament. Misinformation isn’t just incorrect or misleading information — it’s false information that people spread regardless of whether there is intent to mislead.
This new definition accounts for the fact that many people who share misinformation online do not know it’s misinformation, and they’re not sharing it with malicious or dubious intent. Many people share “fake news” because they find it interesting and relevant to what’s going on in the world.
The seemingly innocent act of sharing misinformation can have unintended and pernicious consequences. If news outlets or editorial sites report misinformation without fact-checking it first, misinformation can become fake news. At its worst, fake news undermines democracy. Misinformation can also propel other issues, such as climate change denial or the anti-vaccination movement. The people working to fight misinformation are committed to ensuring that lies don’t hurt individuals and society as a whole.
Misinformation vs. Disinformation
Misinformation and disinformation are terms that may seem interchangeable. Although there are some similarities between misinformation and disinformation, they’re not the same. Unlike misinformation, which people spread without knowing it’s false, disinformation is false information that people spread with full knowledge of its inaccuracy.
An example of disinformation is the fake Nike coupons spread by trolls on the internet forums 4Chan and 8Chan. After Nike featured Colin Kaepernick — a former NFL quarterback whose #TakeAKnee campaign was a protest against racial injustice — in an ad campaign, the forum users began disseminating fake coupons. The fake, racist coupons offered 75% off Nike’s products for “people of color.” The intent of this disinformation was to hurt the Nike brand.
Urban legends are examples of misinformation. Many people spread urban legends believing they’re true, or at least there’s a shred of truth to them. The Slender Man myth is an example of a modern urban legend propagated online. Children passed around the story of a bogeyman named Slender Man. Eventually, two children claimed that Slender Man forced them to attempt to commit murder.
Because misinformation can be more widespread and harder to spot than disinformation, this guide focuses on misinformation. However, keep in mind that the fact-checking methods here can also be used against disinformation.
The Spread of Misinformation and Fake News
Instant communication and social media have made it easier than ever for people to get in touch with each other, regardless of time or place. While this is incredibly useful for a multitude of reasons, it has also created the perfect breeding ground for misinformation to spread like wildfire.
Research shows that Facebook users engage with misinformation — which often takes the form of fake news — 70 million times per month on average. This is a decline from the 2016 peak of 200 million monthly fake news engagements, but still no small figure. On Twitter, people share false content 4 million to 6 million times per month, a figure that has not declined since the 2016 election.
Due to artificially intelligent bots, “trolls” who are intentionally hurtful and nasty, as well as microtargeting and personalized ads, it’s all too easy for fake news to spread. Cognitive biases can make people more susceptible to misinformation. On social networks, we tend to share stories that tug at our emotions, and we’re more likely to engage with content that already has a lot of “likes,” comments, or re-tweets — regardless of whether that content is true or false.
In the case of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, investigators found that a firm called Cambridge Analytica harvested psychological profile data from unknowing users. Bad actors used this data in an attempt to influence the 2016 election by microtargeting users with misinformation; they took advantage of emotional biases to disseminate fake news stories that ultimately influenced political opinions.
The Importance of Credible Sources
Fact-checking claims with reliable information from credible sources is perhaps the best way to fight the spread of misinformation. By double-checking a claim you see on social media or in an online article, you can verify whether or not it’s true. It’s important to use verifiable, reputable sources to fact-check information — otherwise, you risk perpetuating the cycle.
What Makes a Source Credible?
When it comes to the credibility of information sources, the waters can be muddy for a casual internet user. It isn’t always immediately clear which websites and articles are credible. A certain site may seem trustworthy to one person, but not to another.
There are six criteria you can use to evaluate a website:
- Authority: The website should have contact information, developer/owner information, and author credentials/qualifications.
- Purpose: The website’s purpose should be clear, with articles that match its stated purpose; you can look at the domain’s URL to help determine purpose — .gov sites are government sites, .edu sites are college and university sites, while .com, .org, .net, domains can be purchased and may be sources of fake news.
- Coverage: The website should provide external links to verifiable sources to back up factual claims. If the site only links to its own pages, and the occasional external link is to a low-authority, questionable site, then coverage is incomplete and may be untrustworthy.
- Timeliness: The website should provide information about when content was written and published, as well as whether it has been updated. Links to information sources should be relevant and up-to-date.
- Objectivity: The website should be clear about how objective it is. You should be able to find out exactly what a site is up to by looking at its “About” section.
- Accuracy: The website’s factual claims should be verifiable. Factual claims should hold up as true when you test them against independent sources.
It can be tough to verify a website’s credibility because you have to conduct research. However, it’s far better to put in the extra effort than to blindly accept a site’s claims as factual.
Website Evaluation Checklist: How to Evaluate a Source for Credibility
There are some additional criteria by which to judge a site’s reliability. To make the process of evaluating sources even easier, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does the site’s design prioritize user experience such that you are able to easily navigate and find out information about the site? Or is it hard to use?
- Is the site’s content riddled with technical errors (i.e. spelling errors, grammatical errors, headlines that don’t match the content subject matter) such that it’s clear there’s no editorial oversight? Or is there a reasonable level of quality?
- Is the site’s content doubtable, derivative, and repetitive, or is it authentic?
- If it’s a news source, can you find articles that have been amended to correct inaccurate statements or typos?
- Does the site have any original sources of information or does it only link out? For original sources, does a search on a reputable search engine reveal the authenticity of the person or organization? What is the person or organization’s aim?
- Are the images on the site low-quality and spammy, or do they relate and contribute directly to the content’s subject matter?
- Does the site identify its target audience?
- Can you easily search the site via onsite search engine?
- Does the site have a valid security certificate?
- Do the site editor’s respond when you contact them?
- Do attempts to access content frequently result in redirects?
- Is the site often down and not functioning properly?
- Do links typically lead to dead pages?
You don’t have to answer all of these questions, but even attempting to answer some of them can put you on the right track to determining a website’s credibility. The key is to get critical and start taking extra steps toward certainty.
Below, you’ll find some of the biggest questions to answer in your search for the truth.
Is the Claim Believable?
First, consider the claim itself: does common sense tell you it’s believable or realistic? News can be shocking or unexpected, but a headline should have a reasonable level of believability. Treat sensational or revelatory claims about public figures, politics, and the nature of reality as suspect. Try not to trust everything you read or assume something is true because someone wrote it. If an article sounds far-fetched, there’s a good chance it’s fake news.
Is This a Well-Known News Organization or Website?
Which website or organization is providing you with information? Is it a trusted news outlet, such as The New York Times, NPR, or Reuters? Or is it a random website you’ve never heard of before? Again, check the URL of the website: .edu and .gov sites are more reliable, as they’re reserved for educational institutions and government organizations. Someone may even try to mimic the URL of a reputable news outlet, so double-check that it’s not misspelled or a few letters off.
Do They Include Sources for Their Information?
Whether we’re talking news articles or scholarly papers, a credible source always includes their external sources of information to back up their factual claims. News organizations require journalists to identify their sources unless the source has requested anonymity. Experts want to give credit, as they know that citing other experts makes their claims even stronger. However, be careful to examine journalistic, scholarly, and scientific sources. Even official-sounding sources may be too biased to be trusted or not as legitimate as they appear.
Is the Information Available from Other Trusted News Outlets?
Is the website you’re reading the only one reporting this information, or are other well-known, authoritative news outlets also sharing similar stories? If one website is the only place where you can find any information on a subject, it’s probably fake news. Even the most recent, breaking stories spread quickly between different news outlets. If there are other sites reporting the information, check the validity and authority level of those sites.
Is the Author Real and Reliable?
Take a moment to identify the author of a piece of content. If the website reveals the author’s name and credentials, it can be a good sign that someone is willing to stand by their work and put their reputation on the line.
However, an author alone isn’t enough to indicate a reliable source. It may be a fake persona or pseudonym, or they may not be qualified to actually write about the subject. Be sure to see if the author provides any links to personal websites, social media profiles, or a portfolio, and follow the links to check legitimacy.
Did It Happen Recently?
Look at the date of the article or report. When was it first posted or last updated? The date of a source says a lot about whether or not the information is still relevant, factual, accurate, or useful. For example, if you’re looking for the latest information on presidential candidates, the timestamp on information sources can change the accuracy and relevance of the information a great deal. Facts are time-sensitive; generally, the more recent a report is, the better.
Does It Elicit Strong Emotions?
Fake news and misinformation often attempt to appeal to your emotions or elicit a strong or intense reaction. Is the article or source of information trying to get you to feel a certain way?
It doesn’t matter what the emotion is — happy, angry, sad, shocked — any article that attempts to persuade you to feel intense emotions is more likely to be biased. An author of a biased article may be trying to persuade you to believe certain ideologies or support a cause, rather than inform you. Look for information sources that include the other side of the argument in the form of countervailing evidence or interviews with experts who contradict the prevailing sentiment of a piece.
Is Confirmation Bias Clouding Your Judgment?
Confirmation bias is the human tendency to seek out and believe information that confirms our biases. When looking at any source, it’s important to consider your own response to the information. Is the information source telling you what you want to hear? Is confirmation bias making it difficult to see that a source isn’t as reliable as you think it is? You’ll know you’re experiencing confirmation bias when your emotions are powerful and a healthy level of skepticism is nonexistent.
Credible Sources: Where to Find Reputable Information
Though you can’t trust everything you read, there are still plenty of reliable places to find credible information on the internet.
- Associated Press News: A not-for-profit news agency and winner of 53 Pulitzer Prizes, the AP has an unincorporated structure with over 1,000 members, including U.S. newspapers and broadcasters.
- Reuters: Often the source of information for other news sites, Reuters has a sterling reputation and is owned by Thomson Reuters, which limits corporate influence.
- PBS: A nonprofit organization, the Public Broadcasting Service subjects content to a test to ensure it does not serve the interests of funders.
- The Economist: Despite the liberal bent of its editorials, The Economist has a reputation for reporting factual information free from bias.
- BBC: Primarily funded by a license fee paid by British households, BBC News is independent and regulated by a separate entity called Ofcom that receives direction from the British Parliament.
Some of the other publications with top ratings include The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, and ProPublica. Although it’s not a news publication, C-SPAN is an excellent source of firsthand information about what’s happening in Washington.
Who Can Combat Misinformation?
Everyone can and should fight against the spread of misinformation by researching claims and refusing to share fake news. If a story is suspect, it’s better not to share it. Regardless of your age, gender, location, or political beliefs, you can take steps to find out whether the information you encounter online is factually correct. Some people, however, are in an especially strong position to fight the spread of misinformation.
Government Leaders and Officials
People who work for the government — whether at the local, state, or federal level — are in a unique position to fight fake news. Public leaders have an ethical responsibility to advance the public interest and promote ethical organizations. Because misinformation and fake news cannot aid the public, government officials have free rein to promote initiatives to fight fake news.
Public leaders can do the following:
- Promote news literacy.
- Encourage independent and professional journalism.
- Encourage scientific investigation into methods of curbing the dissemination of fake news.
- Promote governmental transparency.
- Discourage censorship.
- Advocate for free speech.
In particular, public leaders can choose to honor whistleblowers who reveal the truth. Individuals who pursue a public administration degree will be at the forefront of battling fake news by promoting public awareness and following through on transparency initiatives.
Public leaders can only do so much; it takes the help of private organizations to fight misinformation. When the public and private sectors work together toward a common goal, they can have successful public-private partnerships. Leaders from the news and internet industries — such as YouTube, Google, Facebook, and Twitter — must be committed to fighting misinformation. Allowing fake news to circulate on internet platforms will only contribute to future problems with misinformation. Just as public leaders have a responsibility to be honest with the public, industry leaders must actively oppose the spread of misinformation.
Journalists and Writers
Journalists and writers have control over the content they create, and they have an obligation to ensure the information they report is as accurate and true as possible. Even so, according to the Poynter Institute, a study revealed that 80% of journalists have fallen for misinformation online. According to misinformation expert Joan Donovan, journalists and media outlets help amplify misinformation when they cover it. This is why Google released two new tools to help journalists fact-check stories. By only reporting information they know to be true, journalists and writers can stop misinformation before it has a chance to spread.
Children are the future of our world, and due to growing public awareness of fake news, children are in a position to counter misinformation from a young age. Born between 1996 and 2010, Generation Z is the first generation to grow up on the internet, with virtually endless access to technology and instant communications. Generation Z is well-prepared for public service because they know the issues and are not afraid of activism. According to the Poynter Institute, older people are more likely to share fake news. As digital natives, Generation Z may understand how to evaluate sources and identify fake news better than older generations who are not natively familiar with this technology.
Fact-Checking Resources and Tools
There are many resources and tools designed to help you verify the truth of factual claims on and off the internet.
- FactCheck.org: From the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, this is a nonprofit, nonpartisan site dedicated to reducing the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.
- PolitiFact: Acquired by the Poynter Institute in 2018 and funded by online ads as well as private donors, Politifact is a nonpartisan site featuring the “truth-o-meter,” which assigns levels of truth to political statements.
- FAIR: A national media watchdog group, FAIR specializes in critiquing media bias and censorship, with an emphasis on promoting diverse, dissenting media viewpoints.
- OpenSecrets: From the Center for Responsive Politics, a research group that tracks the influence of money in American politics, OpenSecrets features reporting, data, and academic resources on money in politics.
- Snopes: The original fact-checking and myth-busting site, Snopes is an independent organization that fact-checks any story worth checking.
Browser Extensions and Plug-ins
- Project Fib: Chrome extension that claims to detect fake news on your Facebook news feed.
- B.S. Detector: Chrome extension that adds a warning label to questionable sites and identifies questionable links on social media posts.
- Media Bias Fact Check: Chrome extension that adds an icon to news sites denoting their political bias.
- StopTheBullS#!t: Chrome extension that claims to block fake news.
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