Authenticating online information can be like doing detective work, in that you’re trying to “piece the story” together by gathering clues. In general, the more clues you gather, the more confident you can be in your ultimate determination. Conversely, the more important it is for you to know if something is reliable, the more clues you’ll need.
That’s why we need to give up on the idea that we can “trust our gut” when trying to verify information or tell if a source is reliable. Often, the most important clues come from outside the source itself.
For example, consider this video:
Is it true or false? There’s really no way to be sure just by looking at it: you have to look at who uploaded it and do some additional research to find out that while the video is real, it’s not truthful: the clam is not “licking” (that’s actually its foot, not a tongue) and the salt is irrelevant (it’s actually trying to drag itself back into water before it suffocates.)
There are two basic components to authenticating online information: critical thinking skills that let you ask key questions and the technical skills that help you answer them. While new tools come into use and become more or less relevant, the key questions remain the same.
Critical thinking does not mean doubting or questioning everything: it means asking key questions that help you evaluate how reliable a piece of information might be. You may not be able to find out definitively if something is true or not, and even the term “true” can be a complicated one: it’s not unusual for something that’s real to be used in a misleading context (such as an old photo being misrepresented as new.)
- Your first question, then, is How sure do I need to be? Are you (or someone else) going to base an important decision on this information? Could people be helped by this information if it’s good, or harmed if it’s bad? The answer to this is going to determine how much work you put into answering the questions that follow.
- Your second question should be Has someone else debunked this already? Doing a search for the subject with the words “hoax” or “fake” or using a fact-checking site like Snopes can save you a lot of time. If there’s nothing about the information one way or another, though, that may mean that they haven’t had a chance to fact-check it yet.
- It’s important to ask What is the original source of this information? Because of the networked nature of the Internet, much of the information we find comes to us second-hand or at an even greater remove. Before you can evaluate any information you need to find out where it originated. Did the source generate or publish the information itself? If not, does it give links or citations to the original source? If you can’t determine the original source of the information, you can’t treat it as reliable.
- Once you’ve found where the information came from, you can now ask Can I trust this source? Don’t rely too much on how official or professional a site looks: while misspellings and other errors can be a sign that something is unreliable, many misinformation sites look just as professional as legitimate ones. (For information on deciding how to trust user-generated content, such as Wikipedia articles, see the section below.) Instead, open a new tab and do a search on the source:
- Double-check that the Web address you’ve been looking at is the actual Web address for this source. Hoaxers sometimes “spoof” legitimate sites by creating a real-looking fake Web address, such as “abcnews.com.co” (the real ABC News site is just abcnews.go.com.) If you’re not sure, do a search for the Web address.
- See if you can find out who pays for or sponsors the source. Will they make money if you believe them? Are they pushing a particular opinion or political position?
- If it’s an organization like a newspaper or university, are they generally considered to be reliable? Do they have a generally recognized bias towards one view or another? (That doesn’t automatically make them unreliable, but it does help you view the information more skeptically.)
- When asking this question, keep in mind that not all sources are “playing fair”: misinformation is often spread online in order to sell you something, to get you mad about something, or just as a joke. Some of them use names that sound like legitimate outlets, such as the “Denver Guardian– a hoax news site that sprang up during the 2016 U.S. presidential election – and count on you not double-checking. That’s why it’s essential to find out something about the source’s “track record.” Here are some common forms of intentional misinformation:
- Hoaxes and false news: These are spread on purpose to mislead people. Sometimes these are motivated by malicious or mischievous intent; sometimes they are motivated for ideological or political purposes; other times they’re done for financial gain.
- Scams: Sometimes the purpose of a fake story is to separate you from your money, to get you to give up your personal information, or to get you to click on a link that will download malware onto your computer.
- Ads: Some things that are spread around are obviously ads, but others are disguised as “real” content.
- If you’ve found that the source is reliable enough for your purposes, you can now ask if this specific information is reliable:
- Make sure that what you’re reading was actually published by the source. Many websites include “sponsored content” or “native advertising” that can be hard to tell from their own content.
- Now check out the date it was published, to make sure that it’s still relevant. (This will be more important in some contexts, such as news stories, than others.)
- Do some research about the author and anyone cited as a source. (To see whether you can tell if someone claiming to be an “expert” really is one, see the section Finding and Evaluating Science and Health Information.
- Make sure that it’s intended as a source of factual information rather than opinion. (Keep in mind that a fact isn’t necessarily something that’s true, but something that’s provable. “The moon is made of cheese” is a factual statement, though untrue; “the moon is beautiful” is an opinion, though most people would likely agree that it is true.)
- Look to see if there are any corrections or edits noted at the bottom.
- For images, do a reverse image search using a site like TinEye to find out where it came from.
- You can also look at how the source gets its information across. Does it try to frighten you or make you angry? Does it use emotionally loaded words or images? Be skeptical of sources that try to manipulate you by appealing to things you believe, instead of trying to make a reasoned argument, or that use insulting language or images to describe people who hold opposing views.
- If you conclude that the information is reliable, ask if the source is telling you the whole story. Open a new tab and look to see if there are other sources with information on the same topic. (Make sure they’re original sources, and not just sharing information from the same source.) Once you’ve determined if these sources are reliable, see how their information compares to what you’ve found in your original source.
- Remember to be extra skeptical of anything you want to believe is true.
Many of the questions above aren’t easy to answer. Here are some useful steps and tools you can use to find out where information originated and whether a source is reliable, and whether they’re telling you the whole story.
- The Verification Toolbox from First Draft News is a powerful tool that allows you to do reverse image searches, get metadata on photos (when they were taken, etc.) and get information on Twitter and Facebook accounts.
- TinEye and RevEye are also useful tools for finding out where an image came from.
- Amnesty International’s Youtube DataViewer gives you information on videos posted on YouTube.
- DomainBigData is a free tool that gives you information on who owns and runs a website as well as how long it’s been online.
- International News Archives gathers links to newspapers around the world (the Canadian list is here) making it easy to see how different sources cover the same story. (Keep in mind that many newspapers are owned by larger companies, so make sure you’re looking at papers with different owners.)
- Social Search lets you search five major social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram and Pinterest) at the same time.
- Good fact-checking sites include Snopes, Fact Check.org, and Politifact. To save time, you can search these from Google by adding “site:” and the Web address or, for very well-known sites such as Snopes, adding just the name of the site. (So to find out if Mentos really explode when put in a can of Coke you could search “Mentos Coke Snopes.”) You can also do a search for the topic and add the words “hoax” or “fake,” but remember you still have to double-check the results!
Authenticating user-generated content
Some of the most popular sources of information – YouTube, Wikipedia and social media sites such as Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram – pose particular challenges because most or all of the content is created by their users. On Wikipedia, all content is created and edited by users - in fact you don’t even need to be a registered user to add, delete or edit content,) while on YouTube videos made by ten-year-olds and conspiracy theorists share space with newscasts and documentaries. Each of these platforms takes a different approach to managing their content and whatever other crowd-based platforms arise in the future will likely take one of those approaches. Understanding these approaches is key to knowing the best strategy for verifying content.
As an online research source, Wikipedia is in a class by itself, with kids choosing it as their first (and often only) destination for school research. Wikipedia is an ambitious communal work: its content is produced and published directly by users, in a very simple way (the term “wiki” comes from “wikiwiki”, a Hawaiian word meaning “quick”). Articles are written by volunteers from around the world who give their time and expertise to this ambitious project: anyone and everyone is welcome to write and edit.
The same qualities that make Wikipedia unique also arouse criticism from those who question “How can you trust content that anybody can write or change?” However, Wikipedia does try to control the accuracy of its material by giving users opportunities to challenge information they think may be incorrect or misleading. As well, there are “teams” responsible for ranking and improving articles on different topics, and automated tools that almost instantly revert malicious changes. As a result, research has found that on average Wikipedia is as or more accurate than other online encylopedias that are not user-created.
A student doing research on Queen Elizabeth I can discover in the Wikipedia article that some historians have characterised her as short-tempered and indecisive. A good student will note that this fact is cited as coming from a book by Anne Somerset published in 2003, and will go to the library and check out that book. A lazy student will cite Wikipedia and call it a day.
Wikipedia is often a good place to start gathering information. However, because anyone can author an entry, it’s important to follow anything we find there to its original source and evaluate it using the tools above. As well, you should recognize indications that a Wikipedia article may not be fully reliable, such as the presence of cleanup banners that show flaws in the article and the rating it has received. You can see the rating on the Talk page (click on the “Talk” tab at the top of the article). A complete explanation of this rating scale can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Version_1.0_Editorial_Team/Assessment. The ratings are based on the evaluation of Wikipedia users, most often those involved in Assessment teams dealing with a particular topic. For example, the Talk page for the article on Elizabeth I cited above shows that it is ranked FA (“Featured Article”) Class, meaning it “exemplifies our very best work and is distinguished by professional standards of writing, presentation and sourcing.” The Talk page also shows discussions between editors on different issues with the site.
What distinguishes Wikipedia most from other sources is that not only can anyone edit the site, every edit is recorded: clicking on the “View History” tab will show you every change ever made to the article (along with who made it) and will also let you see previous versions. As well as showing you specific edits, looking at this page also lets you see if the article is in the process of major revisions or controversy.
Finally, every Wikipedia article has a “Notes and references” section (which shows where specific facts cited in the article came from) and a “Sources” section (which provides more general sources of further information on the topic.)
One of the reasons why YouTube is such a valued source of information for young people, in particular, is because it’s so useful for learning about practical and visual subjects like how to play guitar, whether a new video game is fun to play or how to flip an omelet. Along with a general preference for watching over reading, this can lead them to use it as a source of information on more complex topics – something for which it is not well-suited.
Like Wikipedia, videos on YouTube are posted by users: in fact, more than 400 hours of content are uploaded every minute. Unfortunately, because YouTube was conceived of as an entertainment site rather than a source of information it does not have any of the features that make it possible to evaluate information like Wikipedia does. (YouTube has announced that it will add links to Wikipedia articles on videos that feature misleading content, but as of this writing that feature had not been launched.)
As well, YouTube users have an incentive to post material that is sensational and engages the emotions, because they receive money from advertisers based on how many people have watched the videos. Compared to the non-profit Wikipedia, whose articles are written and edited entirely by volunteers, it’s not hard to see why YouTube hosts a great deal of false and misleading content.
The recommendation algorithms which YouTube uses to suggest content are based on finding what’s relevant to what you’ve already watched, not necessarily content that’s reliable. This means that following links to recommended videos can easily lead to misinformation: for example, one experiment found that users starting at the TEDx channel could be led to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones by following as few as three links to suggested videos. Misinformation on the site also often spreads quickly in the wake of a news event, sometimes establishing a false narrative among viewers before it can be debunked by legitimate journalists.
Because of these features, YouTube and similar sites should be used with extreme caution as information sources:
- Start by asking if it’s the video itself you want to authenticate, or claims made in the video. (Keep in mind that a video may be authentic but still misleading, such as the clam video at the top of this section.)
- Use fact-checking sites to see if claims (or the entire video) have been debunked
- Use Youtube DataViewer to find information about when and by whom the video was posted
- Find out where the video and the information in it came from, and do some research to find out if those sources are reliable
- Follow the money: find out if the makers of the videos received payment from anyone to promote a particular product or point of view
- Pay careful attention to which claims are factual (those which could be proven or disproven) and which are opinions
- Be especially skeptical of claims that you want to believe, and
- Don’t follow “Up Next” recommendations of other videos to watch.
The most important thing to remember about social media is that platforms such as Facebook, Tumblr or Pinterest is that they are not sources: they link to sources, but because those links are usually shared by people we know we often decide to trust them based on our opinion of the person who shared them, rather than the quality of the story itself. The ability to share links to news stories through social media means that we rely less on news outlets to curate content and more on filters that we created either knowingly (by Liking or following news outlets, individual reporters, or others who find and share news) or unknowingly (through the algorithms that social networks and search engines use to track which items we’ve responded to most strongly).
To verify information that you’ve found through social media, the most important step is to find the original source. Since it’s so easy to spread content online, it’s important to find out where a story first appeared. This is partly because stories are sometimes altered or misrepresented when they’re spread, but also because you can’t decide whether it came from a reliable source until you know what that source actually was. There are two ways of doing this: first, by following links or citations within the story “upstream” to see where it first originated; second, by doing a search for the story and using advanced search tools to find the earliest version of it. Once you’ve found the original source, you can use the tips above to find out if it’s trustworthy.
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