With the deluge of terrifying world events, it’s easy to find yourself scanning social media and panicking. Words like “BREAKING” (especially in all caps) and disturbing images can grab our attention, but it’s more important now than ever to understand where the information we’re reading is coming from. Before taking something as fact or sharing it yourself, here’s how to discern between fake and legitimate news on social media.
Check for a link
When you see a post from a questionable account that allegedly contains breaking news, check to see if the source provides a link to a news story. Earlier this week, NBC journalist Brandy Zadrozny tweeted screenshots of two fake “breaking news” accounts:
There is a HUGE constellation full of “Breaking News” Twitter accounts that spread hoaxes and unverified info to rack up followers. If you see a “BREAKING” post from a source you don’t know, spreading incredible news without a link, best to question it. pic.twitter.com/A4ZxMjX58C— Brandy Zadrozny (@BrandyZadrozny) January 8, 2020
If “news” is posted without a link to a news article from a reputable source, it should immediately raise red flags. Do a little digging before accepting these posts as anything close to fact, and definitely do not perpetuate the cycle of bad information by sharing the post with your own followers.
Make sure the news site is reliable
Of course, everyone has their favourite newspaper, network or site for keeping abreast of current events—likely ones that align with your personal political outlook. It’s one thing to point out Fox News for being conservative, but, as former Lifehacker writer Eric Ravenscraft wrote back in 2016, there is a difference between sites that have a political bias, and those that completely fabricate information.
The rest of his article contains other pointers for spotting fake news sites, including satire sites that are mistakenly taken as fact, fact-checking poorly reported news stories on legitimate news sites, and looking for evidence to back up stories that are based on accusations.
Use the SIFT method
Being a responsible consumer and sharer of the media takes a little work. If you’re not sure where to start when it comes to figuring out the legitimacy of an account or site, you may want to try the SIFT method, created by Mike Caulfield, the director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver, which he outlines on his information literacy site Hapgood. In a post from July 19, 2019 he explains that in order to sort “truth from fiction and everything in between,” one solution is to give people a list of things to do when looking at a source.
Here is how to SIFT:
Stop: When we come across a new piece of potential information, Caulfield encourages us to stop for two reasons. First, he says we should pause in order to figure out if we know the website or source and its reputation. If not, we may need to rely on the other steps of this process. The second reason we should stop is that if you’re trying to figure out of a piece of news is fake, focus on the task at hand, rather than falling down a rabbit hole and spending time on tasks that are only tangentially related to your original question.
Investigate the source: According to Caulfield, we should know what we’re reading before we invest the time into actually reading it. This doesn’t mean you need to launch into a full investigation of the news organisation, journalist and everyone they interviewed for the article, but pay attention to their expertise and agenda, he says.
Find trusted coverage: If there is a specific claim that an article or video is making that really interests or intrigues you, Caulfield suggests ignoring the news source and instead digging into the reporting and analysis to figure out where the claim originated. He offers this example:
If you get an article that says koalas have just been declared extinct from the Save the Koalas Foundation, your best bet might not be to investigate the source, but to go out and find the best source you can on this topic, or, just as importantly, to scan multiple sources and see what the expert consensus seems to be. In these cases we encourage you to “find other coverage” that better suits your needs — more trusted, more in-depth, or maybe just more varied. In lesson two we’ll show you some techniques to do this sort of thing very quickly.
This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with the consensus, of course, but Caulfield argues that understanding the claim’s history and context can help us with our evaluation and may provide a starting point for additional investigation.
Trace claims, quotes and media back to the original context: Instead of blindly relying on how an issue or news event is portrayed in one specific article or news report, Caulfield recommends tracing any claims, quotes or media used in the article (like videos, podcasts, etc) to its original source. This will allow you to see the information in its original context and then make an informed decision about how it was presented in the initial article you read.