Do you feel overwhelmed by all of the “fake news” being spread via mainstream news and social media? Are you unsure who to trust and what to believe? If so, you are certainly not alone.
There is a tremendous amount of misinformation being spread these days via mainstream news and social media. As a result, it’s becoming progressively harder for many people to determine what is real versus what is fake.
In addition, there are more people sharing content on social media and blog posts. As a result, it’s now more critical than ever to be able to determine what information is reliable enough to share and what content should just be deleted.
So, to help you determine what information is reliable, here are the six simple questions you should be asking yourself before you hit the Share button on any news article or social media post.
First, do a quick search to determine who is authoring the content.
Is the author reliable? What are their qualifications? Do they have the appropriate education and experience? Are they an expert in their field of study? Do they have any potential conflicts of interest? Do they have a personal or political agenda?
It’s relatively easy to verify an author’s qualifications. Most authors will provide them in their biography on the publisher’s website. Others will have them listed on their organization’s website or their LinkedIn page. A quick google search is often sufficient to find and verify an author’s qualifications.
However, some authors post their content anonymously. In addition, many articles are reposted with a vague reference to the author like “a well-respected scientist”, without stating who they actually are. If an author is posting anonymously or you’re unable to find their qualifications, this is likely a red flag.
When choosing reliable authors:
Next, do a quick search to see what organization is publishing the content.
Are they a reliable publisher? Are they known for producing factually correct information, or do they have a track record of errors and retractions? Are they an unbiased source of information, or are they politically motivated? Do they just report the facts, or are they highly opinionated in their reporting?
There are several websites that you can use to help determine the reliability of your news sources. For example, you can use Media Bias / Fact Check to inspect both the bias and reliability of an individual news source. In addition, you can use Ad Fontes Media’s Bias Chart to survey the landscape of news sources.
When choosing reliable publishers and news outlets:
Third, determine the claim the author is making.
Are they merely reporting information, sharing their opinion, or making a recommendation? Is their claim reasonable? Is their argument valid? Are they making an actual claim or just ranting online?
Identifying the author’s claim is important so that you understand what the author is trying to convince you to believe. Every blog post and news article is making a claim of some kind. You can typically infer the claim from the headline. However, some claims are hidden in the text or are more subtle.
Once you’ve identified the author’s claim, you can often verify whether it’s true or not using a fact-checking website like Snopes.com or FactCheck.org. In addition, you should learn how to identify logical fallacies in the author’s argument. Often, unreliable authors will attempt to use arguments that are not logically valid.
When evaluating an author’s claim and their argument:
Fourth, determine what evidence they are providing to support their claim.
Is the author providing any evidence at all? Is their evidence strong, or is it weak? What are the sources for this evidence? Are these original sources also reliable, unbiased, and factually correct?
Evidence is what we use to strengthen our arguments and support our claims. Inspect the author’s source material to ensure that it actually supports the claim the author is making. Often, unreliable authors will misrepresent their sources’ claims or link to a source that is stating a much weaker version of their claim.
In addition, inspect the reliability of the source material as well. Often, unreliable authors will use other unreliable sources to support their claim artificially. This allows them to cherry pick unreliable evidence in favor of their claim while discounting reliable evidence to the contrary.
When evaluating the strength of an author’s evidence:
Fifth, determine if you have any biases that might be interfering with your ability to remain objective in your evaluation of this new information.
Why do you believe the author’s claim is true? Does it simply reinforce your existing beliefs? Does the alternative make you feel uncomfortable? Are you merely responding emotionally to the message?
As humans, we are subject to numerous cognitive biases. These biases distort our judgment and influence our ability to remain objective when we evaluate new information. For example, confirmation bias makes us more likely to reject new information that disagrees with our existing beliefs.
There are dozens of other cognitive biases like anchoring bias, salience bias, normalcy bias, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Take the time to learn about these biases and how to compensate for them. Also, learn how filter bubbles can create echo chambers that continuously reinforce our own biased viewpoints.
When checking your own biases:
Finally, determine your intention for sharing content with your audience.
Why are you choosing to share this content with your audience? Is it to promote your own political ideas, to state your own beliefs, or because you’re angry and want others to be outraged too?
Unfortunately, many people that share information online are sharing it for their own self-interest rather than for the benefit of their audience. They aren’t putting their audience’s needs above their own. They’re sharing information for self-serving reasons rather than to provide real value to their audience.
When sharing content online, you need to take a moment to put yourself in your audience’s shoes and ask yourself, “why will my audience find this information valuable?” We call this a reader-centric approach to writing. In public speaking, we sum up this philosophy with the statement “Know Your Audience“.
If you truly believe that your audience will find this information valuable, then it is your responsibility to determine the reliability of the information you are sharing. Anything less is a disservice to your audience and could potentially destroy your reputation as a reliable author as well.
Going forward, please ask yourself these six questions every time you’re reading or sharing a news article or social media post. If everyone were to do this, it would significantly reduce the amount of misinformation flowing on the internet — and make all of our lives much easier.