- Learn strategies for quickly evaluating the sources and information you find
Whenever a source provokes a strong positive or negative feeling, that’s a sign to check the information. There are a variety of ways to check information: by learning more about the source, learning more about the claim, or finding the original source of the information. You don’t have to do all of these steps every time. Choose what is most likely to help you put the information into context.
In the last two chapters we talked about what kinds of sources are out there and how you might find them. Now let’s talk about how you can evaluate the sources you find. In the Introduction chapter we said that even though there is a lot of competing information out there, it is possible to move closer to better information (even if finding the absolute truth is a big and elusive project). This chapter outlines four “moves” that will help you do this.
These moves are about using the whole web to figure out what type of source you’ve got or the accuracy of a statement. This may be quite different than what you have heard in other information literacy lessons. Looking around the web isn’t “cheating,” it’s taking advantage of the most powerful tool you have. If we only use the information from the source itself, we risk being misled by that source or by our own existing opinions on the topic.
Here is a helpful acronym to help you remember the four moves: S.I.F.T.:
These are four things you might do as you try to move towards better information. This is not a checklist. You don’t need to do all of these things every time you’re evaluating information, and you may want to try a couple but in a different order than this. You can use whichever ones make sense in a particular situation.
Check your emotions. If a claim causes strong emotion — anger, glee, pride, vindication — STOP. You must fact-check this claim. Remember from the chapter, Our Mental Shortcuts, that we more readily accept information that confirms our beliefs (confirmation bias) and we tend to think less critically about that kind of information than we do about information that challenges our beliefs (motivated reasoning.) A strong emotional reaction is a sign that these cognitive biases are at work. Remember, these mental shortcuts don’t make us bad people, we all have them. But we do need to account for them if we want to move toward better information.
In addition, if you get lost while working on the other moves, or hit dead ends, or find yourself going down an increasingly confusing rabbit hole during your investigation, STOP. Back up and start over knowing what you know now. You’re likely to take a more informed path with different search terms and better decisions.
Investigate the source
The key idea here is to know what you’re reading before you read it. This doesn’t mean you have to do a Pulitzer prize-winning investigation into a source before you engage with it. But if you’re reading a piece on economics by a Nobel prize-winning economist, you should know that before you read it. Conversely, if you’re watching a video on the many benefits of milk consumption that was put out by the dairy industry, you probably want to know that as well.
This doesn’t mean the Nobel economist will always be right and that the dairy industry can’t ever be trusted. But knowing the expertise and agenda of the source is crucial to your interpretation of what they say. Taking sixty seconds to figure out where it is from before reading will help you decide if it is worth your time, and if it is, help you to better understand its significance and trustworthiness.
Read what other people say about the source, (publication, author, etc.) Take a look back at the list of creator types from the chapter, Types of Sources, and remember that some of them may try to disguise their content as though it were from a different kind of creator (for-profit companies engaging in astroturfing or interest groups trying to look like professional organizations.) So the best way to figure out the truth about a source is to leave that source. You have the whole internet at your disposal, so don’t only read what the source says about itself, instead find out how others view that source. The truth is in the network.
Find better coverage
Sometimes you don’t care about the particular article that reaches you. You care about the claim the article is making. You want to know if it is true or false. You want to know if it represents a consensus viewpoint, or if it is the subject of much disagreement.
In this case your best strategy is to ignore the source that reached you and look for other trusted reporting or analysis on the claim. In other words, if you receive an article from the Save the Koalas Foundation that says koalas have just been declared extinct, the best strategy may be to open up a new tab and find the best source you can that covers this, or, just as importantly, scan multiple sources to see what the consensus seems to be. In these cases we encourage you to find coverage that better suits your needs — more trusted, more in-depth, or maybe just more varied.
Look around to see if someone else has already fact-checked the claim or provided a synthesis of research or provided coverage that gives more useful information about the claim or the context of the claim. Your first move might be to look to see if sites like Politifact, or Snopes, or even Wikipedia have researched the claim. But if you don’t find any information there, try Googling the key words about the story you want to check.
Trace claims, quotes, and media back to the original context
A lot of things you find on the internet have been stripped of context. Maybe there’s a video of a fight between two people. But what happened before that? Who started it? What was clipped out of the video and what stayed in? Maybe there’s a picture that seems real but the caption is dubious at best. Maybe a claim is made about a new medical treatment supposedly based on a research paper — but you’re not certain if the paper supports it. By tracing the claim, quote, or media back to the source, you can see it in its original context and get a sense if the version you saw was accurately presented.
If the claim is about research, can you find the original journal article written by the folks who actually did the research? The source may mention the names of the researchers involved, the title of the journal the work was published in, the title of the study or the year it was published. If you have any of these pieces of information, you can try putting them in to Google Scholar, or even use Google Scholar’s Advanced Search features.
If the claim is about an event, can you find the news publication in which it was originally reported? Look at where the event took place and see if you can find a local newspaper for that area. Then search that newspaper’s site for coverage of the story.
It’s About REcontextualizing
There’s a theme that runs through all of these moves: it’s about getting the necessary context to read, view, or listen effectively. And doing that first.
One piece of context is who the author or publisher is. What’s their expertise? What’s their agenda? What’s their record of fairness or accuracy? So we investigate the source. Just as when you hear a rumor you want to know who the source of it is before reacting to it, when you encounter something on the web you need the same sort of context.
When it comes to claims, a key piece of context includes whether they are broadly accepted or rejected or something in-between. By scanning for other coverage you can see the expert consensus on a claim, learn the history around it, and ultimately land on a better source.
Finally, when evidence is presented with a certain frame — whether a quote or a video or a scientific finding — sometimes it helps to reconstruct the original context in which the photo was taken or research claim made. It can look quite different in context!
In some cases these techniques will show you claims are outright wrong, or that sources are legitimately “bad actors” who are trying to deceive you. But even when material is not intentionally deceptive, the moves do something just as important: they reestablish the context that the web so often strips away, allowing for more fruitful engagement with all digital information.
Imagine that a friend sends you a text about a new “Alexa Toilet”:
That links to this page: https://www.tomsguide.com/us/kohler-numi-alexa-toilet,news-28957.html
- Using the Investigate the Source move, try to figure out if Tom’s Guide is a known product review site or something else.
Check out both of these news reports and answer the questions below.
- Are these trustworthy news sources for this sort of story?
- Is this story likely true?
- If you had to pick the best source of the two based just on what you found on Wikipedia, which one would you pick, and why?
Take a look at this story and answer the questions.
- What sort of source is this?
- How do you know?
For this exercise, you’ll need a bit of background. MH17 was a passenger plane shot down by Ukrainian separatists. Take one minute to watch this short video on the history of the crash.
Looking only at issues around the source (and not the article itself), which of the following publishers is a better source on the downing of MH17 and why?
Early in 2018 the Trump administration announced that it would withdraw financial support for Palestine unless the country agreed to concessions. U.S. Ambassador Nicki Haley presented the U.S. position on the matter to the U.N. in January.
Then, according to many people on Twitter, something amazing happened. In defiance of the Nicki Haley’s pronouncement, the Palestinian delegation got up… and began to dance!
Fact check this, then answer the following questions:
- Is the video unaltered (i.e., a “real” video)?
- Is this video really a reaction to U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley?
- What else can you tell us about this video, and how do you know it?
Note: This chapter is derived from the material in the Check, Please! Starter Course. The canonical version of this course exists here, which is the version written by Mike Caulfield. Other versions of this course may exist online, edited by others, and that’s great, but click the above link if you want the original.
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- SIFT image from the Arizona State University News Co/Lab, https://mediactive.newscollab.org/part-one/sharing-with-integrity/ ↵