How To Fact Check And Protect Yourself From Misinformation Online
The Internet provides a wealth of information day or night and enables easy communication and sharing. Today, even traditional printed newspapers and magazines, like The Washington Post or The New York Times, are available in an online version. There are plenty of other online information sources as well, such as blog articles, forums, social media posts. Unfortunately, the old adage about not believing everything you read, applies to online news as well. The way information is presented in social media, emails or online news articles can make it very difficult to separate fact from fiction. Here are some tips for discerning the difference between real and false information.
Understand the Difference Between Opinion and Fact
Just about any kind of information can be distributed today through a variety of channels. Once something is published online, it can be widely shared and distributed through emails and social media. This means that in a very short time, many people will have seen or will have access to a newly published piece. It is not uncommon for authors to interject their own opinions into an article or post, but editorializing is very different from just presenting facts. For example, “it is 65 degrees today in Philadelphia” is a fact that can be investigated and proven, but “the weather is very comfortable today” is an example of an opinion. Statements that are predictions about the future, a position on a controversial issue or an expression of the author’s personal beliefs are nearly always opinions. When reading an email, article or post, it is important to discern whether the author is editorializing vs. stating facts.
Pay Careful Attention to the Source
It is not unusual to see an article shared on Facebook or forwarded from a friend through email. Just because someone you know has shared the article, do not assume it is credible. Pay close attention to the article source before you make any decisions based on the information it contains or before forwarding it along yourself to additional people. First, check the web address to ensure the article is from a trusted and respected news source and not a random writer or blogger with whom you are not familiar. Checking the website address suffix can be helpful too. A website address that ends in .edu signifies it is from an education institution (for example, penntoday.upenn.edu) and a website address that ends in .gov signifies it is from the federal government (for example, cdc.gov). Be aware that scammers sometimes use web addresses that are very close to real ones (for example, NPR.co instead of NPR.org) in an effort to persuade unsuspecting readers that their information is real. Lastly, check the contents of the article by pasting the title into the search bar of a legitimate, fact-checking website such as Snopes.com, PolitiFact.com or Factcheck.org.
Investigate Your Own Bias
When reading information, whether in print or online, it is helpful to remain objective. Confirmation bias is a very real phenomenon in which people tend to embrace information that confirms their personal beliefs and dismiss information that conflicts with their own views. Remaining objective can be difficult. If possible, try to look at information from different sources and from a variety of perspectives.
Here are some additional tips for reading and fact-checking online information:
- Read more than just the title. In many cases, titles are simply designed to grab attention. Read the entire article before forming an opinion.
- Check cited sources. Ensure that sources cited within an article or post are real, legitimate sources.
- Be skeptical. Approach any news story or post with some level of doubt until you do your own background research. Consider if other reliable sources are challenging the facts presented in the article.
- Do background research. Read up on the author and consider if they appear to be credible.
- Maintain a sense of humor. Some information that is shared online is simply meant to be funny or sarcastic. Determine if the article or post is actually meant to be a joke or sarcasm.
- Share fact-checking resources. If a friend or family member shares something with you that you identify as being fake news, send them some fact-checking resources.
- Take a break. If you read something online that you find upsetting or that makes you angry, take a break before replying or commenting. It is especially important to avoid clicking through on what may be a scam email or social media post.
Be Alert for New Types of Online Scams
Unfortunately, it is very easy for online information to be revised and modified. For example, images can be altered in an effort to influence or change the viewer’s beliefs. Be wary of images with odd lighting or angles as they may have been altered. False information can also be shared from fake social media accounts. Be on guard if you notice a social media profile with very few friends and followers, an odd username or very inflammatory comments. Be suspicious of any new profile encouraging further communication by phone or text.
Stay Connected and Well Informed
The Internet, social media and email can be immensely helpful for staying informed and also for fostering and maintaining connections with friends and family. Getting news directly on a mobile phone, tablet or computer can provide more immediate coverage compared to strictly relying on the printed newspaper or television news. Fact checking online information can help people feel secure about the decisions they make and the actions they take based on the news and articles they read.
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