The Internet is truly amazing. Nearly all of human knowledge can be accessed from a device tucked in your pocket. And yet, the web sometimes seems to be making us dumber and more insulated in our worldview.
While the Internet is a gushing font of truth, wisdom and accuracy, it can also be a source of false, slanted, partisan and malicious information. No where is this more true than in the area of “news.” Professional journalists define news as “Information of use or interest to your audience that was previous unknown to them.” There are countless organizations and individuals posting “news” on the internet who play fast and loose with that definition.
That’s why it’s important to think carefully and critically about news posted on the internet before believing it – or sharing it. Here are some tips for vetting that story that just popped on your Facebook feed.
Does the story match the headline? Never judge a book by its cover. Too many false stories get shared because people never read past the headline. Many times the story doesn’t support that infuriating headline. The more outrageous the headline, the closer you should read the content below it.
Do you recognize the URL? Note the digital source of the story. It may look like something from Fox News, but I promise you, Fox’s web address isn’t FoxNews.wordpress.com or FoxNews.co.
Is the story appearing elsewhere? Eyebrow-raising stories that seem unique to one “news source” are likely questionable or outright bogus. There really is no such thing as an “exclusive” in this age of digital media. If you that story about the Clintons buying Google for $1 doesn’t start showing up all over the media… well, draw your own conclusions.
Is the video or photo legit? Bogus news sources often use faked photos or old, unrelated video to amp-up the emotion and seeming authenticity of their stories.
One story about the North Carolina unisex bathroom flap used video of police removing a woman from a bathroom for not looking enough like a female. Problem is, that video showed up on the web in another context long before the Carolina debate erupted.
Does the story include comments from the participants? If it’s really true that a woman found a rat’s head in her fast food burrito, don’t you think the company would have issued a statement addressing that culinary crime? A lack of input from the people involved in the story should give you pause.
On the flipside, if there are particularly controversial quotes, you may want to try to verify those before sharing them with friends over the internet or coffee. Donald Trump was the victim of a few incendiary but bogus “quotes” that went viral during the Presidential campaign.
Has it been fact-checked? If a story seems… suspicious, you can always check it out at any number of reputable fact-checking sites, including snopes.com and FactCheck.org.
Is the story new? This can be a tricky one to catch. Shady “news” providers will re-purpose a true-but-old story to make a current point. Example: the story about Ford moving an auto plant from Mexico to the US in the wake of Donald Trump’s Presidential victory. While it’s true Ford relocated the plant back to the U.S. that move happened in 2015.
Do you have a thumb on the mental scale? Be mindful of your biases as you read internet news stories. We all have a tendency to want to hear things that support our existing point of view. That’s not healthy, but it’s human. Don’t let your political leanings crowd out your critical thinking.
My grandfather used to say, “believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see.” I think that’s a pretty good rule for judging what passes for news on the internet.