“Trust, but verify” used to be the smart way to approach posts in your social media feed. Today, with all the false information that’s spread online—especially as we near a high-stakes election—you’re more likely to follow the advice “don’t believe everything you read.” […]
“Trust, but verify” used to be the smart way to approach posts in your social media feed. Today, with all the false information that’s spread online—especially as we near a high-stakes election—you’re more likely to follow the advice “don’t believe everything you read.” Although that can prevent you from getting duped, it’s still a trap because there’s plenty of good, quality information out there. You just need to know how to separate the real stories from the fake stuff.
It’s getting harder: The people who create fake news have only gotten more sophisticated since the last campaign season. They also have more technology and better strategies for trickery at their fingertips. Think video artificial intelligence, altered videos, and fake news websites that look very realistic.
Disinformation campaigns capitalize on the chaotic news environment to sow doubt and confusion—a tactic that helps them achieve their own self-interested goals. Plus, the lines between fact and opinion have become even more blurred as more people publish their own online content and push it out through social media.
For first-time voters, it’s not only important to get the most trustworthy information possible: It’s also your civic duty. These tips can help you cut through the noise, identify quality sources, and feel confident in your judgment.
For more info, check out our Young Voter’s Guide to Social Media and the News.
Use credible sources. We don’t mean your Uncle Joe. Not a candidate with skin in the game. Not an account you can’t verify. (It might be a bot.) Look for these hallmarks:
- Attribution. Credible news stories include an author’s byline and a dateline (when and where the story originated) as well as facts, figures, and quotes attributed to specific people and groups.
- Standards and ethics. Credible news adheres to certain standards of ethics and professional behavior that are published on its website. You can read the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics to get a sense of the rules reporters follow.
- Objectivity. News reporters strive to stay neutral on a given topic, using facts to present issues with a balance of perspectives that let you make up your own mind.
- Trustworthy research. Studies by scientists from reputable labs, such as those affiliated with universities or independent, nonprofit institutions (with no financial incentive to provide the data they’re publishing), should describe their methodology. Research should also be peer reviewed, meaning other scientists have read and signed off on the methods used to collect data.
Know the difference between factual reporting and opinion. It’s fine to read opinion pieces to learn more about a topic. But it’s important to know whether what you’re reading is the author’s personal perspective and whether they have an existing relationship that might influence their judgment.
Tip: Opinion pieces are (or should be) labeled “op-ed” or “opinion,” and they’re written in the first person (using “I”).
Don’t rely on social media for political news. Information on social media is designed for one purpose: to go viral. The sensationalist headlines, eye-popping images, funny memes, and ultra-extreme ideas are engineered to bypass our critical-thinking skills and get us to share. Another problem with social media: It can be hard to tell whether something is real news, sponsored content, or an advertisement. For real news, you have to use real news sources that follow the guidelines above.
Tip: Before forwarding posts from your feed, make sure they pass your own smell test, and follow these steps.
Check the website domain name. If you’re quickly scanning a news story on social media, or even if you click and read the actual article, you need to be sure that the site you’re on is legit. Looking at the domain name is one way to do that. This handy Google doc, created by Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communication and media at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, lists many known fake sites as well as other ways to spot online deception.
Tip: Fraudsters often register their domains in different countries around the world. For example, if a URL ends in .au (Australia) or .co (Colombia), the article itself should have some relationship to the country represented in the domain. URLs ending in .com, .edu, and .org are usually safe (but not always).
Check multiple sources. When a friend shares a story, especially one labeled “exclusive” or “never seen before,” Google it to see whether other sites are covering the story. According to Zimdars, “Sometimes lack of coverage is the result of corporate media bias and other factors, but there should typically be more than one source reporting on a topic or event.”
Tip: Make it easy on yourself by using sites like AllSides and SmartNews that show how different outlets report the same story. Read laterally: Open several tabs at once and cross-check information as you go.
Research the author. Find out why they’re qualified to write about the topic. Read their bio on the site to learn about their background and experience. Google them and see what else they’ve written. (If the article is not attributed to anyone, that could be a sign it’s fake or sponsored content. It doesn’t always mean it is, but it’s definitely a warning sign. Ask yourself why an author wouldn’t want to be identified with what they’ve written.)
Tip: Check that they have a blue badge on Twitter. Being verified means the account is registered to a real person who stands behind what they publish.