A Beginner’s Guide to Fact-Checking
So, you want to be a fact-checker, eh? Tired of getting duped by sketchy articles and social media posts? Want to learn how to filter information by what’s correct vs. what’s not?
You and me both. I’ve got some good news and bad news.
The bad news: disinformation is a challenge that we all face, and it isn’t slowing down.
The good news: with some training & a few skills, you can get better at identifying false information online and finding out what’s legit vs. what’s not.
For this post, I want to introduce you to some basic skills to help you fact-check online. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and there is tons more to learn: but by learning a few core skills (known as media literacy), you’ll be able to build on them over time.
These five tactics are how I approach fact-checking and research. They’re designed for beginners, and you’ll find them across many fact-checking organizations. I hope they help!
(PSA: If you see any incorrect info in this article like a wrong link, or even a topic that you think needs more explaining, leave a comment and let me know.)
Search For Legitimate Sources
The first step when fact-checking online is to identify sources that are reliable enough to turn to. This so that while filtering information, you can look to sources that are reliable enough.
A word of caution here: a high ranking DOESN’T mean the source is 100% correct all the time. Every news outlet, no matter how thorough in their research, is susceptible to getting their information wrong. What makes a source “reliable” in this case is the following:
- Do they cite their sources? (We’ll expand on this further in a bit, but basically, do they show proof?)
- Do they update their sources and correct themselves if they mess up? (If they’re thorough this won’t happen often, but if it does, reliable outlets will typically go back to correct themselves AND make that clear.)
- Do they have good rankings on fact-check sites? (Once again, this doesn’t mean they get their info right all the time, but a high ranking shows that they’re likely to do their best to get their info right.)
I like using mediabiasfactcheck.com & allsides.com, and sources like Politifact & Snopes for explanations of popular topics. They’re a helpful place to start. The only problem I have with these is that they’re primarily U.S.-focused, and I’m Canadian. So I need to find some reliable Canadian sources to look to. Right now, I follow sources such as The Feed by Apathy Is Boring and CBC News to start, then I cross-reference those with other outlets like the Toronto Star or CTV News to see what they’re saying.
Look For Multiple (Legitimate) Sources
I learned this tip from MediaWise, a non-partisan organization in the United States that educates people (mainly youth) on topics like media literacy and fact-checking. They refer to this as either Lateral Reading or, more specifically, Key Word Research. Lateral Reading sounds cool, so I’m sticking with that.
Lateral Reading is simple: when you find a claim online, search up that claim to see what other resources are saying. This way, you can determine how widespread a claim is, and the types of sources that have also commented on it. It also helps to get a grasp on the media bias for those sources, to learn what their track record is like.
(Note: having a media bias doesn’t mean a source’s arguments are or aren’t valid, just that they have a certain frame they communicate from. What matters is the quality of the claims they cite. However, certain biases can, if left unchecked, influence the validity of claims: so it’s important to consider.)
Here’s a quick video from Media Wise on vaccines & microchips. Note that 2/3rds of the way through, Ssuuna McKitty takes us through keyword research. You can also check out this source by Reuters.com, which breaks down the lies behind this claim.
Check Those Sources For Their Sources
Story time: I remember scrolling through Instagram and seeing a friend post a graphic on their story. The post claimed that all COVID vaccines had microchips in them to track your whereabouts. I bet you’ve heard that one before.
(Warning: looking at posts like those can be a bit stressful, so proceed with caution if you plan on clicking it.)
I decided to check out the page, and it’s from a site called RT.com. They promote themselves as a “truth over censorship” news outlet. However, there were two problems:
- Their claim had no links: the post didn’t have a “link in bio” feature at all, just a claim that the Pentagon developed microchips for the vaccine (and a photo of someone holding up a vial).
- A quick google search of the site shows that it’s financed by the Russian Federation, and the page itself failed a media-bias fact-check. It’s been ranked as extremely low on factual analysis (and known to promote propaganda).
So, not only did they lack a citation for their claim, they’ve promoted false information in the past. Not a great combo.
Sidebar: while this is concerning, the existence of accounts like these isn’t surprising. Disinformation spreaders are becoming more prevalent online, especially in social media landscapes where a piece of content can be spread across multiple feeds in a short timeframe. Coupled with social media algorithms that gather data on topics they think you’d be interested in and showing you more of that, it becomes even more likely that false information can spread.
(For more information, you can check out Samara Centre for Democracy’s research paper: Investing in Canadian Civic Literacy. Specifically page 8, where they break down social distortion & bad accounts.)
The lesson here is that if you’re going to make a claim, you need to make your proof accessible. Failing to do so implies, at the very least, that you’re not confident in your own sources. If you see claims like this, that’s a yellow flag (and possibly a red one).
The next step is to identify the underlying message, or the “frame” of the source making the claim. I learned this strategy from George Lakoff’s book, Don’t Think of an Elephant!.
Framing is a bit of a vague term, but in this case, we can define it as the “use of language to determine the context of the information presented to us”. Fancy sentence, I know. Basically, it means asking this question: “what is this source trying to get me to do or believe?”
Bad-faith accounts are almost always trying to get you to believe something specific in order to spur action. This action is different depending on the context: do they want you to avoid taking a life-saving vaccine? Do they want to promote the agenda of a country with a terrible human rights track record? Do they want you to be angry (an emotion that increases the likelihood you share something, thus increasing the original sources reach)?
False information usually has an agenda. The source isn’t trying to just share information; it’s sharing wrong information to spur action and make you do something they want.
So when you view a news article or social media post, ask yourself: “is this trying to make me feel a certain way?”
Gather Info And Determine A Conclusion
We’ve now arrived at the last step (at least for this blog post). Once you’ve found your claim online, gathered information on both the claim itself and the source, cross-referenced what you have with other sources, and did some digging on what the sources are trying to prove, you can formulate your own conclusions.
Let’s use the microchip & vaccine disinformation example:
- We saw an Instagram post claiming the Pentagon has microchips for vaccines to track people. But the post doesn’t have a link to their source for this claim.
- The site (RT.com) has failed numerous fact-checks by places like mediabiasfactcheck.com.
- Looking up “microchip in vaccines fact-check” we found a Reuter’s article fact-checking the claim, plus a MediaWise video breaking down the claim as well (and both cite their sources!). Furthermore, sources like Snopes, BBC, and factcheck.org all chime in too.
- Looking at the claim itself, it seems that the source’s goal is to undermine faith in the vaccines by framing the issue as a violation of a citizen’s privacy. So the “does this post have a specific agenda” part is likely.
- With all the information we’ve gathered in one place, we can now come to a more informed conclusion: this account, with an unreliable track record, is making a false claim with no accessible proof to make us do something bad.
Result? This is false.
So, there we have it. Those are the steps I take when conducting a fact-check online. Like I said before, this isn’t an exhaustive list, and I’m sure there are other methods that are more effective. But this works for me, and even better, it’s teachable!
I hope this guide helps you get started on fact-checking. At the very least, hopefully it encourages you to dig a bit deeper when you’re perusing through the interwebz.
One more thing: fact-checking is important. But it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Having a grasp on how the media environment works, how political systems work, and an awareness of current events all play key roles in combating disinformation.
The Samara Centre for Democracy released a research paper on this topic (known as civic literacy) & its role in combating disinformation. Check page 5 to get a grasp on the various qualities you’ll want to consider developing over time.
Let me know what you think of this article. And happy fact-checking!
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