Part of understanding political decision-making is learning how to accurately filter information online. Separating fact from fiction, combating disinformation, and determining the truth all require some leg work. It’s tough, but it’s worth it.
I’m a beginner in the world of fact-checking. But, I’m slowly getting better. I’ve picked up a few things along the way that have helped me understand complex information and arrive at the facts. These tactics have helped structure my approach to fact-checking.
Keep in mind, they aren’t exhaustive in any way. There are definitely better methods: but, these are a place to start.
Here they are!
Search For Legitimate Sources
The first step when fact-checking online is to identify sources that are reliable enough to turn to. This will ensure that, while filtering your information, you can ensure that the resources you regularly use are reliable.
A word of caution here: a high ranking DOESN’T mean a source is infallible. Every news outlet, no matter how thorough in their research, can possibly get their information wrong. What makes a source reliable 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 go back and 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. 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.
Look For Multiple (Legitimate) Sources
This tip I learned 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 dope, 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: media bias fact-checks don’t immediately mean a source is 100% true all the time, but they help shed a light on the track record of various sources. This strategy should run parallel to seeking out primary sources that can confirm whether or not the topic you’re looking at is true or not).
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
I remember scrolling through IG and seeing a friend post a graphic on their story claiming that the COVID vaccines all had microchips in them to track your whereabouts. I bet you’ve heard that one before.
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, which is vague enough to be misinterpreted).
- The page itself failed a media-bias fact-check: it’s been ranked as extremely low on factual analysis (and they’re accused of promoting Russian propaganda): https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/rt-news/
So, not only did they lack a resource, their reviews are poor. Not a great combo.
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.
(Hypocritical moment because I’m not linking the original post, but I’d rather not encourage clicks and exposure to bad-faith accounts.)
The next step is to identify the underlying message, or the “frame” of the source making the claim. This strategy comes from my own studies in political psychology, AKA “why, in a political context, do people do what they do & believe what they believe?”
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 sources are 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 foreign 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, and likely their income)?
The underlying goal of false information is that it has an agenda. The source isn’t trying to just share information: it’s sharing wrong information, specifically to spur action and make you do something they want.
This is important because understanding this relates back to the purpose of this step: identify the frame the source is trying to push, or the underlying goal they’re trying to accomplish.
A simple way of identifying a potential frame/influence agenda from a source is to ask yourself a simple question: “is this source making me feel a certain emotion, or implying I need to do a certain act?” If the answer is yes, be skeptical.
Gather Info And Determine A Conclusion
We’ve now arrived at the last (well, not really) step. 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 IG post online claiming the Pentagon has made microchips for the vaccines to track people. But the post doesn’t have a link to their source for this claim. And the site itself has failed numerous fact-checks.
- 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 as well.
- Looking at the claim itself, it’s clear that the false sources are trying to get the reader to lose faith in the government, the Pentagon, and scientists. The sources are also trying to decrease faith in the vaccines, and increase the likelihood more people turn them down.
- After gathering all the information, it’s clear that the “microchips are in the vaccine” has a specific agenda it’s trying to push, comes from unreliable resources, and has been proven wrong by multiple reliable resources.
Result? This claim is WROOOOOOOOOOOONG.
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.
Let me know what you think. And happy fact-checking!