IS IT TRUE?
By JAN DEMPSEY
Almost 19 years ago, I began a column in The Post-Standard with those words.
The worry has never left.
In 2001, I was a news researcher at The Post-Standard in Syracuse writing a weekly column “In Search Of” for the Technology section of the newspaper.
The title of this particular column was “Always Check out Facts from Internet” and I was concerned that misinformation was being spread too easily, even from high quality sources such as newspapers, magazines, and journals.
Oh, those were the days!
We all know what has happened in the last 19 years. We have become so hyper partisan and have labeled newspapers and other media sources as either liberal or conservative so we don’t really have to do any due diligence when it comes to fact checking. Trust in the media has eroded. Just believe what you want to believe and it must be true. You can always find something or someone on the Internet to back you up.
Notwithstanding Kellyanne Conway’s remarks, there are no alternative facts. People may interpret things differently but we should always strive to find the truth. It has become increasingly difficult to do that. Every day we are bombarded with Facebook memes, images, quotes and conflicting information from multiple news sources. It’s so easy to like a FB post and share it if it says something you believe. And once it is out there, true or not, it can spread around the world in minutes and be difficult, if not impossible, to correct. And much of what we see these days is disinformation, information that is specifically designed to be false in order to inflame, antagonize, and divide.
I used to tell people to check other search engines, check primary sources, call the library, or make a phone call. I know that is not going to happen these days for the average person who sees something on Facebook.
So what should we all be doing before we click the Share button?
1. Whenever I see something that just doesn’t ring true (and you really have to train your mind to be skeptical of almost everything), I do a Google search with just a few words from the meme or article. You will almost always find the same information because it has been repeated so often, so look specifically for something that refutes that information. Somewhere in there is the truth.
2. For quotes and memes, I quite often go to Snopes.com to check if they have addressed the veracity of it. Some of these memes have been circulating for years and sometimes a few keywords are changed over time. But Snopes has done an excellent job of researching and explaining the details. Others definitely worth checking too are Politifact.com and FactCheck.org.
3. If there is no source listed for the information, be very leery. If there is a source listed, like a government agency or a newspaper, go to that agency or newspaper website and do a search of their site.
4. Don’t make the mistake of equating quantity with quality or equating the top result on Google with truth. You will find errors repeated thousands of times on Google and they may dominate the first couple pages of results. Dig deeper.
5. When you do a search on Google trying to verify some information don’t use the exact phrasing that was in the meme or article. Pick out a few individual words and search for those words.
6. Yes, almost all media sources lean one way or the other. There are some in the middle but it’s important to know where they lie on the spectrum. Check out the interactive media bias chart below to find out where you are getting your information from and then try, on a regular basis, to check out other sources of information to get a different perspective.
Making your way through the dense information jungle is increasingly difficult but a few tips and a skeptical mind can lead you to the truth.
And even though I have my doubts on some days, I’m hoping that the truth is still what we are all seeking.
Jan Dempsey was a librarian/news researcher for the Syracuse Herald-Journal/The Post Standard from 1987 – 2007, trained journalists on using the Internet, and wrote a column from 2000 – 2005 on how to search the Internet.