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Can you trust the internet?

Thu, 05/05/2016 - 15:29

Former US president Abraham Lincoln famously said: “The problem with quotes found on the internet is that they are often not true.”

Or did he? That’s why it’s important that you know how to fact check information you find online.

Most of us spend hours online, clicking and sharing faster than we should. This leads to mistakes and we end up with digital egg in our face, especially if we’re sharing on social media. This is just one social media mistake we want to avoid. But it goes beyond Facebook and Twitter sharing.

The dangers of misinformation

Speed often means mistakes, since we don’t take time to consider how true a particular story or piece of information might be. Beyond merely sharing a false story on social media, we could come to believe it and then act on it.

Misinformation can be dangerous, since data informs our decisions and priorities. For example, we’d make different business decisions if we believed whether a company was or wasn’t headed for bankruptcy. Rather than investing our money in a profitable business, we could be deceived into supporting a failing one.

We should constantly be trying to verify information and with the internet, it’s easier than ever to acquire new knowledge. But it’s also easier to be deceived.

The internet is a tool; this means we need to know how to use it properly and this is where fact checking comes in.

What is fact checking?

Often mentioned in movies and books, fact checking is one of those jobs which people outside of the media world aren’t really familiar with. A fact checker’s main job is to go over stories meticulously to confirm all facts, figures, spellings and attributions.

We should attempt to use those skills ourselves, to become fact checkers of every piece of information we encounter. We can’t rely only on professionals to do it.

Veteran journalist Jane Elizabeth said: “Once a lie is told online, it’s difficult to retrieve it, quarantine it, and debunk it. Many journalists and other professionals try very hard to correct wrong info on social media, but we’re outnumbered.”

To that end, we should make efforts ourselves.

How to fact check

If a headline seems too good to be true or too ridiculous to be real, consult sites like Snopes.com. Rather than share the headline that President Obama wants to replace the eagle with the bison, see what fact checking sites say. A good idea might be to sign up to these sites’ newsletters. Not only are you kept ahead of the curve but you also get some stories to share. You still get to talk about the ridiculous headline but with the knowledge to point out just how wrong it was.

That’s the easy step. Sometimes the sites don’t have the information themselves. A good way to start fact checking directly is to examine the source of a claim. For example, don’t accept statements merely written on a pretty image. If it doesn’t contain a source, you can probably consider it false.

Consider a quotation from a celebrity. A good way to see if they really said it is to Google the phrase. If you see the same sites, with no context or source, you can presume the quote to be false.

Basically, a good rule of thumb is to attempt to verify all facts. If someone gives you a number or statistic, it must exist somewhere. Google takes most of the work out of it.

Don’t take information or statements at face value. This is especially true during breaking news or highly emotional times, such as a celebrity’s death.

It’s better to wait and be correct, than be first and false.

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