- If you can’t trust the source supplying the news to you, the best strategy is usually to do a quick news search, and see who else is reporting it.
- Sometimes (lots of times!) you’ll find that there is better coverage of the claim out there than the story that reached you. Share that instead.
- Sometimes you’ll find that no one else is covering it, which is often a warning sign, particularly if it’s a big news event.
- Occasionally, searching for a better story will turn up a fact-check on the claim, particularly if the claim is dubious and widespread.
So we talked about investigating the source, and about this thing we called the “sharing source”. The sharing source is whatever the last step was in getting a story, claim, statistic, or photo to you. If Bob is the one that DM’d you, Bob’s the sharing source.
If the sharing source has strong credibility, you can have decent confidence the story is presented fairly. Not perfect confidence, mind you. But you’ve done your due diligence.
So what if the sharing source is not good enough to simply take at its word?
You’ve got a couple options then — and both involve getting to a new source.
Your first option is to just try and find a better source for the same fact, claim, or media item. Preferably, a couple better sources. If you see a lot reputable outlets independently reporting the same story, that will increase your confidence in it. If other outlets aren’t covering it, or if other outlets are actually reporting that the story is very different, then that should at the very least slow you down.
The second option is to find the original source. That is get to where the story came from and evaluate that original reporting or original research source instead of the sharing source.
I’m going to deal with the first option right now — find a better source — by showing something you can do when something is breaking news: plug related terms into news search and see if others are reporting it.
So here’s an example:
This from a source I don’t recognize. I hover over it and nothing there inspires any confidence. This “news” account looks like its one of the thousand of opportunistic aggregators that spin up in crisis events. They don’t do any original reporting or verification, they just retweet posts from other people. In many cases, a lot of the information they share is good, but a lot is also garbage. There’s no quality control.
So here’s a simple move — forget about this post! You actually don’t care about this source, you care about what we call the claim, the thing the post is saying happened. So let’s go and see if others are covering this! We select “Money is now being disinfected” then right-click, long press, or cmd-click, and what do we find? We find a ton of sites reporting this. If we click into any of the articles we see too that it isn’t just a rumor — the Chinese government has in fact announced this.
Now notice what we didn’t do here. We didn’t sit around and spend 10 minutes thinking “Does this sound plausible?” Why? Because we’re not epidemiologists or virologists so we don’t know if it’s plausible or not. And we didn’t spend 10 minutes looking at the video and trying to figure out if it was faked or staged because we’re — and bear with me here since this may come as a shock — we’re not actually experts in video forensics. Not even you folks that have hung out on Reddit. I’m so sorry to be the one to break this to you.
Instead, what we did was look to see if other people with more expertise than us had been able to confirm this. And it turned out they had.
Here’s another video:
So if you put the video and the text together, this implies the Chinese government is sending doctors around with guns, executing people in the streets and cremating them on the spot. And I want to be clear the Chinese government is a totalitarian government with long history of using violence on their people. I think this is far-fetched, but I’m not ruling it as implausible. But if we hover it’s pretty clear that the sharing source does not give it legitimacy.
So are others reporting this? Has it been independently verified?
We do a first search and we don’t see anything that really matches. That in itself is probably a sign this has not been confirmed. But still we tweak our search a bit.
Once we do that we do see one result — but its from Snopes. And when we look at the Snopes article, we find this video has been miscaptioned — the people who look like doctors walking through the street with guns are actually police in masks and scrubs to protect them from infection while they do their normal rounds. And no one is being shot.
This changes everything. The original tweet implied that people were
- being killed
- by roving bands of doctors
and used that impression to make the case that once the government takes over health care, doctors can decide if you should live or die, pretty much on the spot. That’s a long way away from “local police put on some doctor’s masks to avoid infection.” Like, light years, maybe?
So often when news reaches us we act like we must make a decision on this particular tweet, or post, or website. But the web is abundant! If it’s a true story there are likely many better sources than the one that happened to find you. And if it is a false one, maybe someone already looked into that for you.
Select text and search, or pop open another tab. Then look for a better version of the story. Read and share that!