Evaluating Sources in the Age of “Fake News”
Melissa Rothman, Consultant
Alternative facts, fake news, disinformation, propaganda…despite their recent step into the spotlight, none of these concepts are by any means new phenomena. Nonetheless, the recent stir in the media has even caused the Oxford Dictionary to name “Post-truth” the word of the year for 2016. Many have pointed to the ever-increasing availability of information in our digital age as the cause of our current skepticism, but publicity stunts and sensationalized media date back to the early stages of mass publication. In 1809, Washington Irving is perhaps one of the earliest cases for knowingly fabricating “fake news,” placing a fake missing person’s advertisement in several local newspapers for a Mr. Diedrich Knickerbocker just prior to releasing his first work published under this pseudonym. Tabloids such as “Star” and the “National Enquirer” have stared back at us from the supermarket lines our whole lives reminding us to question the validity of printed news. Even in academia, the notorious “Sokal Hoax” serves as a cautionary tale illustrating the value of close reading. However, despite the apparent prevalence of misinformation in our world, we should not slide into the nihilistic view that truth is relative. In fact, this recent heightened interest in the validity and soundness of sources has fostered a necessary awareness of misinformation. Likewise, there are several strategies available for evaluating sources.
To begin with, there are several research guides available on the web. Ekstrom Library even has a list of strategies for evaluating sources here. It includes questions of context, authorship, and credibility that are useful for evaluating any type of source, but is specifically geared toward academic works. However, sometimes we want to use data from outside scholarly databases. There are tons of tips online for building digital literacy, but I’ll break down these lists into the cliff notes version that we college students know and love.
Here are some strategies:
- Consider the Source. Questioning an author’s motivation should be second nature to every college student by the time they graduate. There is no such thing as an agenda free text. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For instance, this blog post was written with two main goals: 1. To please my wonderful boss (*note the potential motivation of sucking up with my adjective choice). 2. To supply you guys with a handy-dandy tool for evaluating sources. But always be aware that some agendas are a bit more nefarious than others, particularly when you get into the realm of politics.
- Look for Evidence. This could be cited explicitly in the article, provided at the bottom of the page, or embedded in hyperlinks. But if the author is stating something as common knowledge, that…well…isn’t common knowledge, approach with caution.
- Fact check, Fact check, Fact check. Below I’ve listed some links to some great sites for this, but while they certainly do try, they can’t cover every piece of information available on the web. Luckily, if you have a question, our Reference Assistance and Instruction department is fantastic asset for questions like these.
- Pay Attention to Images: By now, pretty much everyone should be aware of the magical abilities of Photoshop. However, did you know that Google has a reverse image search that can help trace where else an image has appeared online? Find the original source can perhaps help identify the reliability of the image. Likewise be aware of charts and graphs. They can also be appropriated to distort truth…even when using real data.
- Check the URL. URLs ending in .edu and .gov are inherently trustworthy, but still continue to consider the source to identify possible partisan biases. During my undergrad I was told that .org was more trustworthy than .com. However, while there was a time when getting a .org meant you ran an actual organization, today anyone can get this type of domain. Also, beware of URLs designed to intentionally mislead you by using other organizations’ names. For example, ABC.com.co, is a fake news site mimicking ABC.com.
- Be Aware of Your Own Biases: Part of providing a convincing argument is showing that you’ve thoroughly considered all opposing viewpoints. The only way to do this is to read AND consider opinions from other people’s perspectives. They may not change your point of view at all, but in considering them you are enabled to form a stronger argument in support of your viewpoint.