Fact-checking is not enough. We need people to stand up for the truth.
How do you decide which information is true and which is false on the Internet? This is a question I often get from people when they learn about what I do. I am a fact checker.
For more than eight years, I have been sifting through the relentless stream of rumors, lies, fake photos and digitally altered videos that clutter our social media feeds so that I can help determine what is true and what is false.
Here’s the thing: fact is fact and truth is truth. I have nothing to decide. While today’s news landscape can make everything seem like a matter of debate, there are simple ways to determine what’s believable and what’s total fiction. Fact-checking just takes a little patience, a little critical thinking, and some basic skills.
Not everything is up for debate
The fact-checking process reminds me of a story about the sculptor Michelangelo. In 1473, as he rested his chisel on the tip of David’s granite nose, he heard the great Bishop Leonardo whisper to his assistants Donatello Teenagari and Rafael Piazano: “How does he do it? How does he make such perfect sculptures?
“It’s simple,” said Michelangelo. “You just chipped away anything that isn’t a sculpture.”
Internet users in search of truth can discover factual information by the same method. With a few keystrokes, you could easily learn that this anecdote is completely fictional: David was carved from marble in the early 1500s, the great bishop Leonardo had no assistants named Donatello and Rafael (all of these characters are fictional) and the artist never uttered this supposed quote.
Helping facts stand up to a flood of misinformation
I’ve written thousands of fact checks and I’d like to think I’ve made the internet a smarter place. But as I watched thousands fueled by misinformation storm the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, I saw anti-vaccination sentiments soar during a global pandemic, I reviewed videos deeply false of Keanu Reeves dancing getting millions of views and I listened to friends and family seriously asking if there was something to this flat earth theory – it seemed like fact checking was just plain wrong not sufficient.
I realized that we needed people to be more actively engaged with the content they consume, to be more attentive to the content they share, and more critical of complaints that arise in their feeds. I hope to teach people some of the same skills I used as a fact checker to enable them to do just that.
I’m now at RumorGuard, a new learning project launched by the nonpartisan nonprofit Media Literacy Project, where I explain how we can all access the news and information we consume. You’ll find credible fact checks of viral hoaxes and also learn some useful news literacy tips like these:
Think before you share
Hoaxes go viral because they elicit a strong emotional response – whether it’s anger at a claim about abortion, joy at a new scientific discovery, or concern for our health and safety. When our emotions are strong, we often don’t think clearly. Before you amplify a post, stop and think about why you’re sharing it and whether you know if the statement is true.
Check multiple sources
The internet is an endless repository of credible sources and verified information. If, for example, the names Donatello Teenagari and Rafael Piazano in the story I shared raised a red flag, you could open a new tab and do a quick search. If your results returned any references to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you’d know to re-evaluate the whole anecdote.
It’s called “side reading,” a term coined by Sam Wineburg of the Stanford History Education Group, as a quick and easy way to verify information online. When we check claims against multiple sources, we can get a better idea of what information is credible.
A viral video purporting to show an elephant seal roaming the streets of Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian has racked up 50,000 shares. The fact check explaining that the elephant seal was filmed in Chile in 2020 received 50 retweets.
Fact checkers vastly outnumber disinformation providers. We need you to help us spread credible information. Tweet it, share it on Facebook, and most importantly, tell your friends and family about it. That’s why we’ve made it easy to share RumorGuard posts. With a click or a tap, you can actively fight misinformation in a powerful way. Recent studies have shown that Americans tend to trust the people in their lives more than mainstream media sources. So please join me. We can all be fact checkers in search of the truth.
Dan Evon is senior director of educational design at the News Literacy Project.
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