People like to take shortcuts. When it comes to the information that people choose to believe and share with others on the Internet, these shortcuts often come in the form of articles that provide a secondary account (not first-hand) of the information in question. Unfortunately, this leaves a lot of room for misinformation, ranging from deliberate deception to naïve misinterpretation. Here are 3 tips to help keep you on the right side of the truth:
1. Read beyond the title
The first step is to simply ask whether anything in the contents of an article supports its larger claim(s).
The success of Internet news articles depends largely on how many people view them, and authors know that a more provocative headline will get more clicks. The information provided in a title is primarily intended to generate interest, often at the cost of accuracy. Oversimplifications, exaggerations, and outright lies are far too common. A surprisingly large number of articles provide no evidence to back up what the title seems to claim.
2. Know the difference between primary and secondary information
Perhaps you are lucky enough to have found an interesting article that actually does provide something to back up its claims. It is important to consider the actual evidence. If you are after the truth, follow the links and find out for yourself.
If you haven’t tried checking sources before, you might be surprised to find how often they are secondary sources (often links to other Internet articles) that do not provide any evidence of their own. In the best-case scenario, they will mention or provide links to other sources. Keep digging.
Finding the primary source is important. If there is a “new study” find the study; if someone said something, see what they actually said.
At both points in the process of checking sources, you might be surprised to find how often the sources do not make the same claims as the more provocative articles that supposedly cite them. Even if you are not an expert, it is usually fairly obvious when this happens.
3. Make the buck stop with you
When you encounter misinformation, your first instinct might be to share your debunking with the world; perhaps express your indignation in the comments section or share your outrage over the bad information with others.
Don’t do it. You influence the ultimate success or failure of news stories. Internet articles generate ad revenue based on how many people view them (and sometimes link to products that the authors are trying to sell you). If you do debunk an article, sharing your outrage and disgust is exactly what the authors want you to do. They still get money for every click, and plenty of free publicity.
This is why I have offered no specific links to examples of misinformation in Internet articles. Doing so would serve only to reward the purveyors of misinformation.
Instead, I will just share one example of my own experience from a few months ago. I came across an article titled: “TED aligns with Monsanto, halting any talks about GMOs, ‘food as medicine’ or natural healing” alleging that a certain large corporation had conspired to censor scientific information. Surprisingly enough, that article provides a link supposedly supporting this claim. I would urge you to follow the link, read it, and ask yourself if it in any way supports the title. Also, the link provides some really good advice on how to spot misinformation. So I would suggest reading it anyway.