We live in an amazing time where technology puts the combined knowledge of the world at our fingertips, allowing us to instantly learn about any topic we desire. But with the good comes the bad: the internet also allows the proliferation of false information, with social media providing a platform for anyone to do so, whether unknowingly or by malicious intent. This post is meant to provide some basic ground rules for browsing the internet to help you better discern fact from fiction and make you a more objective reader.
I am well aware of the irony of an opinion-based blog calling out the internet’s role in allowing anyone with a keyboard to publish their thoughts. Still, I hope you will apply the rules below to all sites, this one included.
1. Know the difference between news articles and editorial pieces.
News articles are meant to be an objective presentation of facts: a story describing an event that has taken place. This description should be free of emotional language that colors the reader’s interpretation of the article.
Editorial pieces, on the other hand, are meant to present the opinion of the author and often take a hard stance on a topic. Most reputable news websites will mark their editorials as such or even house an entire opinion section.
To further discern opinion from articles in the news media, a good rule of thumb is this: if the piece you are reading contains a headshot of the author, then it is most likely an opinion piece.
2. If a headline ends with a question, answer “no.”
Otherwise known as “Betteridge’s Law of Headlines,” this theory applies to articles with provocative headlines meant to bait a user into clicking them. For example:
“Did this scientist just discover a miracle cure for cancer?” No.
“Has proof of Bigfoot finally been found?” No. A thousand times no.
Save yourself the time and don’t bother clicking these types of links. Articles like these are typically filled with poorly researched material that just barely justify the attention-grabbing headline. How can you tell it’s poorly researched? Because if the headline could be answered definitively with a “yes” then the author would’ve written a definitive title to match.”Cancer Cured!” would certainly grab the reader’s attention.
2a. Avoid clickbait.
Much like headlines that end in a question, clickbait relies on grossly exaggerated or sensationalist claims to get users to click a link. The titles often play on emotions – if a headline is telling you what to feel before you even read the article, then it’s safe to say it’s clickbait. Examples:
“You’ll be shocked at how easy it is to make a million dollars!”
“You won’t believe what astronomers found on Mars!”
There’s a reason why “clickbait” has become a pejorative term: its purpose is to raise advertising revenue through clicks without providing any substantive user content in return. Authors of clickbait take advantage of the fact that outrage sells, regardless of its validity. Don’t give these sites easy money by falling victim to their bombastic links.
3. Beware of confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to favor information that aligns itself with preexisting beliefs while ignoring contradictory information. If you see a story that feeds perfectly into your narrative of the world, stop and look for information that contradicts that worldview. Try to look at the other side objectively, and see if your viewpoints are based on facts rather than anecdotal evidence.
Brian believes murder rates in the United States are at an all time high. Then, Brian hears about a murder in his neighborhood. Brian looks at this crime as proof of his earlier belief, further reinforcing it. He will continue this belief despite the number of murders nationally trending downward over the last few decades.
In this case, a single incident, while devastating, does not disprove statistical trends in the grand scheme of things. Brian may believe the world is an unsafe place but quantifiable facts contradict his belief. The challenge is that Brian must become aware of his own confirmation bias before he can begin to accept those facts.
Confirmation bias plays a huge role in politics as well: liberal minded people will seek out stories that confirm their opinions about conservatives, while conservatives seek out stories that conform to their predetermined notions of liberals. Staying aware of your own cognitive biases will make you less likely to be swayed solely by posts that fit the narrative of your political or social bubble.
Which leads us to:
4. Check the facts.
In a world of “alternative facts,” finding factual sources of information is more important than ever. Before sharing stories with headlines like those mentioned throughout this article, do some research. Figure out if the story has been verified by reputable sources and checked by independent sources.
Two of the best fact checking sites are:
Do you have more suggestions for being a more aware reader? Add them to the comments.