In addition to the moves, there’s a habit to cultivate: Check your emotions.
When you feel strong emotion – happiness, anger, pride, vindication – and that emotion pushes you to assume something is true and share a “fact” with others, stop and think. These are exactly the claims that you must fact-check.
Why? Because you’re already predisposed to analyze things that put you an intellectual frame of mind. But things that make you angry or overjoyed, well… our record as humans is not good when it comes to being influenced by our emotions.
Our normal inclination is to agree with content that we already feel is correct. (Psychologists call this “confirmation bias.” We are inclined to accept things that align with what we already believe and reject or ignore things that don’t.) Moreover, researchers have found that content that causes strong emotions (both positive and negative) spreads the fastest through our social networks. This shouldn’t surprise us; social media platforms are designed to maximize “stickiness.” They do everything they can to keep users engaged, because engagement is profitable. Savvy activists, advocates, and marketers take advantage of platform design and human psychology, getting past our filters by posting material that goes straight to our hearts.
Not only that, but whoever writes a headline is likely trying to catch your attention, and that can distort the meaning of a story. “Clickbait” is designed to provoke an emotion so it can spread. Resist the urge to share something based only on a headline. If you read the story – even if you simply skim it quickly – you will have a better sense of what it’s really about and whether it’s something you want to share. (Incidentally, authors of news stories usually don’t write their own headlines, so don’t blame them if they are ridiculously off base.)
Use your emotions as a checkpoint. Strong emotions should become a trigger for your new fact-checking habit. Every time content you want to share makes you feel rage, laughter, ridicule, or even a heartwarming buzz, spend 30 seconds fact-checking. You might avoid misleading others and embarrassing yourself by passing along something that’s simply not true.
In some cases an emotionally-charged piece of news may be factually true, but more complicated than it appears at first. By learning the context and the complexities through a more nuanced source of information, you can share valuable information without all the emotional baggage. You might even help cool down an over-heated argument.