“Abandoning facts means abandoning freedom.” Timothy Synder, On Tyranny.
Being able to prove or disprove factual information is not the only way we can assess information or evaluate an argument, but facts are a key building-block of knowledge. Given the volume of factual claims we encounter every day in social media, in news stories, in political speeches, in arguments with That Opinionated Uncle, it may seem impossible to tackle the problem. Who has the time?
What people need most when confronted with a claim that appears to be factual but may not be 100 percent true is simple strategies to get closer to the truth. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time and work to take one or two key fact-claims and check them for accuracy.
These four moves (or tactics) can get you started with the fact-checking process. Try them in order.
- Check for previous work: Look around to see if someone else has already fact-checked the claim or provided a synthesis of research on the claim. Fact-checking sites are good sources for this move, particularly if the fact you’re checking has been getting a lot of attention. When you encounter a claim you want to check, your first move might be to see if sites like Politifact, Snopes, or even Wikipedia have researched the claim.
- Go upstream: Most web content is not original. Get to the original source to understand the trustworthiness of the information. This may be the first newspaper article that reported the claim; it may be a published journal article reporting original research or a government document. If the claim is about a research finding, try to find the original article. If the claim is about an event, try to find the original reporting.
- Read laterally: (This useful phrase was popularized by Sam Wineburg and his colleagues at the Stanford History Education Group.) Once you get to the source of a claim, make a quick check to see what other people think about the source (the publication, the author, etc.). Maybe you get lucky and the source is something you already know is reputable, such as the journal Science or the newspaper The New York Times. If so, you can stop there. If not, dig around to see what you can find out about the source. Increasingly Wikipedia includes articles about publications with basic background about them. You can also make a quick check to see how others have addressed the same topic. Is this claim widely believed? Embraced by a particular group? Or is it contradicted by most sources? The truth is in the network.
- Circle back: If you get lost, hit dead ends, or find yourself going down an increasingly confusing rabbit hole, back up and start over knowing what you know now. You’ve learned something about the claim. Now you’re likely to take a more informed path with different search terms and better decisions. And if at any point you fail–if the source you find is not trustworthy, complex questions emerge, or the claim turns out to have multiple sub-claims–then circle back to step one, pick another fact-claim, and start over.
In general, try these moves in sequence. If you find success at any stage, your work might be done.
But How Do I Know What Sources are “Reputable”?
This is a fraught question today. A sizeable percentage of Americans distrust all “mainstream media.” A recently published book, Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts (Oxford, 2018) conducted extensive network analysis of news consumption and social sharing. They concluded our news media have bifurcated. There’s an entire self-referential media ecosystem centered on Fox News and embracing many right-wing and far-right websites that amplify and affirm one another while discrediting all news sources that fall outside their circle as “biased,” “left-wing,” or even “fake.” This is what the authors of the book call a “propaganda feedback loop.” In this media sphere, adherence to a partisan belief system and cultural identity is more important than being factually correct. A claim that is demonstrably false is more acceptable than stating something that challenges the overarching political narrative.
Doesn’t this happen on the left-wing too? There are hyperpartisan sites on the left that traffic in rumors and lies, but the difference is their audiences tend to balance their consumption of those sites with mainstream news organizations that generally attempt to adhere to journalistic norms set out in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. In this sphere, it’s harder to maintain a story or a position based on “facts” that can be disproved or that even seem unlikely. Traditional journalistic processes are valued as much as or more than alignment with a set of political beliefs, and fewer people on the left dismiss the mainstream media’s reporting out of hand.
In this course, healthy skepticism is encouraged, but blanket distrust of mainstream news organizations based only on alleged political bias is not supportable. Part of the job of becoming a savvy information consumer is figuring out what sources of information you can, for the most part, trust to get it right much of the time and strive to correct mistakes.
Some generally-respected news organizations include . . .
- The New York Times
- The Wall Street Journal
- The Los Angeles Times
- The Washington Post
- PBS NewsHour
Sorting News from Opinion
These news organizations publish both news reporting and opinion pieces. Opinion pieces will be deliberately persuasive and often provocative. News reporting strives to be more objective. However, in both cases the publishers strive to avoid promoting obvious falsehoods, though they will accept opinion pieces that readers (and their own editorial board) may vehemently disagree with. When you look at an article, pay attention to who wrote it and why. For more on sorting news from opinion, see Chapter 6.