Be a Savvy Internet Consumer of News and More – Evaluate Your Sources!

truth“Truth will ultimately prevail where there is pains taken to bring it to light.”  George Washington

 In a year when the Oxford English Dictionary has selected “post-truth” as the word of the year, we librarians have a lot of work to do and we need your help.

One of the major reasons I made the decision to become a librarian in 1999 was I saw the explosion of the Internet as a source of information.  Sure I loved books (although I wasn’t a prolific reader as a child – I was the teen that read the Cliff Notes in high school for things I just couldn’t get into) but I saw the Internet as new and different and somewhat instinctually knew it could simultaneously be a wonderful way to spread valid news and information as well as used to spread rumor, lies and vitriol.

In 2003 I started teaching people how to evaluate websites.  In those days I spent a lot of time teaching people how to find valid information about medical issues and topics, specifically how to avoid online “miracle cures,” as well as researching consumer topics to make wise purchasing decisions (my former career was with the Better Business Bureau).  I did discuss finding news online, but have no recollection about having to help people evaluate web sources for news.  I do remember after 9/11 talking about how online news had changed from websites that were updated daily (like newspapers) to being constantly updated throughout the day.  In the course of a one hour class, I would show the boston.com home page and 90% of the time, it would look different at the end of the class than it did at the beginning of the class.

The lessons I taught in the past about evaluating websites may have been simpler and for different topics, but the methods are still valid.  My lesson plan asked people to consider the authority of the author of the page, consider the source (was it a commercial, nonprofit, educational or other type of site), is it comparable to other sources, is it dated/current, is it biased or incomplete?

A recent study (2015-2016) from the Stanford Graduate School of Education that evaluated students’ ability to assess information sources described the results as “dismaying,” “bleak” and “[a] threat to democracy.”   It may have taken decades to get as bad as it has become, but here we are.

So, what can we do about it?  How can we all do our part to not exacerbate the situation?

In the changed Internet world the following additional or expanded steps should be considered.  To avoid sharing false or misleading information consider taking these additional steps outlined by  factcheck.org,  in their November 18, 2016 article, “How to Spot Fake News” by Lori Robertson & Eugene Kiely, summarized below:

  • Consider the source – abcnews.com.co is a fake news site that is not ABC News. The .co after the .com indicates the site is from Columbia.
  • Read beyond the headline – if the headline is shocking read further before sharing.
  • Check the author – google the author’s name, does he/she have an authority on the topic of which he/she is writing?
  • What’s the support – bogus stories often site official or official sounding sources. Google those sources directly to verify the claim.
  • Check the date – Some false stories aren’t completely fake, but distortions of real events, that are twisted to relate to current events.
  • Is it a joke? – Remember there are parody and satire sites!
  • Check for bias – what other stories have been posted to the site that is the source of the story?
  • Consult the experts – Debunking takes time, but there are reliable fact checking sources, use them: org, snopes.com, Washington Post Fact Checker and PolitiFact.com.  Most of the time one of these sources has evaluated a viral claim.

Even more disconcerting is the fact that the people create truly “Fake News” sites.  And beyond that they are making money every time you click and share their made up stories.   NPR News tracked down one of these people, Jestin Coler, listed online as the founder and CEO of a company called Disinfomedia.  In its November 23, 2016 article Coler states:  “The whole idea from the start was to build a site that could kind of infiltrate the echo chambers …  publish blatantly or fictional stories and then be able to publicly denounce those stories and point out the fact that they were fiction.”

Coler was amazed at how quickly fake news could spread and how easily people believe it. He wrote one fake story for NationalReport.net about how customers in Colorado marijuana shops were using food stamps to buy pot.   “What that turned into was a state representative in the House in Colorado proposing actual legislation to prevent people from using their food stamps to buy marijuana based on something that had just never happened,” Coler said.

The Washington Post found that 6 out of 10 people are sharing stories that they have not read beyond the headline.  In fact, according to a new study  quoted in that article, computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute, 59 percent of links shared on social media have never actually been clicked.  In other words, most people appear to share news and other stories without ever reading them.

“People are more willing to share an article than read it,” The Washington Post study co-author Arnaud Legout said in a statement. “This is typical of modern information consumption. People form an opinion based on a summary, or a summary of summaries, without making the effort to go deeper.”

In the past, if you read a false story you might have told a few people about it.  With social media, one share can reach hundreds, if not thousands, of people.  And if it goes viral, millions will see it within hours.  So… let’s all take the time to be better news and information consumers, and more importantly, think twice about the stories we choose to share.  When in doubt, don’t share!  Who is with me?

Let us honor George Washington’s wish that truth prevail by taking the pains to bring it into the light.

Bernadette Rivard is the Director of the Bellingham Public Library, a position she has held for the past 8 plus years.  She has held a variety of positions in public and academic libraries and has been teaching evaluation of Internet resources since 2003.  If you wish to learn more about evaluating web sources, email the library or sign up for a “Book a Librarian” Session – see the library calendar for details on dates and times.

Sources cited:
Domonske, Camila. “Students Have ‘Dismaying’ Inability To Tell Fake News From Real, Study Finds.” NPR. NPR, 23 Nov. 2016. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.
Robertson, Lori, and Eugene Kiely. “How to Spot Fake News.” FactCheckorg. Factcheck.org, 18 Nov. 2016. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.
Sydell, Laura. “We Tracked Down A Fake-News Creator In The Suburbs. Here’s What We Learned.” NPR. NPR, 23 Nov. 2016. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.
Dewey, Caitlin. “6 in 10 of You Will Share This Link without Reading It, a New, Depressing Study Says.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 16 June 2016. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.

Photo credit:  https://pixabay.com/en/truth-newspaper-news-printed-text-166853/

 

Contact:

Name of Media Contact:        Bernadette Rivard,
Title of Media Contact:          Library Director
Company Name                      Bellingham Public Library
Contact Phone Number          508-657-2776
Contact E-mail                        brivard@bellinghamma.org
Website URL                          www.bellinghamlibrary.org

Comments

  1. Rhea Lesage says:

    Thanks, Bernadette, for a great article! This reminds us all to “CBS”: Check Before you Share!

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