What can you trust on the Internet?

We present you a simple, but quite versatile algorithm for checking information on the Internet.

How to spot fake news on the Internet and understand which information to trust

Thanks to the Internet, we have access to a potentially infinite amount of information, which can often be difficult to sort out and figure out what’s true and what’s not. We’ve all seen headlines like “Dutch Scientists Prove Coronavirus Doesn’t Exist,” “Unvaccinated People Held in Concentration Camps in Australia,” and “HIV-Infected Needles Placed in Movie Theater Seats.” These are examples of myths spreading on the worldwide web that nowadays we usually call “fake news.”

Many people believe fake news, regardless of age or social status. For example, a middle-aged tech friend of mine was recently foaming at the mouth proving to us that McDonald’s products are unfit for human consumption. He learned this from a TikTok video. In it, a girl said that chef Jamie Oliver had proven in court that the meat in the McDonald’s burgers was “unfit for human consumption.”

Just five minutes into the search showed that the story was quite different. There was no trial, just a TV show in which the chef criticized the entire food industry in the United States. A bit later some journalists linked McDonald’s subsequent recipe change to that. The whole story took place in 2011–2012. Surprisingly, this myth still lives on in both social networks and various local media.

We, of course, laughed and forgot about the dispute. Nevertheless, an important lesson is that information needs to be checked because fake information can be found where you least expect it. We suggest that you look at information based on the following algorithm to figure out where you start unraveling more complex and important stories than the McDonald’s meat fail.

Find the source of the information

The first thing to do is to check where the information came from. There may be several options here. Media outlets, bloggers, messenger channels, and communities on social networks usually have some kind of reputation. It is important to understand that even the most reputable and respected media can publish nonsense. Large outlets such as the BBC, The New York Times and Paris Match have all made mistakes more than once. This stage of verification is mainly necessary to filter out sources marked “definitely not to be trusted.” Such a verdict may be given to humorous news (even serious journalists sometimes believe fake news from the likes of The Onion) and all kinds of strange WhatsApp messages that should be treated with caution.

Find links to primary sources

Any information claiming to be reliable must contain links to original sources. An article or post without links should not be trusted. The next step is to check the links themselves. Everything depends on the specifics of the material. For example, if a text describes some events abroad, it should contain links to local publications in the original language. Otherwise, how did the authors learn about the event? References to official publications or scientific studies are also a good sign of plausibility.

Check particular facts

Any text, video, or audio material has particular facts that can be verified by other sources. Often these are names, dates, geographic locations, some scientific facts, and so on. This data can be verified with a quick Internet search. The search engine companies themselves tell you more about all the features of more complex searches. For example, this material will help you to understand how to properly search for information on Google.

If you find more than two or three inaccuracies, the text is probably not worth trusting. This does not always mean that authors are maliciously trying to mislead you. It is very possible that they, in good faith, simply do not know what they are writing about.

Figure out the source’s agenda

The first three tips involve fact-checking, but beyond that, the tone with which information is presented is important. Even if the authors aren’t spreading outright lies, the right emphasis and carefully chosen facts in an article can distort the picture and influence your opinion. Therefore, it is useful to consider the source’s agenda or bias as it will help you to weigh up the information you receive more objectively.

Pay attention to details

If the basic facts look coherent, pay attention to the details: images, quotations, terms, and frequent use of superlatives. Let’s deal with each point separately:

  • Images can be altered using Photoshop and other editing tools. To see if an image has been altered, try searching for the original image with Google image search or TinEye.
  • Quotes are often taken out of context, a recent example being a quote from the World Economic Forum, “You’ll own nothing. And you’ll be happy.” Even a quick Internet search on the first words usually helps to see the full picture and understand what someone really wanted to say.
  • Authors may use an abundance of “smart” words to confuse the reader, especially in science-related texts. Don’t be lazy — look up the meanings of terms that are key to understanding the material. You don’t have to look up specialized publications to know you’re being lied to — a couple of clicks and Wikipedia are usually sufficient.
  • “This is the most important law in history” or “Before you is the most honest politician” are examples of superlatives. An abundance of them in a text is a red flag. Most likely, authors are trying to convince you of or sell you something.

Track the diversity of cases

When it comes to the texts that refer to some alleged mass phenomenon, such as the news that “after vaccination, people lose the ability to conceive,” it is useful to search all possible sources for this query. It’s best to focus on things like the name or age of a participant or eyewitness, as well as the place and date of the event. If such key details in the stories match repeatedly, it’s likely to be an isolated case, and not the mass phenomenon they are trying to convince you it is. Katharin Tai talked more about how to unravel such cases in her presentation at the Chaos Communication Congress.

Use resources that specialize in information verification

It is, of course, impossible to check every text we see on the Internet. Moreover, it is often unnecessary as professionals have already done this for us. There are media outlets in every country that specialize in debunking myths. Before you go through the above long procedure, you might want to see if it has already been done before you. Here are a couple of well-established English-language media fact checkers:

  • Snopes — to separate fake news from truth, the resource uses a complex rating system that helps you to understand if a story is true, an outright lie, or just an error. Snopes investigates stories from a wide variety of topics: cultural and historical, scientific, and political.
  • PolitiFact, as the name suggests, specializes in political fact checking. PolitiFact mainly deals with the domestic agenda in the US, but also investigates international politics. Like Snopes, PolitiFact uses a rating system and its version has 6 grades of “truth.” Within each topic category, you can see statistics on how much of the stories are true, mostly true, and so on, down to “pants on fire,” i.e. blatant untruths.

It is worth remembering that just like any other media, fact checkers also make mistakes, which is why it is so important to be able to check the information yourself. With a trained eye, you will soon understand where the error in their reasoning lies.

Not all fakes are intentional lies — they often come about due to common mistakes. Anyone can believe fake news — as a rule, neither higher education nor life experience completely protects against that. So be sure to check information, and if not all of it, then at least that which really affects your life.

To broaden your knowledge on fact-checking, see the Verification Handbook, edited by Craig Silverman, a journalist and founder of Regret the Error. In the book, verification experts talk about their strategies and techniques. The book can be downloaded for free directly from the official website in English and several other languages.