We live in the information age. Information is everywhere. In fact, information overload is cited as a problem in which we are bombarded with so much information that we sometimes feel paralyzed and can’t make decisions. The person who is information literate, however, combats information overload by understanding what their information needs are, where to get useful information, and how to evaluate the reliability and validity of that information.
There are many sources for getting information. There are blogs, books, documentaries, scholarly articles, magazines, TV shows, social media platforms, and so on. Much of the information we encounter comes to us through online sources. Mike Caulfield, in Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers. identifies four moves and a habit that we should use when we encounter information on the web.
What people need most when confronted with a claim which may not be 100% true is things they can do to get closer to the truth. They need something Caulfield decided to call “moves.”
Moves accomplish intermediate goals in the fact-checking process. They are associated with specific tactics. Here are the moves:
- Check for previous work: Look around to see if someone else has already fact-checked the claim or provided a synthesis of research.
- Go upstream to the source: Go “upstream” to the source of the claim. Most web content is not original. Get to the original source to understand the trustworthiness of the information.
- Read laterally: Read laterally. Once you get to the source of a claim, read what other people say about the source (publication, author, etc.). The truth is in the network.
- Circle back: If you get lost, or hit dead ends, or find yourself going down an increasingly confusing rabbit hole, back up and start over knowing what you know now. You’re likely to take a more informed path with different search terms and better decisions.
In general, you can try these moves in sequence, and at each stage if you find success your work might be done.
When you first see a claim you want to check, your first move might be to look to see if sites like Politifact, or Snopes, or even Wikipedia have researched the claim. (Check for previous work).
If you can’t find previous work on the claim, the real work begins. It starts by trying to trace the claim to the source. If the claim is about research, can you find the journal it appeared in? If the claim is about an event, can you find the news publication in which it was originally reported? (Go upstream).
Maybe you get lucky, and the source is something known to be reputable — some recognizable source such as the journal Science, or the newspaper The New York Times. Again, if so, you can stop there. If not, you’re going to need to read laterally, finding out more about this source you’ve ended up at. Is it trustworthy? (Read laterally).
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 you circle back, and start a new process. Rewrite the claim. Try a new search of fact-checking sites, or find an alternate source. (Circle back).
In addition to the strategies, Caulfield introduces one more word of advice: Check your emotions.
This isn’t quite a strategy (like “go upstream”) or a tactic (like using date filters to find the origin of a fact). For lack of a better word, he calls this a “habit.”
The habit is simple. When you feel strong emotion — happiness, anger, pride, vindication — and that emotion pushes you to share a “fact” with others, STOP. Above all, it’s these things that you must fact-check. This comic from The Oatmeal explains why we feel strong emotions when we encounter certain kinds of information.
Why? Because you’re already likely to check things you know are important to get right, and you’re 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 are not good with these things.
Our normal inclination is to ignore verification needs when we strongly react to content, and researchers have found that content that causes strong emotions (both positive and negative) spreads the fastest through our social networks. Savvy activists and advocates utilize this flaw of ours, getting past our filters by posting material that goes straight to our heart.
Building new habits requires that we identify “pegs” on which to hang those habits. So use your emotions as a reminder — as a trigger for your fact-checking habit. If every time content you want to share makes you feel rage, or laughter, or ridicule, or, sorry to say, a heartwarming buzz — spend 30 seconds fact-checking you’ll do pretty well.