Researchers at the Stanford History Education Group did a study and discovered that students aren't great at knowing how to find out if facts are fake. Then they studied trained historians and found out they weren't great at it either - except within their own field. Who was fastest at spotting inaccuracies and misinformation? Fact-checkers. They have developed some shortcuts that are useful for all of us to know. One of the most important is to read laterally - that is, to check some basics by consulting other sources before you spend a lot of time buying into an argument - or spend a few seconds to share something that turns out to be false.
Mike Caulfield, who among other things is the director of the Digital Polarization Institute, has written free textbook on how to check facts. In a nutshell, here are four things you can do and one habit to adopt to become better at distinguishing what is factually true. You may not have to do all four moves - you may find out in the very first step that someone reputable has already determined something is true or false, and then you're done.
- 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: (Caulfield learned this phrase from the Stanford researchers.) 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, 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.
An important habit to add to the four moves: Check your emotions. There is a lot of psychology behind the art of arguing a position, which includes pushing your buttons, and that makes you more likely to immediately adopt or dismiss a fact-based claim As Caulfield puts it:
Savvy activists and advocates take advantage of this flaw of ours, getting past our filters by posting material that goes straight to our hearts. Use your emotions as a reminder. 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. It will do you well.
PS: Notice all the links in this section and the institutions and sources named? That's to make it easier to find the sources used and so make it easier for you, as a reader, to decide whether to believe any of this. This is one of the reasons good news reporters name their sources and why scholars and scientists make it clear how and from what sources they got their information.
News outlets hire professional fact-checkers. They don't always catch mistakes because it would be time-consuming and expensive to check every single fact. But when a fact-checker goes to work, it looks like this:
This example comes from ProPublic Illinois, a non-profit organization that does investigative journalism. Clearly, it's not possible for citizens to do this much work for every fact that they encounter in daily life. But it demonstrates that sources that have a good reputation have earned it by upholding standards. In journalism, this takes the form of careful fact-checking and issuing corrections. In scientific and scholarly writing, it comes in the form of peer review and sometimes replication.
It pays off to get a sense of which sources generally work hard at being as accurate as possible. Trusting their expertise means you don't have to do all that work yourself, especially important when you're trying to learn about a topic that isn't something you already know lots about.