Fact Check Like a Librarian

Hello from Day 53 of Being At Home. As I continue to twiddle my thumbs - working virtually, finishing the semester, coaxing growth from my plants and peaceful coexistence from my cats - everything is getting increasingly strange. Last week I saw a bunch of deer and a housecat commune, yesterday I broke up a neighborhood cat fight (or cat party?), and this morning my cat found a tiny snake in the house. It might be an invasion. All I know is, I’m used to interacting with more humans than animals, and this “animals reclaiming space” thing is becoming increasingly bizarre (though not unwelcome).

But there’s one place I can count on to serve up even MORE bizarre items, and that is - you guessed it! - my newsfeed. I probably don’t need to list any of the *interesting* claims lately sprung from social media for you. The dolphins supposedly swimming through newly clean Venice canals was an early one - we all know that was fake now, right? Likewise, new homegrown theories about the origins of the virus, its very existence, and its cures seem to sprout hourly. There is something to be said about solutions emerging through the collision of different perspectives and new ideas, but without a good understanding of, y’know, viruses and epidemiology, it’s pretty difficult to contribute meaningfully to a better understanding of COVID-19. Which isn’t to say many folks out there aren’t trying and publicizing those attempts.

That’s where we (and other trusted news sources) come in! Librarians get lots of training in identifying credible, reliable information. We know about trustworthy sources, signs that a site or piece of information is illegitimate, and - best of all - ways that you can do your own fact checking. 

One of the best breakdowns of the fact checking process I’ve seen comes from Mike Caulfield, a digital information literacy expert at Washington State University. He advises just four steps:

  1. Stop
  2. Investigate the source
  3. Find better coverage
  4. Trace claims, quotes, and media to the original context

You can read more and get (re)acquainted with the basic skills at https://infodemic.blog/ (which he cleverly subtitled “Information hygiene for the Covid-19 infodemic”), but I’ll summarize the ideas behind his steps here.

First, if you have an emotional response to something you see on social media, pause for a moment. So many things are truly happening right now that WILL tug at your heartstrings, but people and bots who create fake news know that posting something shocking or infuriating will garner a lot of attention. Before you share something, Caulfield suggests using thirty seconds to check it out by doing one or two of the following:

Investigate the information’s source. You can do that by clicking on the person or account who made the post and looking for evidence that they know what they’re talking about. Does the poster have a professional affiliation that’s relevant to what they’re sharing? If they don’t, their post isn’t automatically fake news - you’ll just need to dig some more.

You can also check on the source of a post by searching for its author’s news publication on Wikipedia. Your goal here is just to figure out whether Wikipedia’s description of the publication matches up with your expectations. Does Wikipedia describe a reputable, relatively unbiased news source, or a conspiracy theorist? This is a quick way to confirm a source’s reputation.

Maybe the source doesn’t show up on Wikipedia though. Then you can try to find the story somewhere else, by choosing keywords from the post’s title and Googling them. If you see that a number of reputable sources are reporting the same information, that’s a great sign that it’s not fake.

Another important, simple way to check on a post’s veracity is to click through to the original article - usually you can do this by clicking on the headline or image - and checking the date the article was published. And lastly, searching the original article for the actual claims made in the post can show you that the article’s facts were falsely framed - or, the original poster linked to a reputable source, but they didn’t tell you the whole story. Pressing ctrl + f will allow you to quickly search any document for keywords, like “coronavirus.”

Of course, you can also refer to verified fact checking sites like FactCheck.org, the Dispatch, Politico, and the Washington Post Fact Checker. Those sites get into the nitty-gritty details, which, strangely enough, helps me focus on the big picture. But learning Caulfield’s skills means you can act as your own small-time fact checker, and understand something of what goes on behind the scenes at professional fact checking headquarters. Plus, you can impress your friends and family!

And if there’s someone in your life who’s too little to read the news, let alone sleuth out when it’s fake, you’re in luck - Michael Rex’s FACTS VS. OPINIONS VS. ROBOTS is coming soon to the library (in physical form). Determine whether something is a fact… or an opinion… with robots!

-Hazlett Henderson is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.

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