In our world of Google, Yahoo, and Bing where information can be accessed in mere seconds with a quick click of the mouse and tap of the keyboard, it blows my mind how many people refuse to fact check. This last election left me in the precarious position of repeatedly defending Barack Obama and the Liberal agenda. Obviously, if you’ve read anything I’ve ever written I am no fan of either. But one thing I’ve always been stuck on is being fair (in fact, my soccer teams hated me because I’d admit it was me, not the other team who kicked the ball out of bounds). So, when overzealous conservatives made outlandish accusations, I took to my awesome search engine skills to prove or disprove their claims. Now as much as I wish I had found information to lead a fiery impeachment of the President (not to say I didn’t… Benghazi is still an outrage that he should answer for and/or lose his job), most of the time the facts didn’t pan out.
This is a huge problem because it undermines the credibility of anyone who shared the false information. Not only that, it can damage the credibility of the movement with whom they are associated. Case-in-point, I believe a major factor in Mitt Romney failing to win the election stemmed from moderates being turned-off by the paranoid rhetoric of zealous conservatives. People who are reasonable don’t want to be associated with people who seem crazy. When you see the Right throwing around all sorts of crazy accusations (like the Birthers) without any real solid evidence, it makes all Conservatives look bad.
Imagine if you will you’re a moderate. You’re in the middle, on the fence, and not sure for whom you should cast your vote. You decide to do some investigating. You want to see what each side has to offer and what they believe. Along comes an email or a link to a conservative blog or news site. Within seconds you find a comment or news article detailing some horrible conspiracy about how the Liberals are trying to destroy America with their secret government armies. Of course, to a reasonable person most of these outlandish claims seem like just that: outlandish. A quick Internet search discovered a page that exhaustively debunks the crazy theory with a list of credible sources. The presenter of that paranoid theory not only undermined their credibility, but just help convince that reasonable, middle-of-the-road person that they should steer clear of the people with tinfoil hats.
Hoaxes And How To Spot Them
Apart from actually fact checking a source, there are some major signs that should put up some red flags about the credibility of a story (whether it be by email, Facebook, or blog). There are many websites that give some lengthy explanations which I’ll link at the end of this section, but for now I’ll give a brief overview of the major signs a story is fake. Of course, these signs aren’t 100% accurate, but if you find them they are a telltale sign you should go on a fact finding mission.
- Something terrible is going on that’s not being followed by major news networks—especially, those that would benefit from sharing such juicy information (like FoxNews telling us President Obama is instituting martial law, or, MSNBC telling us President Bush is starting a new world order).
- They quote legitimate sources but do not include any information to follow up on said sources. If you can’t see the original for yourself something funny is going on. Examples include:
- No link to article
- No article title
- No article date
- No article author
- Far reaching claims of improbable events. If it’s too good to be true it probably is.
- Associates the “facts” in the article with history or real facts. This is done so that you’ll transfer your justified bias against a certain event and apply it to their fictional work. They are hoping you’ll be so charged up that you’ll ignore obvious discrepancies.
- The person or source you receive this story from isn’t a known or credible author (and claims that’s why they are credible).
Spotting a Hoax Resources
- Consumer Reports – Don’t Pass it On
- About.com – How To Spot an Email Hoax
- Plastics Myth Busters – Learn To Spot a Spoof
Fact Checking 101
The easiest route is to pop the title of the questionable article/email into your favorite search engine (Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc.) and add the word “hoax” or a question mark (“?”). But thankfully for us, there are some websites that are dedicated to the neutral and rational evaluation of outlandish stories. Before I offer you another list of links though let’s address what makes a good debunking website good.
If you’ve ever done a research paper you’ll know what these are. A source is anything that allows an outside person (in this case, you) to find the information and interpret it for themselves. This is why #2 in my list of how to spot a possible hoax is so important. If you can’t independently verify the information you’re just going off the word of someone else. In the business of fact checking we don’t want to violate the very criteria for which we decide something is a hoax in the first place.
A site that has a reputation for being a reliable fact checker is yet another source of credibility. Of course, finding the reputation of a website might be difficult if you’ve never heard of it before. When in doubt, search. Copy the website name and do another Internet search with “credible?” or “good?” and see what others are saying about it. Of course, take opinions with a grain of salt, especially if they seem to be the victim of a debunking (i.e., they are bias.)
Which is a nice segway into our next criteria: bias. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘bias’ as:
a : bent, tendency
b : an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially : a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment : prejudice
c : an instance of such prejudice
A website directly associated with the source or would benefit from the debunking or verification of a fact is considered to be bias. For example, the National Rifle Association (NRA) would not be considered an unbiased source for the dangers of gun ownership. Equally so, Planned Parenthood would not be an unbiased source in regards to safety (or lack thereof) of abortion. Of course, in a situation where an entity would benefit from such scandalous information yet actually stands up in defense of an opponent is actually a significant resource. For example, in this FEMA Corps hoax the NRA stands up in defense of the Obama administration. The NRA’s disdain for the Democratic party’s stance on gun control is no secret. Yet, for them to stand up and say “This accusation against the President is meritless” is a pretty good sign it is.
The Fact Checkers of Today
So now that we’ve gone over just about everything I can think of at 5am in the morning about fact checking, time for some links to some of the most reputable fact checkers on the Internet.
In today’s world of easy access information there is no reason not to fact check. By taking a few seconds of your time to check the facts you’re helping stop panic, damaging rumors, and lies (which might make you a false witness?). On top of all of those good things, you’re also saving your reputation. You don’t want to be known as an unreliable source. Not to mention, it could be pretty embarrassing should you or a friend base a debate on bad information. So do it. Copy, paste, search.
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Have another good fact checking website I missed? More suggestions to avoid hoaxes? Please comment below!
Have a friend who is constantly forwarding garbage? Maybe a person on a message board who posts every crazy story? Share this article with them and stop the rumor weed!