In Part 2 of this series I call “Pandetiquette,” where I offer my thoughts on how to put the social back in social media (Part 1 here), I want to address the issue of misinformation. When I first thought to write about encouraging civility online several weeks ago, I had a short section on misinformation. Bickering about what is true or not has certainly contributed to bad behavior online. Then my Facebook feed blew up with people sharing a viral video featuring a former researcher who made some shocking claims about the current COVID-19 pandemic. As I watched the video, I wasn’t immediately alarmed, but quickly realized there was more to the story than what was being shared. It was indeed a compelling and well-produced video. It has since been removed from both YouTube and Facebook (for copyright violations and blatant misinformation), but I am sure it is still widely available if you know where to look.
This isn’t the first time a conspiracy-laden video has received widespread attention. But this video was just so influential in such a short amount of time that it was scary. I saw many typically sensible friends sharing it online, wondering aloud if others thought it could be true. I grew increasingly frustrated and felt compelled to respond. Then I found this Forbes article by Tara Haelle which addressed all of my specific concerns about the video in a concise and thoughtful way. So while I no longer feel the need to address the falsities in that particular video, I thought it would be useful to provide general guidance for how to assess the legitimacy of sources on social media more broadly.
There is a fire hose of information online aimed right at our foreheads and without critical evaluation tools we could easily become overwhelmed or deceived.
The ideas discussed below center on the concept of media literacy, which is our ability to assess the accuracy and validity of the media we consume. Media literacy skills are important now more than ever before. There is a fire hose of information online aimed right at our foreheads and without critical evaluation tools we could easily become overwhelmed or deceived. Anyone can post nearly anything online at any time. There are very few restrictions or quality control checks applied to what appears online. To make matters worse, “deepfake” media (photos, videos, and audio recordings that have been manipulated) is becoming more sophisticated and less easily discernible. It is imperative as responsible citizens that we use our critical thinking and analytical skills to evaluate the authenticity of content we consume, especially if we intend to share it with others.
Separate Fact from Fiction
Most people are aware of Snopes, the website made famous for evaluating urban legends and online hoaxes. The site has been around for more than 25 years, and in many ways has become the name-brand-verb of fact-checking sources: “Have you Snopes’d that yet?” Snopes isn’t necessarily infallible. But you can start there because they are often quick to update information about emerging online claims.
Recently I’ve been confronted by a couple of people who refuse to believe Snopes. I’m not precisely sure why, but their protestations usually include some variation of “You know who owns them, right?” It is important to know how a source is funded, but I am more interested in their track record of accuracy and whether they sufficiently cite primary sources (more on this later). Snopes does a good job of “showing their work” and they aren’t often proven wrong. If you still have a concern about that particular site, no problem, there are a number of other fact-checking websites that review assertions made online. Consulting one of these can be a quick and easy way to determine if an online story is true, or at the very least it can let you know if there are any obvious discrepancies.
Do Your Own Research
If questions remain about what you are seeing on fact-checking websites, do your own research. Focus on primary sources. An example of a primary source is a researcher who collects data and publishes the results in an academic journal. If the journal is peer-reviewed, then other researchers have scrutinized the work and deemed it acceptable. The higher the “impact factor” of a scholarly journal, the better it is, generally speaking.
Another example of a primary source might be a person who has experienced something for themselves. This could be an emergency room doctor who works on a particular type of case every day. We often put too much stock in secondary sources, that is, someone reporting the experiences of others or posting the results of research someone else did. They might accurately convey those experiences and results, but they also might not. And the greater distance between the primary and secondary source, the greater the likelihood of misinterpretation. Remember the childhood game “telephone” where you whispered something into someone’s ear, and that person whispered it into another person’s ear, and within a few people the original statement was completely lost? Be skeptical of people who say they “have a friend who knows X” or “a cousin who experienced Y.” When evaluating a particular piece of information, first try to identify the primary source.
Sometimes you’ll find primary sources that disagree with each other. Certainly one doctor’s experience in an emergency room isn’t going to be exactly the same as all others. This is why a sample of a wide range of experiences is necessary to obtain a better picture of what is really happening. In other words, research! Even still there can be studies that return competing findings. In these situations you need to evaluate the quality of the study. In formal science research that might entail looking at the sample size, how the sample was recruited (randomly or by convenience), and how key variables were measured. When it comes to evaluating online sources, find the primary source of the information (a study, a statistic, or a personal anecdote) and ask yourself if you are comfortable with its credibility. Is it consistent with your personal experiences? Does the person have a particular expertise that makes him or her an authority on the topic being discussed? Are the majority of scientists in agreement about the issue? Ask yourself some simple questions about the nature of the source and whether it deserves to be believed.
When it comes to evaluating online sources, find the primary source of the information (a study, a statistic, or a personal anecdote) and ask yourself if you are comfortable with its credibility.
It is also important to distinguish between reporting and editorializing. “Reporting” involves stating the facts as they are known, without additional commentary. “Editorializing,” on the other hand, introduces analysis and opinion into the presentation of facts. There is nothing wrong with this – it can help us better understand context and complicated information. We just need to know it when we see it. A report might state something like: “as of May 13, 2020, more than 82,000 people have died from the coronavirus in the United States” (a good report would provide a citation to the primary source of the data – perhaps the CDC). One editorial might suggest that number is overinflated because hospitals get reimbursed more from the federal government for COVID-19 cases, while another might say that it is underestimated because we aren’t testing enough. Examine the information and the authority of the person that is editorializing and decide what is more believable. What is the history of the accuracy of that person? Has evidence proven they were wrong in the past? If so, how did they respond? What does the person/source have to lose or gain by saying what they are saying?
Sometimes facts change, particularly now when there is a race to be the first to break a story. Long gone are the measured efforts of newsroom editors triple checking information and sources. These days many outlets often post first and ask questions later. The question is how the outlet handles the mistake. Do they publicly acknowledge the error and offer a clear explanation for how it was made and rectified?
Many researchers are now working to quantify the reliability of—and political bias within—certain media sources. This example, created by Ad Fontes Media, is one of my favorites. It provides a very detailed description of the methodology used to categorize articles. If you have a question about a certain source that you don’t know much about, see where it stands on their chart.
Be Mindful of Mind Tricks
Understand that we are all subject to strong, often hidden inclinations to believe certain things over others. These are known as cognitive biases. Psychological research demonstrates, for example, that people are predisposed to believe the first piece of information they see on a particular topic (this is called “anchoring” or “focalism”). This makes it more difficult to change our minds when confronted with new information. We also tend to place more value in sources that align with or reaffirm our pre-existing beliefs. This is known as confirmation (or confirmatory) bias. The consequence is that we often stop searching for evidence once we’ve found what we believe—no, what we know—to be true. Part of a thorough research process is to look not just for evidence that supports your view, but to be aware of contrary evidence. In that way you can be prepared to challenge it based on logical or methodological grounds.
Even a well-meaning social media citizen who actively seeks out additional information on a topic of concern may ultimately succumb to another common cognitive bias: information overload. Our brains can only process so much data, and overwhelming it can result in the effect opposite of what we desired. Namely, we have trouble sifting through it all to settle on a side. If you spend too much time reading Amazon reviews of TVs, for example, you might never click the “Buy Now” button. I have heard thoughtful people default to the old adage “I don’t know what to believe anymore.” And where does that leave us? Take a break and come back to it with a clear head later.
100% Certainty Isn’t the Goal
Could there be a big cover-up or conspiracy? Sure. Maybe Snopes is in on it! That is possible, though not likely. The point is that holding fast to a conspiratorial perspective could result in some serious mental health consequences. “You can’t trust anyone!” At some point we need to take a stand on who and what we believe, based on all available information. What does the preponderance of the evidence show in a particular case? We have to use our judgement and make an informed determination.
When it comes to making a choice about our health, we have to remember that every medication and medical procedure has risks. It is important to evaluate the benefits against the dangers, along with possible complications and consequences of different decisions when it comes to our well-being. When my appendix burst a few years ago, I had to get it surgically removed. Was there a risk associated with this operation? Of course. But the potential for harm was much greater had I not undergone surgery.
At some point we need to take a stand on who and what we believe, based on all available information.
Several years ago, I inquired with my optometrist about LASIK eye surgery. She discussed the benefits and carefully outlined the potential risks. “So the risks are rare,” I inquired? “They’re not rare, when you’re the one in the chair,” she replied poetically. Since this was an elective procedure and my contact lenses have served me well for more than two decades, I decided against LASIK (at least for now). It is unlikely that you have personally experienced a complication from a surgery, or a rare but serious reaction to a vaccine. But you might know someone who knows someone who has, and it may therefore appear on your social media feed, making it seem all that much more likely. If you’ve personally had a distressing experience with a medical procedure, you likely have a strong opinion. It is important that you share this, as a first-hand account of what could happen. That doesn’t mean these outcomes are likely. Lots of people die every day on America’s highways. You probably know someone who has. And yet most of us still use them without much worry.
When it comes to the current situation, one fact is certain: people are dying. As of this writing more than 82,000 Americans have died from complications related to COVID-19, with hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations, and well over a million positive or probable infections. Whether you feel these numbers are precisely accurate or not is irrelevant to the family who has experienced a loss. Calling this a manufactured pandemic or suggesting COVID-19 is somehow less serious than the common flu does not make you or your family members any safer. Please thoughtfully consider the comments you make, and the content you share, online. There is more at stake than your reputation.
Cover image: edenpictures (Flickr)