2.6 Web Fact-checking

Mike Caulfield and Linda Macdonald

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to

  • Define misinformation and disinformation
  • Identify Caulfield’s Four Moves to find the truth of online information
  • Check for previous work with fact-checking tools
  • Identify the original source of information
  • Use tools for identifying trolls
The web offers endless information and opportunity. It also poses unique challenges. Much of the information you access in your daily work is through social media streams. To deal with the information flow, you need concrete strategies and tactics for tracing claims to sources and for analyzing the nature and reliability of those sources. These skills in evaluation and analysis are especially important in business. As an NBC News piece (April 25, 2019) stated,

Whether it’s faking a letter from a chief executive to alter a corporate strategy, or staging a car crash to imply a faulty vehicle, fake news that generates headlines can–and has–hurt a company’s bottom line, pushing the stock price down and setting off a public relations nightmare that is, in many cases, irreversible.

Tesla, for example, faced one of these public relations nightmares in 2019 when a video appeared to show the self-driving Model S hitting an autonomous robot as it made its way to a consumer electronics show. The film of the car hitting the robot actually shows a rope pulling the robot over in front of it. The NBC article says that experts believe that the disinformation about the vehicle was calculated–designed to negatively affect public confidence and attack Tesla’s brand image.

Other companies have also been targeted by disinformation campaigns. Starbucks was falsely said to be giving free drinks to undocumented immigrants in the United States, and Tim Horton’s was falsely said to be running out of donuts the day after cannabis was legalized in Canada.

Misinformation (incorrect information) and disinformation (deliberately misleading information) can affect a business’ consumer confidence and bottom line. Your ability to identify inaccuracies can help prevent the spread of bad information, help you critically evaluate information as a consumer, and help you address any disinformation in your own organization.

This chapter provides you with a few of the web-based techniques that can get you closer to the truth on the web more quickly.

Four Moves

Michael Caulfield recommends that to move closer to the truth in information, you can do the following:

  • 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, 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. If you find success at any stage, your work might be done. When you encounter a claim you want to check, your first move might be to see if sites like Politifact, Snopes, or even Wikipedia have researched the claim (Check for previous work).

If you can’t find previous work on the claim, start by trying to trace the claim to the source. If the claim is about research, try to find the journal it appeared in. If the claim is about an event, try to 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, 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 and asking whether it is 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).

The rest of this chapter will focus on the first two of Caulfield’s moves, checking for previous work and going upstream to the source. The chapter will also present ways to “spot the troll”.

Use Duckduckgo for the following activities to protect your privacy. This search engine has several advantages listed on its website:

  • Your search history is kept private.
  • The site blocks hidden trackers.
  • The site gives you unbiased results that are not based on your search history.
  • The company says it has a pro-privacy business model.

Check for Previous Work

When fact-checking a particular claim, quote, or article, the simplest thing you can do is to see if someone has already done the work for you. You can use a reputable fact-checking source. You can also check particular sources using the “site” option.

Information from educational institution sites (often ending in .edu) and government websites (ending in .gc.ca; ourcommons.ca; .canada.ca; or parl.ca) may provide verifiable information. Online encyclopedias like The Canadian Encyclopedia can also be used for fact verification as well as reputable scientific organizations and history museums.

A reputable fact-checking site or subject wiki may have done much of the leg work for you by tracing claims to their source, identifying the owners of various sites, and linking to reputable sources for counterclaims. WhatsApp provides a link to the IFCN fact-checking chat bot that can be used to search information that appears on its social media. The bot uses information from organization around the world to verify information. Some of the sites listed below are among the signatories of the IFCN Code of Principles and have committed to non-partisan and accurate information.

The following organizations are generally regarded as reputable fact-checking organizations focused on Canadian news:

The following organizations are generally regarded as reputable fact-checking organizations focused mainly on U.S. national news:

Respected specialty sites cover niche areas such as climate, for example:

Many fact-checking sites can be found outside the U.S. and Canada, including

You can find previous fact-checking by using the “site” option in search engines such as Google and DuckDuckGo to search known and trusted fact-checking sites for a given phrase or keyword. For example, if your housemate finds a post on social media about a free $25 gift card and it sounds too good to be true, you can search a couple known fact-checking sites for the keywords “Tim Hortons free gift card”.

According to its website, Snopes is the oldest and largest online fact-checking site. It’s reputation is upheld by other fact checking sources like FactCheck.org. Let’s use the DuckDuckGo search engine to look for the keywords using the format below and the Snopes site. Note the use of spacing between words and the punctuation. This format narrows your search to a specific site. Click on the link below. The first item listed will take you directly to the relevant Snopes page (Click the x on top right of the pop-up box if you get a message about ad blockers).

Click here to begin :  Tim Hortons free gift card:site:snopes

Select the first item to go to the Snopes page.

The results show that work has already been done in this area. In fact, the first result from Snopes answers our question almost fully. Remember to follow best search engine practice: scan the results and focus on the URLs and the blurbs to find the best result to click in the returned result set.

Exercises: “Site:” function

  1. Use Duckduckgo to find out whether a 1997 Archie comic predicted virtual schooling in 2021. Use the site poynter.org. Check your punctuation, spelling, and spacing if you do not get results.
  2. In your Commerce program, you may be asked to find information from Statistics Canada. Use the “site” function to look for information on the GDP from Statistics Canada (statcan.gc.ca).

Go Upstream to the Source

The second move, after finding previous fact-checking work, is to “go upstream.”  We use this move if previous fact-checking work was insufficient for our needs.

What do we mean by “go upstream”?

Consider this claim on the conservative site the Blaze:

Headline of an online article

Is this claim true?

Of course we can check the credibility of this article by considering the author, the site, and when it was last revised. We’ll do some of that, eventually. But it would be ridiculous to do it on this page. Why? Because like most news pages on the web, this one provides no original information. It’s just a rewrite of an upstream page. We see the indication of that here:

Text from Daily Dot, with sentences highlighted.

All the information here has been collected, fact-checked (we hope!), and written up by the Daily Dot. It’s what we call “reporting on reporting.” There’s no point in evaluating the Blaze’s page.

So what do we do? Our first step is to go upstream. Go to the original story and evaluate it. When you get to the Daily Dot, then you can start asking questions about the site or the source. And it may be that for some of the information in the Daily Dot article you’d want to go a step further back and check their primary sources. But you have to start there, not with Blaze.

Spot the Troll

“Spot the Troll” was created by The Clemson University Media Forensics Hub. The site asks you to determine whether or not the images in the examples are from real people or from an internet troll. An internet troll may be either a  “bot”, a social media account run by a computer, or an individual whose sole purpose is writing posts with upsetting or confrontational content to provoke an emotional response. Although “Spot the Troll” contains American content, trolls have also spread disinformation in Canada, as a study by Ahmed Al-Rawi at Simon Fraser University shows.

Exercise: Spot the Troll

Complete the quiz linked here. Be sure to read the full analysis provided by the site on each answer page. The quiz and readings will require approximately ten minutes.

Conclusion

According to a study published in Science (2018), disinformation is 70% more likely to be retweeted than true information (para. 13). An organization that is the target of this disinformation may suffer financial and reputational loss. This chapter covers just a few of the tools you can use to verify information from the online news organizations, advertisements, or social media. Michael Caulfield’s book can provide you with additional tools for reverse image searching, identifying sponsored content, or searching viral content.

References

Vosoughi, S., Roy, D., & Aral, S. (March 9, 2018). The spread of true and false news online. Science, 359 (6380). https://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6380/1146.full

 

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Building Relationships With Business Communication by Mike Caulfield and Linda Macdonald is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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