Fake News 101: Three Steps to Information Literacy

Fake News 101: Three Steps to Information Literacy

Blog post by Kathleen
Friday, February 17, 2017

Unless you're a person who shuns social media, you've probably been hearing a lot about "fake news" lately. The conversation about what makes up reliable sources of information is one that is long overdue, and interestingly enough, is directly tied to libraries and the foundation behind them: Information Science. Want to learn more about how to distinguish "real" from "fake" news? Read on, and we'll take you through the steps of what we call Information Literacy: 101!

So, what is information anyway? Information can be any accumulation of data, facts, or answers to questions. It can come in many forms, from text, to print, to photo, to video. It can be arranged (or not) and presented in many different ways. There might be finding aids that help you pinpoint what you're looking for. 

And information literacy is the ability to find, evaluate, and effectively use the information you need in your daily life. 

Sounds pretty simple, but information is a tricky thing. In our current world, there's a ton of information - information overload, in fact. So even finding information can be a challenge sometimes. Google is great, but do you really need 4,000,000,000 results, of varying helpfulness and quality? Notsomuch. How do you find the one piece of information you need and make sure it's good stuff? Let's break it down into three steps.

Step 1: Identify the Information you need.

For our purposes, let's just say we're looking for information about the day's news and events as our example. Before you even start, ask yourself "how much information do I personally need on this subject?" Do you need a quick summary of the issue because you're pressed for time? Would you prefer an in-depth analysis of each topic? Are you willing to go out and search for it yourself, or would you prefer it was delivered to you in your social media feed? Once you know the answer to these questions, you can move on to step two. 

Step 2: Find the Information. 

Let's assume you're a busy person, and you prefer to get your news from social media, trusting that your network will alert you to anything you may have an interest in hearing about. Let's face it - there is too much happening every day for anyone to commit to knowing about all of it. It's reasonable that you limit the amount of information you chose to receive in this manner. So let's say you're going to find your information by reading your news feed on Facebook, which has a mix of articles from different sources (news websites, blogs, and links from unknown sources shared by your friends or featured in paid sponsored Facebook posts). 

Step 3: Evaluate the Information.

This is a critical and often-skipped step! How do you evaluate your information? Here is a checklist you can follow to see if the information is something you can trust:

  • Shady Sources
    • What does the website look like where the information is posted? Do you have to close or scroll past dozens of ads to read the content? Most websites have ads of one kind or another, because that's how they pay for the costs associated with putting the information online. But if you see a lot of ads, or popup windows, and they're for products that look shady or not well known, then that may be a signal of less credibility. Legitimate sites don't work with disreputable merchants. If the site has one, check its "About" page to find out more about their methods and mission.
  • If It Sounds Unbelievable, It Probably Is
    • Take a look at some of the other stories on the site. Do they look sensationalized? Is there a lot of focus on things that could not possibly happen? If so, this site may not be a credible source. 
  • Spell Check
    • If you find numerous spelling or grammatical errors, chances are the site doesn't have an editor. That may not sound like a big deal, but besides checking spelling and making sure the story proceeds in a logical order, editors also fact check before something goes live. Not having an editor may not sound the death knell for this site, but it should make you wary. 
  • Tone Check
    • What kind of writing does the article use? Is there a measured tone, or does the author employ bombastic statements? Are the facts laid out in a neutral way, or do you feel like the author is leaning on the scales by making broad overgeneralizations that aren't backed up by facts? Do you feel like the article is trying to persuade you or make you angry, or is it just laying out the facts and letting you make up your own mind? If they're using ALL CAPS anywhere, it's probably a safe bet that they're unreliable.
  • Get Backup
    • Search for the same story on another site that you have already determined is reputable. If you can't find the story, or the facts laid out paint a different picture, you'll know the original story was not a reliable source of information. 
  • Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics
    • Statistics are a popular tool that are used by both real and fake news sites, so let's take a moment to sort those out.
    • Statistics are only as good as the sample, the questions, and the authority of the interpretation. A single poll can be spun in many different ways by different news outlets, and that doesn't necessarily mean the poll was bad - it just means that there's always more than one way to interpet data.
    • What you need to keep a watchful eye out for, though, are polls where the polling agency is shady. You wouldn't trust a poll about the effects of smoking that was conducted by a tobacco company, because there's too much risk of them manipulating the questions, or the sample, or the data itself to be to their benefit.
    • Always look at the source of the poll in question - if it's a company you've heard of before (like Gallup or Pew Research Center) it's probably a legitimate poll. For all the others, you might want to check out their rating on FiveThirtyEight's annual pollster ratings (this site is run by a statistitian, Nate Silver, who does in-depth statistical anaylsis, and is owned by ESPN).

At this point, you probably have a pretty good feel for whether the site is a reliable source of information. You may find it isn't, but if you do, you can always start back at the beginning of this process and take a look at who might be an authority on that information, and figure out a more reliable source for the story.

If you aren't sure where to start looking for reliable news, check out this list of which websites ranked the most trusted in a December 2016 poll by Morning Consult (a media and technology company that supplies polling research and intelligence to many major media outlets).

And there you have it! You're well on your way to becoming a critical consumer of informaton. Congratulations! You're now ready to share what you've learned with your friends and family. Make sure you do them a favor and let them know if you've checked into the credibility of the source for an article you shared - and maybe you'll help educate others along the way!

Remember: the library is here to help you on your quest to inform yourself with the best (and most reliable!) resources possible. We have online subscriptions to many reliable news sources, as well as books and research databases if you ever want to dive in deep to a particular topic.