Gathering accurate information from the internet is risky business. Students have a particularly hard time critically reading web-based content. Fortunately, there is an excellent online primer on how to search, prove, and cross-check internet sources. I recommend this resource not only to students, but to anyone who writes using online sources. Before speaking about this book, and showing a few examples of its content, let’s consider what “fact” means in a political age that has been described by some to be “post-truth” or “post-factual” 1
The etymology of the word “fact” is an interesting example of how language evolves, and perhaps itself a timely classroom discussion.
One of the more consistent meanings of “fact”, one most likely in modern useage, according to the online Oxford English Dictionary, is
A thing that has really occurred or is actually the case; a thing certainly known to be a real occurrence or to represent the truth. Hence: a particular truth known by actual observation or authentic testimony, as opposed to an inference, a conjecture, or a fiction; a datum of experience, as distinguished from the conclusions that may be based on it. 2
In earlier usage, “fact” stuck closer to its Latin ancestor, factum, meaning deed or action, something that a person has done. (Factum also gave rise to the English “feat.”) The “fact” as human event could be noble, exemplary, evil or criminal. The latter meaning lives on in the legal phrase “after the fact.”
While “fact” retains the meaning of something that occurred, recently news sources have questioned ownership, accuracy and existence of fact. When it comes to “conclusions that may be based on [fact]” there seems to be no limit to conflicting interpretations. Sometimes these warring conclusions make people commit facts. Their deeds may be noble or criminal, or something in between.
Even experienced researchers can find it difficult to sort through the fury and magnitude of contradictions available on the internet. Some of the “facts” — or their interpretations– propagated through social media get even careful readers so riled, objective thinking is momentarily overruled by the enticement of the retweet button.
But, I have good news: there is a valuable tool for avoiding such messy situations by applying disciplined research techniques:
Author Michael Arthur Caulfield has released an excellent resource for student (or even more practiced) researchers called Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers.
The book is free, issued under a creative commons license, and released in various formats, including PressBooks (a WordPress platform for open publication of books), and in common file formats for e-readers.
Among the topics covered in the book are
- Fact-checking, and tracing the sources of viral content
- Avoiding confirmation of bias using special search syntax
- Going “upstream” to find the original source of a story
- Understanding sponsored, paid and syndicated content
- Reading laterally to find if content is confirmed on other sites
- Identifying the age and accuracy of news sites and copycat sites
- Finding out who owns a domain
- How to do reverse searches on images
- Finding out the impact factor of an online journal
- Identifying the identity of Twitter users, and recognizing spoofed tweets
- Tracking down quotes
- Finding older print sources — and the dangers of OCR in digital copies
- Using the Internet Archive (WayBack Machine) to check for page changes
I found three examples from the book particularly enlightening. I’ll discuss them briefly below.
The case of the viral shopping carts
One example from Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers of viral content gone wrong is this amusing photo:
The photo being both entertaining and relatable (what new car owner hasn’t at least considered hogging two spots, but has been also outraged at seeing it done by someone else?), the photo was picked up by many news sources, and reposted virally on other social media platforms.
- A YouTube video claimed the car was seen outside a Wamart in Portland Oregon.
- A CBS news affiliate featured the story, which was subsequently featured on other network affiliates.
- The story re-appeared hundreds of thousands of times, repeating the original CBS information.
Caulfield illustrates how he traced the image back to its original post using “upstream” research — finding the Facebook account of a man named Matthew Mills, who lives in Old Orchard Beach, Maine.
Matthew Mills took this picture at a Walmart in Biddeford, Maine, which is close to Portland. Mills did not arrange the shopping carts himself, he simply took and posted the picture on Facebook. A local news station, WMTW News 8, (an ABC affiliate) in Maine featured it as a human-interest piece on the evening news. A larger station, WGME 13 in Portland, Maine, (a CBS affiliate) picked up the story, omitting reference to the original source (a competing news outlet), and to the author of the image. From there, the picture assumed the quality of a “whisper-down-the-alley” game, where facts were distorted, and the only thing that stayed consistent was the fact that the photo was taken in a Walmart parking lot.
While the details of the parking incident being either in Portland, Oregon or somewhere near Portland, Maine, doesn’t make the image any less entertaining, current reporting of more worldly events make applying the tools demonstrated in Caulfield’s book profoundly useful for careful research.
The 54th district of Oz
Here is a particularly disturbing example of fakery:
So this post is both inflammatory, and unlikely to be supported by fact. Caulfield notices several troublesome statements in the author profile for the tweet. The book attributed to Kimble seem bogus, and easily mistaken for a real title, Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy. E pluribus unum is mistranslated. It is not obvious that the post about military spending is meant to be either humor or parody, it simply states an unsubstantiated claim as fact.
The most disturbing part of this? California only has 53 congressional districts. @RepJack represents a fictional 54th.
So, this Twitter account is likely one run by someone interested in internet trolling. Other posts from the account are usually politically charged, and not verifiable.
How to be yourself on social media: how to be a Greek god
Similarly, consider these images:
The mystery of the (maybe) deleted tweet
Ill-considered tweets are often later deleted by their authors, and a screenshot of the tweet is sometimes the only way to prove that an embarrassing tweet existed.
Fake screenshots are easily created at a number of sites. They were never tweets or Facebook posts — they are simply user-generated images in which the creator uploads all content, including profile picture, account name, twitter/Facebook handle, and message, including fake statistics, date and time. The resulting picture looks exactly like a real screenshot of a deleted post.
While the online version of book is not without a few flaws — for instance, the potentially useful chapter on “Using the Facebook Live Map to Find Breaking Coverage” consists of the words “If there is break” 3 and the Appendices are empty. These are minor complaints when compared to the remaining chapters of this rich and well-documented survival guide to a “post-factual” internet. The techniques and tools shown in the book can benefit researchers of all levels of expertise.
Consider including a reference to this book on your syllabus. Students may learn more about separating fact from fluff than you may ever have hoped.
- “Post-truth was named the 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/11/16/post-truth-named-2016-word-of-the-year-by-oxford-dictionaries/
- OED, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/67478?rskey=Kfqkot&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid, Definition 8.a., cited August 28, 2017.
- You can easily find how to use Facebook Livemap to show hot spots of breaking news and social media activity by a simple web search — Facebook has a page explaining the map. The live map shows the scale and global reach of the chatter surrounding the event.