Quick tips for telling truth from fiction online

Dubbed “The Great Moon Hoax,” in 1835 the New York Sun published a six-part satire that claimed life was discovered on the moon. The articles cited a fictional expert who wrote articles in a scientific journal that had been out of publication for years. None of it was true. But readers loved it and spread it like wildfire, which is a lot slower than misinformation spreads on the internet today, often using the same techniques to go viral.

The internet has put an endless amount of information at our fingertips, but not all of what you find online is reliable or credible. Even for young adults and teens, who have grown up online, determining what information is factual and what is misleading can be a major challenge.  

We now live in a world where “information is coming at us, opposed to us looking for information,” said Annie Zeidman-Karpinski, the Ken and Kenda Singer Science Librarian at the University of Oregon.  “We were given tools for a different era of media. Tools that were more effective when media was simpler.”

So how can you tell if what you’re reading is based on fact? Here are three questions to ask when you read a claim online:

  • Who is behind the information?
  • What is the evidence?
  • What do other sources say?

SIFT provides a simple framework to think about what you can do to investigate some of these fundamental questions,” said Zeidman-Karpinski.

  • Stop.  
  • Investigate the source.  
  • Find better coverage.   
  • Trace the claims, quotes and media back to their original context.  

When we read a story online it is often missing or lacking the overall context. For this reason, you need to “to trace it back to find out if you understand the context correctly,” Zeidman-Karpinski explained.

A complementary technique that can be used with SIFT is lateral reading:

  • Right click on links and open new windows or start new searches to verify the claims in an article.
  • Trace them to the primary source or do further research on the topic.
  • Click the links in an article and read laterally to learn more.

This game from the University of Cambridge uses many of the misinformation strategies in the “Great Moon Hoax” to teach you to:

  • Be cautious and critical of emotionally charged language.
  • Check the credibility of the source.
  • Recognize when you are in a filter bubble or echo chamber.

We can improve our media literacy and more effectively determine who is behind the information, where the evidence comes from and if it is presented in the proper context by using these quick and effective tools.    

Quick tips for telling truth from fiction online 
Who is behind the information?
What is the evidence?
What do other sources say?