You might come across hundreds of claims in a single day. Claims can come from a dizzying number of sources – friends and family, co-workers, journalists, politicians, businesses, news organisations and governments.
Claims can also be delivered to us in many ways – for example, via traditional media channels, from people we know on social media, or from family members at the dinner table.
Whenever a person shares information, they become an information source. It’s important to ask critical questions about an information source before we decide that it’s trustworthy.
In this article, we walk you through three key critical questions our professional fact-checkers ask to help decide which claims are credible and which ones are misleading, suspicious, or just plain wrong.
Who made this claim?
We often know the people in our social circle who stick closely to the facts and those prone to re-framing information to support their own beliefs. But when friends and family share information from someone else, things start to get more complicated.
Online, it’s even more difficult because we encounter lots of people and organisations that we don’t have any direct experience with.
To work out who is making a claim, it’s important to first identify if they are a named source or an unknown or anonymous source.
News organisations will always attach their name to the claims they make via news stories, while the journalists that work for them usually do this as well. This is important because it means the news organisation, and often the journalist as well, can be accountable for the claims they publish.
In Australia, if people believe a news story contains factual errors, they can challenge the news organisation, ask them to provide further evidence, or to retract the claim. If they think they’ve got it wrong, they can make a formal complaint.
People are far less likely to make things up if they are named as the source of information because there may be consequences for giving false information.
As a general principle, journalists use named sources in their stories. Again, this means someone can be held accountable for these claims. A named source of information can be asked by others to provide further evidence or more information. Including the name of a source next to the claim means their reputation is on the line along with the journalist’s.
One exception to this rule would be if a journalist needs to protect a source because they could be put at risk if they are named. Even in this case, journalists are still meant to confirm the source’s identity, even if this won’t be published.
News organisations also have internal fact-checking processes. Some news organisations are likely to have more robust systems than others. For example, organisations that are part of the International Fact-Checking Network, such as AAP FactCheck, or the Global Investigative Journalism Network have agreed to a shared set of principles and practices to guide their fact-checking.
But, sometimes, people impersonate trusted sources. That’s why it’s important to not immediately trust a screenshot that appears to come from a trusted source. Screenshots can easily be edited. Instead, go straight to the original source to check the information is really from that source.
Consider this example where a Facebook user posted a photo of a fake letter from the Fijian government-owned energy provider claiming it would shut down power to the entire island before an impending cyclone hit. AAP FactCheck contacted the energy company and quickly confirmed the company had not created the letter. However, the story had already been shared more than 130 times and viewed 16,000 times on social media.
On social media platforms, people sometimes use a false name or a forged identity. This goes against the account integrity policies of most platforms and can be reported. Verified social media pages or accounts confirm the authentic identity of a high-profile creator or brand and may be signified by a tick beside the page or account name. But it’s important to note that verification doesn’t mean the content posted from these accounts is necessarily trustworthy – only that the poster’s identity has been confirmed.
Social media platforms may also have other features to help users to check the integrity of pages or accounts they are viewing. On Facebook, for example, every page has a Page Transparency tool, to help users to determine if the page can be trusted. The tool includes information about the page, such as: previous names, the number of admins and country in which they’re located, as well as any ads the page is running. Ad Library enables people to learn more about the ads they see on Facebook, including who paid for them.
When you encounter an anonymous or unknown source online, it’s important to recognise that, while a claim they are making might be true, without knowing who they are, it’s impossible to know if they have the relevant expertise or experience to make the claim, or if they have something to gain from making the claim. Knowing how people are connected to a claim helps us to decide if their claim could be biased or motivated by self-interest.
After identifying the source of a claim, we need to ask whether the source is reliable. To do this, we can ask questions about their past behaviour. One way to check this is to use a tool to see if the poster’s past content has been archived so you can establish when an account was created and how it has been used in the past. For example, this link takes you to Scott Morrison’s Twitter profile from 2013 when he was Minister for Immigration and Border Protection. You can also search a profile or website to see if the publisher constantly promotes a particular narrative about a topic.
Also consider the affiliations and responsibilities of your source. To whom do they pledge their loyalties? Will the source benefit from the claim politically or financially? Are they serving the interest of their shareholders, a head of state or political party, a social cause or movement, advertisers, employers, parent companies? Are they bound by a code of ethics or charter?
Without transparency about a source’s affiliations and allegiances, we can’t determine if they are likely to be offering a biased perspective.
What’s the evidence to support this claim?
People who promote misinformation are often motivated by financial, political or psychological interests, such as feeling superior or finding a community that shares outsider perspectives. One way they may try to gain interest and attention is to evoke a strong emotional response from people.
If information evokes a strong emotional response from us—fear, outrage, empathy, jealousy, excitement, or disgust, for example— it’s important to take a moment to untangle our emotional response and ask some critical questions about the claims being made.
Sources should always be transparent about how their evidence was produced and how they arrived at the conclusion they did. We need to be skeptical of any sources that promise ‘exclusive’ information or that provide statistics and data without telling us where these came from. If we are left with no way to check if this information is true and no one is willing to be held accountable for the claim, we can’t trust it.
It’s also critical to know who has funded any research which has produced a claim. The source should be transparent about whether the funding body had any say in the design of the research or in the presentation of the findings.
Determining if something is factual means considering the accuracy of the content and the context of a claim. But both of these can change and evolve over time in certain situations.
Something that was true—a policy or proposed policy for example—can be overturned. New evidence can also come to light. If you’re reading or seeing an old or outdated source, the evidence contained in it might not be the most current. Or this old source may be presented to you as though it is new and current, when it is not.
What do trusted sources say about this claim?
Fact-checking services, especially those accredited by the IFCN, provide an excellent database of verified information that can help quickly determine if an online claim is credible.
By paying attention to the source of claims and by asking the same critical questions professional fact-checkers use, we can all play a role in stopping the spread of misinformation.
- Don’t manipulate media to add or remove things that change the meaning or context. This applies to everything from pictures, videos, sounds and words.
- Don’t seek to deceive or mislead people.
- Check the source of any claims made and verify if the source is qualified to make the claim.
- Declare the interests of a source when these could contribute to bias.
- Are transparent about the source and context of any claims. They will provide enough information about the claim and source so you can check these out yourself.
- Use original sources and evidence whenever possible and fact-check when they are using sources from other media.
- Admit when they don’t know something and publish corrections when they make a mistake.
T.J. Thomson is a senior lecturer in visual communication and media at the Queensland University of Technology and a chief investigator at its Digital Media Research Centre.
Tanya Notley is Associate Professor of Digital Media at Western Sydney University and Deputy Chair of the Australian Media Literacy Alliance.
This article was supported by Facebook.