There are easy steps to making sure you aren’t contributing to the spread of misinformation. Here’s a quick breakdown of sources and how to verify what you are sharing, by basic journalistic standards:
- Primary sources are necessary, and these are just as they sound: The original site of a point of information. An interview, a press release, a briefing, a conference, legal document, wire service release, etc. If you can, try to find more than one primary source that confirms the information.
- Secondary sources report on the primary source, sometimes adding analysis that may lean toward a political position.
- Tertiary sources report on the spin shared by secondary sources as if it’s fact and often don’t even link to the primary source because it can contradict the spin being promoted.
- Opinion pieces are two pronged. If it’s by an expert talking about their expertise as pertains to a situation, it can be considered a primary source. Digging deeper, not all experts are the same. For example, an expert in holistic medicine is not a virologist or epidemiologist and cannot speak with authority on pandemic issues. If an opinion piece is by anyone about anything, if they don’t link to primary sources to back up their claims, then this is not a legitimate source.
Here’s a quick briefer to ask yourself before sharing information, especially as pertains to pandemic or an election:
- Have I vetted the primary sources of the information I’m sharing? If yes, go ahead and post away. If not, it only takes a few minutes to verify a claim.
- Does this post only validate my own view without investigating the information behind it? Do I simply want to agree with this information I’m about to share so I’m choosing to ignore the bigger picture? If so, reconsider posting.
- If you cannot verify primary sources and feel the sentiment is still important or significant, make sure you explain why you decided to post anyway even without confirmation. There are always exceptions, especially in cases of people who are witnessing something that might not have been covered by any broader media yet.
What do *I* know about any of this?
I might be a pop culture writer now, but I’m trained as a journalist and even my biggest entertainment writing gig has rigorous guidelines akin to other fact-based media outlets. For example, I wrote a piece on lesser-known behind-the-scenes stories of Pretty Woman and found an anecdote about Richard Gere having written and played the piano music in that one steamy love scene. However, I could find no primary sources to back up this claim. Richard Gere has never mentioned in it any interviews published online, and none of his co-stars or production staff mentioned it anywhere either. Yet, there are easily a dozen articles online that make this claim as if it’s true. Since we can’t prove it with a primary source, it remains a rumor.
Hearsay is not fact until it’s verified. So, if an entertainment website has this level of editorial standards then nobody has an excuse, unless your point is to spread misinformation.
Just because you agree with something you see online doesn’t make it true. Just because you want something to be true also doesn’t make it true. Critical thinking skills are key.
Another example: Just because I believe in mermaids and fairies since these hybrid monsters help me process grief and trauma does not mean I actually think there are mers and fae out in the real world. At least, until I see some concrete evidence from a primary scientific source, that is.
Humans have an incredible capacity for imagination, and in that intelligent capacity we should also be able to accept information and reality even if we might wish it to be differently.
Confirmation bias happens to everyone, so the trick I personally have used especially since 2015 is I believe nothing until I have access to primary sources that confirm (or don’t) whatever information/news/analysis I’m seeking. It helps to believe in science and that there actually are experts who know what they are talking about. You don’t need a college degree to be able to process information, verify whether it is true based on primary sources, and also change your mind if the evidence suggests your line of thinking might be wrong.
Learning is humbling, yes, because it sucks to realize we don’t know every damn thing and to acknowledge we were wrong based on evidence. But being humbled is an amazing point for personal growth that only makes the world a healthier, more decent, and smarter place.
A quick case study
This “news” report has been making the rounds in conservative circles, accusing Joe Biden of saying Donald Trump needs to “have more intercourse with the world.” It’s a super weird thing he’s supposed to have said, but I’ve only seen Trump supporters sharing it. Let’s use the above steps to verify its veracity.
- RED FLAG: The video clip of Biden itself looks and sounds doctored. This alone isn’t enough to debunk the video, but along with the other red flags is a good place to start.
- RED FLAG: The Biden clip is watermarked Morning Joe which is an MSNBC show, and both of these watermarks are visible. Looking closely you can see that a chyron has been edited over the Morning Joe ticker, featuring the Credlin logo and altered text that reads “Joe Biden confused over coronavirus.” Visibly doctored videos are not a credible source of information.
- RED FLAG: Joe Biden has only appeared on MSNBC twice this year. Once was specifically on Morning Joe addressing the Tara Reade allegations, and he did not discuss COVID19 at all. The second is a brief MSNBC (but not Morning Joe) appearance where he talks about his campaign. I verified Biden’s appearances on MSNBC directly through their website. The clip in the video clearly happened on Morning Joe. So, it appears that someone has has altered Biden’s Morning Joe appearance and further edited to make him seem like he’s making these bizarre claims.
- RED FLAG: If Biden had actually said this odd string of sentences about “intercourse with the world” it would have been covered in every single media outlet online. But a quick Google search reveals that no major media outlet covered it. The only organizations that have covered it appear to be fringe YouTube channels and bloggers, who are not even close to legitimate or primary sources. This, of course, makes sense because the video as shown above never happened.
- Compare this above video to the coverage of Biden saying “you ain’t black” if you don’t vote for him on The Breakfast Club. That did happen, and it was covered in all media outlets online, on the entire political spectrum.
It took me longer to write this case study than it did to verify that the Biden interview as presented in the clip above categorically did not take place. There’s no excuse for not taking five minutes to confirm whether information you are sharing is true or not. If that’s too much work, then for the good of all humanity please stick to only sharing cat memes and TikTok videos. You’re not responsible enough to sit with the adults at the table discussing politics.