Use Your Head

Accurately judging information starts with using the good old noggin'

Use Your Head

False information - whether deliberately or accidentally false - has been causing trouble for much longer than the term "fake news" has been around. A particularly horrific example is the 1475 claim by a Franciscan preacher, Bernardino da Feltre, that a missing child was murdered by the local Jewish community in Trent, Italy. He claimed that they killed the child to drink his blood for Passover, though there was no actual evidence of this (and the preacher’s knowledge of Passover traditions was wildly inaccurate). And yet, the city’s entire Jewish community was arrested and tortured, with fifteen people being found guilty and executed.

Old sleuth-style reporter replaced by sensational news in an 1897 illustration.
Ehrhart, S. D. (Samuel D.), approximately 1862-1937, artist. Library of Congress.

World politics have been shaped by falsehoods, from the spread of anti-semitism aided by Feltre’s 15th century story to the late-19th century Spanish-American War, the fires of which were stoked by unsubstantiated claims, sensationalist propaganda, and outright factual errors" in both The New York World and The New York Journal.

Public opinion is powerful, and it has always been important for individuals to learn how to tell true news from false. The process of sniffing out the false has evolved along with our sources - and on this site you can find the many ways we’re investigating false information now - but some elements have remained the same.

Here are two unchanging methods of sussing out a false story:

Consider who or what benefits from the story: The World and the Journal printed false scoops in competition for readership, and a preacher would most likely have the goal of spreading his own religion foremost in his mind - even the 15th century papacy recognized this, and tried to stop the spread of the blood-drinking Passover story. As Mike Ananny, a media scholar at the University of Southern California, told FiveThirtyEight, false news is often "evidence of a social phenomenon at play — a struggle between [how] different people envision what kind of world that they want."

Lithograph of ruby amphitheater on Moon as described in the New York Sun in 1835
By New York Sun [Wikimedia Commons], Public Domain.

Question whether the story is "too good to be true": An entertaining story sells, so the more juicy or fantastic a story is, the more likely it is that you should read it with a grain of salt. One example is the Great Moon Hoax of 1835: a six-part series in the New York Sun about an astronomer’s discovery of life on the moon. A cautious reader, aware of the possibility of false information, might have questioned whether a telescope was really powerful enough to not only see motion on the surface of the moon, but to identify "small reindeer, mini zebra and the bipedal beaver."

Quotation Attribution Verification



CRAAP is an acronym for Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy and Purpose. Many universities, including Cornell and California State University, use the CRAAP Test to educate students on information literacy. Schools that don’t use the CRAAP test, such as Georgetown, still advise students to go through more or less the same steps to evaluate sources.


Social Media Post/Image/Video Corroboration

We live in an era of unprecedented access to breaking news all over the world. This is mostly great, except when it means that something false becomes widespread knowledge. The content on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and their ilk isn’t vetted by professional fact-checkers, and many users want to share news immediately, while it will still have impact, rather than waiting until they can verify it. The urge to be part of breaking news is so strong that sometimes even journalists fall for false stories, according to the Columbia Journalism Review: The Washington Post falsely reported that Sarah Palin was working for Al-Jazeera, for example, and The San Francisco Business Times aggregated a hoax that Yelp was suing the creators of South Park.

So how can you be an educated consumer of news on social media? The CRAAP test is a great start, but here are a couple other tips from the pros.

Research Like a Journalist

In response to increasing difficulties in parsing breaking news, the BBC has revised their fact-checking process to "become much more forensic in nature," and made it public. Here are some highlights:


Got a lot of followers? Make them useful! Instead of just passing breaking news on, ask them what they think about it. Editor Andy Carvin posted a timeline on Storify illustrating how he did just that to help debunk evidence of Israeli munition being used in Libya. His steps, summed up:


Fact-Checking Services

Reporters with various forms of 'fake news' from an 1894 illustration by Frederick Burr Opper
By Frederick Burr Opper [LOC, Wikipedia], Public Domain.

Does that "news" story posted on facebook or twitter seem to be a little bit too far out in left field? In addition to the many methods of doing your own investigatory work, utilizing the work of fact-checking organizations is another tool that can be added to one’s verifiability toolkit in separating fact from varying degrees of fiction. Using a fact checking site can help you investigate what is and isn’t true for yourself, and can also be used as a quick way to share a vetted set of information when pushing back against another’s false, misleading or disingenuous claim. This section focuses on third-party post hoc (after dissemination) fact-checking services, rather than ante hoc fact-checking, which is completed prior the dissemination of content.

Which Fact-Checking Sites Are Best to Use?
Making choices
By qimono [Pixabay], CC0 Creative Commons.

Although fact-checking organizations began to receive markedly more public attention in the run-up to the 2016 United States presidential elections, some of these post hoc fact-checking sites and organizations have been operating for more than a decade. The Poynter Institute - a non-profit school for journalism in St. Petersburg Florida - launched the International Fact-Checking Network [IFCN] in 2015 to "support fact-checking initiatives: and "promote best practices in the field". In September 2016, the IFCN published the International Fact-Checking Network Fact-Checker’s Code of Principles to promote adherence to high ethical standards among fact-checkers.

The principles - outlined in greater detail on Poynter’s website - are as follows: commitment to transparency of sources, commitment to transparency of funding and organization, commitment to transparency of methodology, and commitment to open and honest corrections. The IFCN has created a logo that verified signatories can display on their site to show users that the fact-checking site is valid and meets the IFCN Code of Principles, stating that "Any other organization that holds the IFCN’s badge on its page and is not listed above is NOT a signatory to the code of principles." It is important that visitors to fact-checking sites can trust that the site is fulfilling its intended purpose, and not guided by bias or financial ties; the existence of the IFCN code of principles serves to bolster the credibility of legitimate fact-checking organizations across the board.

Duke University’s Reporter’s Lab is another centralized location where users can find a database of trustworthy fact-checking organizations. Duke Reporter’s Lab also keeps an updated feed of fact-checking news, which can help users keep abreast of the world of fact-checking and their organizations.

The State of Fact-Checking Organizations Today

Fact-checking services will need to expand beyond their current capabilities to continue meeting the need of information verifiability. An April 2018 article by Cale Guthrie Weissman brings attention to the fact that the verification of information presented by memes and images are not getting the attention they deserve. Snopes does have a fauxtography function on its site, but overall more attention among fact-checking sites has been focused on corroborating the information in textual rather than visual or video images.

Overall, there is trust in fact-checking sites, but some critics ask "who will watch the watchmen"? Organizations like the IFCN should serve as the check on fact-checking organizations, but users should also bring their own critical thinking skills to the table. Unsure about the claims that a fact-checking site is making? Check their sources, do further research on your own, or compare how multiple fact-checking organizations treat the same topic. No one tool will solve all problems, and fact-checking sites are not the only antidote to the spread of false information, but leveraging the research findings of fact checking sites will only make you stronger in being able to verify the truthiness of suspect claims. -SA