Written by Mark Evilsizor
From his column Church Tech
I have a confession. When I am the one doing the grocery shopping, and I find myself stalled in the checkout line after miscalculating which checker has the highest scanning velocity, I peruse the yellow journalism of the gossip papers. With their 100-point font headlines and garish covers they are hard to miss, but still amusingly entertaining.
Over the years I have learned from them the exact date of the Second Coming, what the Pope has in his secret library, and which dead celebrity has been cloned and is planning a comeback. While these stories are interesting, I would not confuse their legitimacy with news reporting in my local newspaper. In other words, I did not sell my home and climb the nearest mountain to await the sound of the trumpet on the Second Coming.
In the physical world it is pretty easy to distinguish between serious reporting like that of the Wall Street Journal or New York Times and the fluff of the tabloids, but in the new era of the Internet we are still learning. I hope this article will help.
Email is a major source of information for most of us. I receive email from friends, organizations, and strangers. When a story is forwarded to me and is portrayed as being a factual account of something significant that has occurred, I evaluate it. If an email promises a windfall contingent upon me providing personal information up front, then I discard it out of hand. If the source of the story is “a friend of a friend” rather than a firsthand account, then my first impression is that I’m reading rumor or gossip. Also, any story with a lot of misspelled words sends up red flags regarding authenticity.
Another source of news is websites. While a grocery store tabloid looks very different from a respected periodical or newspaper, on the Internet no one knows you are a dog, as Peter Steiner illustrated in a popular cartoon. This goes for organizations as well as individuals. A credible looking website is pretty cheap and easy to create.
So how can you tell what is fake and what is the real deal? One way is to look at the other stories on the site. A recent fiction passed along as news purported to come from the Denver Guardian. At the time, the website looked like that of an established major newspaper. But the website featured only one article. The reason behind the setup was to try and attract clicks, by which some organizations make money—sometimes as much as $10,000 to $30,000 a month.
Another thing I look for when considering a new website as a source is the “About Us” page. Is this a journalist driven site? Is it an entertainment or satire site with tongue planted firmly in cheek? Is it a PR tool for an individual or organization? Does it originate content or does it publish information from anyone? I also try to follow the money and see how an organization behind a website is funded. All of this takes time, but it helps me to determine the value of the content.
Lastly, I want to talk about a growing purveyor of content, Facebook. Some FB articles have serious sounding names that appear to be news sources but are really fictions masquerading as news to make money, to have fun, or to influence people. From September through November 2016, people interacted with more fake news than real news on Facebook. Bored teens in Macedonia were the source of some of these articles, and they should not be taken seriously.
So how can a person know what is credible on Social Media? When I read something that is inflammatory, a little too coincidental, or that too perfectly reinforces my own beliefs, I do a little research before liking it or passing it along to friends. You can also check to see what other news organizations are saying about a topic.
It is good to be aware of the editorial voice of a particular news source, but even those sources with which you disagree may be able to help you discern if information you’re receiving is fact or fiction. It’s never a bad idea to check another source. Stories with citations are a good sign that the article you are reading is credible. Additionally, Wikipedia and Snopes are useful when it comes to investigating the credibility of stories that glide so easily around the Internet.
It has been said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, so before publicly approving or sharing any astonishing article—which may be impossible to retrieve—do a bit of investigating to see what credible sources say about the topic.
The Internet is a useful tool filled with valuable information. But, like any tool, it can be used improperly, and there are a lot of people online who want to deceive or take advantage of others. A bit of caution—and perhaps a touch of distrust—may save you from embarrassment (or worse).
Mark Evilsizor has worked in Information Technology for more than 20 years. He currently serves as head of IT for the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City, Mo. Views and opinions expressed are strictly his own.