Fake News Combat: Why (and How) We Should All Be Like Professional Fact Checkers

Written by Argumentful

How versed are you in evaluating online information?

While this is an essential skill in the critical thinking tool-set, not many of us can say that we excel at judging whether a piece of information found online can be considered reliable.

“The Internet has democratized access to information but in so doing has opened the floodgates to misinformation, fake news, and rank propaganda masquerading as dispassionate analysis.”

-Sam Wineburg & Sarah McGrew (authors of the study discussed below)

Despite the “singularity” which has produced the arrival of digital natives, it seems that these young people born with the iPads in their hands are no better at evaluating information online than are digital immigrants (those of us who knew a time when digital life was much less ubiquitous). In fact, digital natives seem to be worse. And that’s due to a combination of lack of training and experience.

It turns out that unless you are a professional fact checker, not many of us are able to easily discern the level of reliability of online information. A study run by the Stanford University compared the skills of 10 Ph.D. historians, 10 professional fact checkers and 25 Stanford University undergraduates. They were given six tasks on evaluating websites on social and political issues. There was a time limit on each task. The reason for which the tasks were timed has to do with our online habits: we hardly spend any time on any given website, so whatever seconds or minutes we do spend, these should be considered precious and used as efficiently as possible.

For example, the study participants were asked to compare two articles on bullying on the websites of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Pediatricians. Then they had to rate which source was more reliable and were allowed to use any online resource in making their decision.

If you’re not familiar with these two organizations, you’re not alone. The Academy was established in 1932 and is the largest professional organization of pediatricians in the world, while the College formed in 2002, breaking away from its parent organization due to issues of adoption by same sex couples. Wikipedia reports that the College’s “primary focus is advocating against abortion and the adoption of children by gay or lesbian people. It also advocates conversion therapy.” The aims of these two organizations are completely different and the gap separating them seems very clear looking at these details side by side in the same paragraph; but would you have been able to gather these details had you been involved in such a study?

The results for this task were striking: all the fact checkers concluded that the Academy was more reliable. Only 50% of the  PhD. historians and 20% of the students reached the same conclusion. See below the graphic from the original study:

Percentage of participants in each group selecting the College or the Academy as more reliable
Source: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3048994

What are the key skills that the fact checkers used what are the things you should refrain from or avoid when evaluating online information?

The researchers found that most actions fact checkers were taking, had to do with two important concepts:

Taking bearings– a concept borrowed from navigation:  this means that when faced with unfamiliar terrain, one should first acquire a sense of direction.


Lateral reading– which paradoxically involves almost no reading at all and which refers to a technique of opening several window tabs and searching for information (laterally, moving from one tab to another) on the organization having published the material, before doing any deep dive on the text itself (vertical reading).

In summary, here’s what you should do in order to better evaluate online information:

  • First, take bearings: see what you can find on the organization that published the material- check the About page and do a search on Google to get a sense of what other sites are saying about this organization.
  • Don’t be taken in by the organization’s name and logo or by the site’s appearance. If a site looks professional and  put together it only means that a graphic designer might have worked on it, but these elements do not say anything about the organization’s purpose, integrity or intentions.
  • Go beyond the well-structured layout of the text, it could be just appearance- nice graphic design does not guarantee reliability.
  • Carefully check the About Us section for clues to conflicting interests or third party organizations that might fund the website. If you find an organization sponsoring the website, research that as well- who funds it?
  • If there is nothing disclosed in the About Us section, google the organization and see what results show up. Look for results from credible sources. Check out this list from Forbes. SourceWatch might also be worth checking.
  • When doing a Google search, put the organization’s name in quotes and add the element you are looking for:

“American College of Pediatricians” funding


“American College of Pediatricians” who is behind

This will reduce the number of results and will ensure that these results all contain the terms searched, as well as the fact that these terms will be in exactly the same sequence as typed.

  • The first results of a search on Google are not necessarily the most authoritative.
  • Once you get a list of search results displayed, make a habit of applying “click restraint”: spend at least 20 seconds scanning the search results and reading the snippets before clicking on any link.
  • When a search generates  a lot of information, give priority to reputable press reports.
  • Right clicking and opening in new tab allows you to move easily on the lateral and to quickly scan multiple sources.
  • When using Wikipedia, check Contents first in order to save time being pulled into other details or become tempted to dive into parallel topics.
  • If you find something suspicious, continue the search and corroborate the claims from at least one other reliable source.
  • If there are any references listed on the texts published, make some time to check them- referencing a paper from the Lancet Journal is hardly equivalent to referencing an article from Hello! magazine. Don’t let a long list of references mislead you to apply the label of credibility. If there are no references, well… that’s a major red flag!
  • Don’t let the absence of banner ads on the website make you think that they have some authority or legitimacy.
  • Non-profit sites do not necessarily signify selflessness or social conscience. Check who might be funding the organization.
  • If  a website contains elements specific to the academic world such as abstracts- that doesn’t guarantee reliability or that the writing is in any way per-reviewed or published in an academic journal.
  • Don’t let yourself distracted by interactive activities on the organization’s website instead of dedicating precious time to finding reliable information. This might sounds silly, but many of the students in the above mentioned study fell prey to this “harmless” activity, wasting precious time.
  • Don’t do a deep-dive into primary sources– while these can be valuable when analysing the text, if the goal is to “quickly get up to speed, the close reading of a digital source when one doesn’t know yet if the source can be trusted (or it is what it says it is)- proves to be a colossal waste of time.” (Wineburg & McGrew)
  • Be aware of your own hubris and bias caused by a variety of factors.

I leave you with the words of the study’s authors:

“The immensity of the Internet makes it impossible to be familiar with every entry Google spits out. In this treacherous terrain, the most thoughtful response is to become skeptical of one’s own intelligence. Hubris on the web takes the form of trusting our eyes and brains to examine the look of a page and its content in order to determine reliability. In contrast, taking bearings, practicing lateral reading, and engaging in click restraint remind us that our eyes deceive, and that we, too, can fall prey to professional-looking graphics, strings of academic references, and the allure of .org domains.”

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