Tips and hints to fact-checking information in a reasonable time
In the age of the internet, journalists are a major factor in stopping misinformation and disinformation. That’s why verification of information matters more than it did. Specifically, verification of information is necessary for three reasons. First, the amount of information consumed is growing, and it is important to understand which sources are most reliable and manipulative. Secondly, an error can occur in any part of information processing — from the source of information to its end-user. Thirdly, 90% of messages are an unfiltered stream of information, which is noise, and we need to isolate the signal. Truth cannot be established. This is especially true when it comes to major events and incidents. But you can vaccinate yourself against false information, correctly asking questions, and analyzing accurately gathered information. For example, the Canadian newspaper The Toronto Star analyzed the veracity of 1.3 million words of Donald Trump, spoken and written by him during his first two years of the presidency. They found almost 2,000 false statements (or, more precisely, 68,928 words of untruth). The public deserves to know the truth, especially when information is sensitive and touches your everyday life.
There are various types of fakes, and it’s important to deal with them separately to know the nature them. False information might be part of information noise, partly true, or manipulation. Also, satirical news might delude you, or commercial fakes and propaganda could lead you to promote inaccurate information. Is there a set of constant ways to determine whether a fake story is in front of you or not? The short answer is no, but there are various methods to at least try to find out. The simplest way is to read the text carefully and find out whether each of the facts is placed appropriately. This is very laborious, requires high qualifications, and is not suitable for inexperienced journalists. A group of scientists from Cornell University determined that false information spreads differently from ordinary news, but to notice this, special skills are needed. However, if you see that particular information is spreading too much in an organized way, it is worth issuing a first warning and does another round of fact-checking on it (Zhao et al, 2018).
As noted, messaging apps are the biggest channels of misinformation in Kazakhstan. In 2019, WhatsApp limited the distribution of any messages to no more than five addressees. The decision made the probability that particular news has more than five addressees comparatively small. Besides that, considering that messages can be sent to groups, and those contain no more than 256 people, the audience of one message is limited to about 1,300 users. These decisions helped to lower misinformation but could not stop it. Mikhail Dorofeev, former editor-in-chief at informburo.kz, said in an interview that reporters should pay attention to the quality of a news article. He said that “identifying the quality of articles might be subjective, but at least, it helps to reduce the area of channels where fakes spread.” He also added:
“A Stanford fellow named Frédéric Filloux co-founded deepnews.ai, an aggregator based on the determinant of qualitative texts. Filloux’s scoring model is fully operated on machine learning algorithms. It cannot check facts yet, but the AI algorithms can assess the quality of a text and score it on a scale of 1 to 5. I believe that the creators of fakes on average spend less energy and resources on their “journalism” than real authors. That’s why this model is one of the alternatives for journalists. Unfortunately, it’s not available in other languages than English yet.”
We have to keep in mind that the poor quality does not automatically mean that the text is false. Conversely, well-designed stories can turn out to be nonsense. The following basic professional principles can be helpful to any person who faces misinformation.
- Principle one: Check the website. Make sure you know the site or account on which information is posted. See if this is a real site or just looks like one. Even better, if the note has an author, and you know his reputation. If an “about the project” section is available, immediately find out who funds it. Only in this way can you determine whether the media outlet has a conflict of interest with someone or an organization, which was pitched in the agenda. For example, state media are unlikely to criticize the current government, or the owner of a particular media outlet with different views than the government may do adversary journalism against specific targets (Mikhail Dorofeev of informburo.kz).
- Principle two: Check the sources. It is good if the story has two or three independent sources. This greatly reduces the likelihood of error or giving out rumors for news. If the sources are well-known agencies but you saw the site for the first time, try to find the original article. If the story refers to a post on social media and quotes were taken from there also, it is always better to read the post yourself and make an opinion. Otherwise, quotes might be distorted. Moreover, it’s ethical to find at least three credible sources before publishing the news (Tamara Vaal of Vlast.kz).
- Principle three: Trust only true experts. Find out more about experts who represented various parties of the conflict (Mikhail Dorofeev). Besides, do a background check on each of the sources and their competence. Quoted experts should have relevant experience. If the cultural part of the news is about the nomadic life of earlier Kazakhs, the expert should have expertise on the culture and history of nomadic life, and it is strange when government officials, who were appointed to run government agencies, are quoted instead, which happens very often in Kazakhstan (Zarina Nokrabekova, freelance journalist).
- Principle four: The more labor, the better. The creators of fakes rarely care about quality because their works are short-lived. Therefore, the amount of labor invested is a strong indicator of trustworthiness. The more facts, good sources and experts, illustrations, diagrams, screenshots, and videos in the story, the better. It’s very rarely that well-designed multimedia stories turn out to be fake, and when this happens, the distortions are immediately noticeable: fake story creator does not give two opinions and generally tries to push you to conclusions (Shuddin Saidov of Otyrar TV).
- Principle five: Look for added value. After reading the first lines and understanding the balance of power, look for context, useful additional information, and facts that contradict your picture of the world. Never judge a headline or subtitle about all the news and never spread news without reading it entirely. Try to write your piece as accurately as possible and confirm it with facts (Pavlodar-based journalist).
Emma Frans, a well-known science communicator from Sweden, tells in a TEDtalk that without a clear justification, any information can be false. Scientific work relies on experiments and evidence. This is fundamentally different from a post in social media, where information is usually not supported by anything. Healthy skepticism, the absence of a “blind” belief in obvious and endless questions is the key to avoid becoming a victim of fakes.
To conclude, there is no universal way to avoid fake information. Besides, the development of technology leads to the fact that it has become more and more difficult to distinguish a fake from the truth. You can protect yourself from fakes if you develop critical thinking and the ability to question any information. And the following tips above will be helpful so that you do not become a victim of disinformation.