The term ‘fake news’ is so often used today, it’s easy to forget that its direct origins only go back as far as 2016. Perhaps one fortunate – if unintentional – benefit of the expression’s growing popularity is an increasing awareness that not all information on social media or the internet is necessarily reliable. Anyone with a little know-how can pay for a domain and hosting, set up a website, and start blogging without personal responsibility for the veracity of their content; when it comes to social media, the barrier to entry is practically non-existent.
We all know better than to take online stories at face value, but a lot of people have trouble determining whether or not the source of information is reliable. Fact-checking takes effort, and is part of the skill set which academics and researchers have developed over the years Here’s how you can start applying these methods for better quality of online information.
Look for established expertise
One characteristic of a reliable online source is their expertise in the relevant topic. You’ll find dozens of posts offering solid advice on savings and housing loans on a site like Moneywise, which is dedicated to personal financial management; blogs which cover general interest topics can occasionally write about the same content, but it’s less likely to be in-depth, up-to-date, or accurate in every detail. Similarly, when searching for advice on acne, you can get better information from established medical websites with articles written by actual dermatologists, compared to content which has been posted to blogs that are selling skin care products; one is invested in providing medically accurate information, the other is trying to sell something.
Consider the style elements
If you don’t have a background in research or technical paper writing, you might be wondering why scholarly articles have such a formal tone, or are difficult to parse. These articles are published in peer-reviewed journals and must adhere to accepted standards; unfortunately, many people are more likely to read mainstream-accessible content online which has invested less effort into fact-checking and clarity. Look at a source’s citations; while online articles don’t need to have footnotes or a bibliography, in-text links to back up the main points make it easy for readers to verify accuracy. Depending on the author’s relevant background, writing credits can also increase legitimacy.
Dig a little deeper
Perhaps the best practice you can adopt from scholarly research is to always make the extra effort and dig deeper. One source is never enough if you want to be thorough and accurate. Search Google for the website URL of your first source and you can see if other sites are linking to it, which provides an indication of its reliability. For sources which cite books, you can look up the publisher and see what other titles they have released in this field, giving you a better idea of their reputation. Additional online tools allow you to check for plagiarism; if confirmed, this not only casts doubt on the source but lets you trace any misinformation to the root, and do something about it.
The ability to post information online where it can be accessed by an audience millions is both new and constantly evolving, but the practices of scholarly, fundamentally sound research have been established for decades. You can apply these tips to your online research and ensure that you refer to reliable sources while filtering out the fake news and misinformation which keeps on spreading in cyberspace.