Discerning Fact from Fiction on the Internet: An Everyday Person’s Guide to Fact-Checking

Discerning Fact from Fiction on the Internet: An Everyday Person’s Guide to Fact-Checking October 15, 2016

Guys, can I chat honestly with you, just between us friends? I am getting so, so, so tired of obvious blatant misinformation flying across the internet. I am getting especially fed up with it coming from Christians. After all, one of the 10 Commandments tells us, “Do not bear false witness.” When Christians spread false gossip around the internet, we live like people of the lie instead of people of truth. We damage the reputation of others, which, in our social media-oriented world, can become a kind of death.

Yes, there is lots of corruption and sin and ugliness in this world, but when we share false stories on the internet, we make it much less likely that people will believe us the next time we make a stink about some important issue that is actually real. We become the boy that cried wolf who nobody believes when a real threat exists.

Sometimes I wonder what causes people to spread what seem to me like obvious lies, when the truth is available so quickly and easily in most cases. There are plenty of things we don’t know, but most of the time, happily, we can find out the truth regarding internet meme or rumor before we share it–or we can at least find out if it has any credible basis in fact.

Now, I think we’ve all had those moments when confirmation bias clouded our thinking and we shared something false. Oh, that cringeworthy moment when somebody directed us to Snopes! But those moments can really help us, if we let them. It’s embarrassing to be gullible in public, but it can also teach us to be a heck of a lot more careful what we share, especially when it supports our pet theories and preexisting suspicions. Especially when the meme or rumor is super convenient for our argument.

There are some folks out there who are honestly good hearted and don’t understand how some really terrible people twist the truth for their own agenda. They might innocently, without any genuine malice, share memes and rumors, not understanding how they are being manipulated. They might even have no idea how to fact check one of these Facebook shares or who to trust. I have friends who come to me sometimes, trying to sort out whether something they saw on the internet is true or false. Usually within fifteen minutes to an hour, I am able to figure out what is going on and whether there is any truth to the rumor, as well as whether the truth of the rumor even matters or not (if it is true, which it rarely is). Since this experience with my friends tells me that there is a need for people to better understand how to fact-check these online stories, I want to briefly share a process I use in the hopes that it can help all of us–and especially Christians–be people of the truth more.

And yes, we are all going to fail at this sometimes. Let me share one of my failures with you. There is a local political group, which shall remain nameless, that has a very aggressive attitude toward Republican politics. I do not appreciate this or the frequent untruths that are spoken or the ways this group has infiltrated the Christian communities in my area. I was doing some internet research on this group and came across a Facebook group that had a very similar name and that I totally confused as being the same group. It all got tangled in my head.

This Facebook group had some crude names regarding goats that it used for Muslims. I was absolutely horrified and in a righteous outrage. I took to Facebook to condemn this slur–by Christians, no less! I complained to a local Bible study leader. I was feeling very self-righteous indeed. It fed into my narrative about this real local network.

And then … I realized some time later that the Facebook group I was condemning was not the same group as the one in my area. They had a very similar name, but were different group. Oh, Lord. I was so embarrassed. More than that, I worried about having borne false witness about people who may have some very troublesome beliefs but who had not in fact used this horrible racial slur. I had painted them in a light that was not fair or right. And the problem was that some of the people who saw my original Facebook post simply wouldn’t see the retraction that I posted right away. That rumor would linger out there, even if it wasn’t true. And it was my fault.

I did correct myself and apologize, but I still feel badly about it. I’m sharing this with you because I find myself easily getting on a high horse about the truth, but the reality is I’ve messed up too. I’m failed in the truth department too. And all I can do is admit that and keep trying to be a better representative for Christ and a more trustworthy person. We’re all in this together. We all mess up. And we can’t change anything until we learn to admit our mess-ups.

So, here is the process I use when vetting an internet rumor, quotation, or meme.

Be skeptical.

Especially for Christians, it should not be a shock to find out that sin exists in the world. People manipulate one another in many ways, for their own gain–and I’m not just talking about unbelievers. I’m talking about everybody. When Christians talk about a liberal bias among media members, that’s fine; I do believe a certain liberal or progressive bias exists with many members of the media. This can lead to blind spots in their coverage. Other members of the media bear a conservative or anti-liberal bias. This bias matters too. And both groups might unconsciously or consciously seek to manipulate truth to feed back into their narrative.

Another thing to be clear on is that each of us has a bias too. So, don’t discard your bias, but be aware of it. Truth that disrupts our personal narrative makes us deeply uncomfortable; we like to know the framework for our world, and we don’t like to feel chaos or dissonance. We are prebiased, therefore, to believe things that are not true but that make us feel more secure about the world.

So, when Planned Parenthood tells you only men got to speak on a contraception panel before Congress, and you see a photo of a group of men, as a liberal, you say “aha!” and without any other research, you assume it is 100% accurate. And then share the meme.

When as a Second Amendment lover, you read that a very liberal politician has said if you take people’s guns away, criminals will see that and turn themselves in, you say to yourself, “Well, duh! That’s the kind of la-dee-dah thinking liberals have! What idiots!”

A deeper search in both cases would reveal a more nuanced truth in the first example. The article I am linking here is indeed from a clearly biased site, however it substantiates its claim that two women did testify at a later panel. Biased sources can sometimes help you uncover more of the truth when they cite their sources, which you can then backtrack through to discover the truth. And if there is nothing to their claims, you can find that out too. In the case of the birth control panel, there was a shred of truth to the claim; the preponderance of those testifying against birth control were male, and that probably was something that shouldn’t have been allowed to happen. But the truth was stretched to support a preexisting bias. In the latter case, an internet search reveals that the liberal politician did not say her handy quotation at all.

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