Avogadro One is about efficient management of information and extraction of knowledge from it. But even a great tool will fail with low-quality content (the Garbage In Garbage Out principle applies). This means that vetting sources of information is critical.
A couple of days ago I came across an article on MIT Technology Review that discussed ways to recognize misinformation in online content. The article quoted a Stanford study and the SIFT framework developed by Michael Caulfield, "a digital literacy expert" from Washington State University. The two resources suggest approaches to recognizing misinformation, and I recommend readers to study them as they are both valuable and quite entertaining.
In particular, the Stanford paper compared how fact checkers, first year college students and history professors evaluated the quality of three pieces of web-based content. The authors criticize the traditional guidelines for evaluating web content:
At a time when the Internet is characterized by polished web design, search engine optimization, and organizations vying to appear trustworthy, such guidelines create a false sense of security. Students and historians often stumbled because they closely read and followed the advice dispensed by checklists. Fact checkers succeeded because they didn’t.
Instead of closely reading or ticking off elements on a list, checkers ignored massive amounts of irrelevant (or less crucial) text in order to make informed judgments about the trustworthiness of digital information. In short, fact checkers read less but learned more.
The SIFT technique offers a four-step process to determine whether a piece of content is legitimate or not:
- Stop. Recognize your emotions and biases. If content elicits a strong emotional response from you, take a step back, don't make any conclusions yet and don't share it. Fake news and misinformation are often designed to play on people's emotions, which is an effective 'mind control' tool and the reason fake content spreads virally. Confirmation bias plays a big role here, so always be aware of it.
- Investigate the source. Who published this particular piece of content? Do you recognize this source? Can you be certain that it is trustworthy and verifies its own sources? Always ask this question. Even if it's a friend, a family member or an acquaintance you generally trust, they may still act on impulse (they may not have stopped and let emotions act on their behalf). Similarly, if content was published by some obscure website or social media account, it warrants additional research, because it may be running an agenda. Explore the site, read its 'About us' page, see who the author is. If it's a social media post, check out the author's profile, number of followers and other metadata for clues. While these may not be reliable indicators on their own, they might provide some hints. E.g. if a source calls itself 'National Gazette' but has just 100 followers, it’s probably not that national. Michael Caulfield suggests searching for the source website's domain on Wikipedia for additional evidence: it may be quoted as a reputable source or it may be mentioned as not a trustworthy one. Always use 'lateral reading' when doing additional research - do it in new browser tabs or windows, so that you can quickly refer back to the original content. Also exercise 'click restraint' - don't click on the first search result you come across, but investigate the snippets and their URLs, look for the most relevant and neutral ones.
- Find better coverage. Look for alternative sources to corroborate the story. If you can't quite trust the source, try finding mentions in more reputable ones. Of course, you have to be sure these alternative sources are themselves of high quality and do not have a conflict of interest of their own. A simple tactic is to search for the keywords from the original story, perhaps adding 'news' to the search query.
- Trace claims, quotes, and media to the original context:
- Does the story support the headline? Does it even contain the keywords from the headline (use the Ctrl+F in your browser or Command+F if you're on a Mac)?
- Does the quoted reference or link (if any) support the claims in the story?
- Is the context and the date the same as in the story's reference? Try finding the original source of the story. Often, misleading authors will use a legitimate piece of news and twist or frame it in a way that has little in common with the original story. Checking the date of the articles you work through is useful - misinformation sometimes recycles old news.
To turn this advice into a habit, treat information consumption like purchasing food. The general advice for buying healthy food is:
- Choose "real" foods and avoid processed foods;
- Read labels and beware of 'sneaky' ingredients;
- Know when 'healthy' is really healthy;
- Avoid foods with cartoons on the label that target children.
Translated into information consumption principles, it would look something like this:
- Don't fall for fancy packaging and beautiful advertisements. Bright colors, pictures of sporty young people or action heroes, and the words 'fitness' or 'organic' in the title don't necessarily mean the contents is healthy, so don’t buy on impulse. Product packaging is often crafted to elicit a craving that is not necessarily good for you, so turn it around and read the small print on the back. The same applies to information: don't accept a headline at its face value. Avoid 'fast food' information, i.e. clickbait. Stop, check your emotions and dig deeper.
- Check the producer. You expect your food to come from a trusted producer, such as a well-known manufacturer with long history of high quality or a local farmer you know personally. If you don't know the producer, you'd expect them to provide you with enough useful data to make an informed choice to buy or abstain. Would you buy an ice cream that didn't have the manufacturer's address, compliance statements or hotline number on its packaging? Before trying out a new product, you probably try to find reviews from other consumers, look up the producer's social media profiles etc. Do the same with information sources - see if the source is known to have published low-quality content or on the contrary - if it has a good reputation. But be aware of the reviewers' agenda too, so exercise caution (after all, reviewers are sources of information themselves and the same rules apply to them). Don't judge a source by its website design or the professional language of its content - even a fake news article or site can feel professional.
- Read the labels. Ideally you should read the list of ingredients of every food item you purchase. Are they natural or synthetic? Is an undesirable ingredient disguised as something innocuous or tucked away at the end of the list? In information consumption context, this means that the content should support the headline, unlike clickbait, where content is often of little substance. Manufacturing date is also important. Repackaged old real news are as bad as fresh fake news.
- Verify claims. Sometimes food packaging misleads you into believing it's healthy when it's not. Would you consider something good for fitness if it was 50% sugar? Common sense would dictate you to guide your buying decision by the ingredients list and nutritional value, not by the marketing message. And when you don't know if an ingredient is healthy, you look it up on Wikipedia or ask a dietitian. Do the same with information: when you see a headline that raises an emotional response, check the contents - does the article itself actually support the headline claim or is it simply clickbait? Do other, trustworthy sources confirm these claims?
- Avoid over-processed information as you avoid processed foods. A good source will always make it clear whether something is a fact or an opinion. A low-quality source will mingle the two, framing opinions as facts and quoting real facts loosely and without firm references. Often, the mere presence of an opinion might show biased reporting, so watch out. And of course, set your expectations correctly. Don't expect unbiased reporting from a personal blog or Twitter account and vice versa - a major news outlet should abstain from making judgements unless it's an explicit opinion piece.
Avogadro One has several features that make implementing the SIFT technique easy:
- Simple design and plain styling of content reduce visual distractions, allowing you to focus on content.
- You can read the full content fetched from your feeds without leaving our site, again reducing visual distractions and other elements that might bias your judgement.
- You can investigate the source easily by navigating to it in a single click.
- In one click, you can search for selected text on Wikipedia or on Google to find alternative coverage.