By Sara Stewart
INDIANA — As we head into Election Day, the glut of online and print disinformation that has plagued our culture in recent years looks likely to multiply exponentially. There’s never been a better time to acquaint yourself and your loved ones with some basic practices on how to separate fact from fiction, real news from conspiracy theories.
As a professional journalist of over 20 years, I have a few suggestions for how to go about this. I’m a contributor to various news sources, including the New York Post and CNN.com. When I’m working on a reported story, I know that I need to make sure my facts are solid before they are published.
Although social media, Facebook in particular, has become a major news destination for many Americans, it helps to keep in mind that this is one of the least reliable places to keep up with what’s really going on. According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, Americans who use the site as their primary source of news tend to be less well-versed in the facts and more susceptible to baseless sensationalist theories.
It’s useful to keep a short list of reality checks to consider when you want to verify assertions. The International Federation of Library Associations has a handy eight-question guide — and who can we all trust, if not our librarians?
Consider the source — Is this a legitimate news outlet? Click through to its site and investigate.
Read beyond — You may be seeing a “click bait” headline, which distorts the nature of the real story to make it catchier if less accurate. Make sure to read the whole story.
Check the author — Is she or he a real person? What are their credentials?
Check the date — Many stories circulated on Facebook are outdated and, therefore, no longer accurate.
Is it a joke? — We live in high times for satire, owing to the sheer ridiculousness of 2020; unfortunately, this means articles that are meant to be funny can be misinterpreted as legitimate news stories.
Check your biases — Is this story simply telling you what you want to hear? That’s comforting, but you don’t want to end up repeating made-up information simply because you like what it says.
Ask the experts — Consult a fact-checking site to see if this article is for real. Almost every major hoax story will have been examined by one of them, and it’s pretty easy to put a few key terms into a search field.
Snopes, Politifact, and FactCheck.org are three of the best places to go. The first, Snopes, is a long-time veteran of debunking false claims online. It’s long been my first stop if I think a news story doesn’t pass the smell test.
UNFORTUNATELY, wild, untrue claims are flying around like never before in this environment of heightened tension and divergent political views. The Letters to the Editor section in our local paper regularly features contributors who repeat these claims, and because it’s the opinion section, The Gazette doesn’t have to do the fact-checking that would be involved in a reported news story. Still, readers are likely to take these claims at face value, simply because they’re in the paper.
Let’s look at a few.
This August letter writer suggests the Epoch Times is a good news source and an antidote to the “left-leaning” media. Well, let’s go to the fact checkers. Snopes, is the Epoch Times a reliable outlet?
“The Epoch Times was founded by Chinese-American adherents to a spiritual movement and meditation practice known as Falun Gong. That news outlet has in recent years, as reported by BuzzFeed News and NBC News, transformed into a misinformation-laden, pro-Trump mouthpiece.”
So here we can see that, no, the Epoch Times will not be a reliable news source.
Another writer claims, in an Oct. 29 letter to the editor reflecting a popular Donald Trump talking point, that this election is “a choice between free enterprise and socialism.” In reality, Joe Biden is a centrist moderate Democrat who does not endorse a socialist agenda. Says Politifact: “Biden has not advocated nationalizing industries, a key principle of socialism. His platform on health care, energy and other issues aligns with moderate Democrats, not socialists.”
Meanwhile, a third letter writer from early October says that Covid-19 is “China and Biden’s scheme.” The truth is that the virus originated in animals and was passed to humans. Per Snopes: “The vast majority of scientists who have studied the virus agree that it evolved naturally and crossed into humans from an animal species, most likely a bat.”
If this letter writer wanted to delve further, he could learn that “if the virus had been genetically engineered in a lab, there would be signs of manipulation in the genome data. This would include evidence of an existing viral sequence as the backbone for the new virus, and obvious, targeted inserted (or deleted) genetic elements.”
But the short answer is: No, it is not China’s or Biden’s scheme.
Unfortunately, that has not stopped the rumor from spreading like wildfire. Says FactCheck.org, “the baseless claim — which we first addressed in the early days of the pandemic — was further amplified when Fox News host Tucker Carlson featured an interview with one of the authors of the paper on his show on Sept. 15. That segment was viewed on YouTube nearly 2 million times, and that link alone was shared by nearly 50,000 users on Facebook, according to CrowdTangle analytics data, where other popular posts also repeated the allegations.”
IT’S IMPORTANT TO NOTE that these fact-checking sites are not dedicated to covering one side of the political agenda or the other. A few days ago, Snopes debunked a social media rumor that Trump had called for Biden’s assassination in a speech. It concluded that the president’s use of the word “shot” was in reference to “his habitual use of the word ‘shot’ to describe Biden’s mental and physical condition.”
There will be countless more claims on social media in the days and weeks to come. It behooves every American voter to do the work to make sure they know what’s true. Don’t let the conspiracy-mongers win – you are smarter than that.
Sara Stewart is a freelance journalist who writes for the New York Post, CNN.com and other publications. For The HawkEye, she has covered domestic violence during the Covid-19 pandemic and the White’s Woods logging controversy. She lives in Indiana and is a member of the Indiana Borough Council.