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Tips for sorting online fact from fiction

caption: In "Verified," Mike Caulfield and Sam Wineburg build on techniques developed at the University of Washington's Center for an Informed Public to give helpful tricks on spotting disinformation online.
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In "Verified," Mike Caulfield and Sam Wineburg build on techniques developed at the University of Washington's Center for an Informed Public to give helpful tricks on spotting disinformation online.
Courtesy of University of Chicago Press

Hoaxes, scams, and bogus content are always lurking on the internet. But with a presidential election looming and social media companies pulling away from content moderation, 2024 is primed for a new level of nonsense.

So how do you sort fact from fiction?

"People are very impatient," said Mike Caulfield, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public. "They want to share the thing, right? They want to move on. If you tell people, look, you've got to spend 10 minutes before you share something, there's a there's a very easy choice for them."

Along with Sam Wineburg, Caulfield wrote "Verified: How to Think Straight, Get Duped Less, and Make Better Decisions on What to Believe Online." The book aims to be a helpful guide on common strategies to identify disinformation online, from dubious websites and viral posts to strategic search queries and signs of trustworthy sources.

For a handy mnemonic, Caulfield developed a method called "SIFT": stop, investigate the source, find better coverage, and trace claims. Each letter of SIFT can be used on its own or in conjunction with others to quickly (pun intended) sift through information online, allowing you to be the judge of a post or site's trustworthiness.

"Very often, when something will arrive in front of a student from somewhere, they kind of latch onto the thing that landed on their doorstep," Caulfield said. "So it came from a certain source, it came from a certain person — they're interested in the topic, but they also don't move off and try to ask themselves, ideally, where would I get this from?"

Caulfield says stopping is often the most important step. Frequently, someone's first impulse with a story that they find engaging (or enraging) is to share the story with their in-person or online networks. Or, before sharing, people often try to determine if a story or claim is true or false through logic, research, and critical thinking.

Take, for example, a viral post claiming actor Keanu Reeves died in a tragic snowboarding accident. In this hypothetical, the source is a nondescript celebrity gossip page on Instagram, and it's cropped up as a suggested post on your feed.

"Death hoaxes used to spread on the playground, at work — and before the internet, there really wasn't a way to know. You would maybe wait to the nightly news and see if it was on," Caulfield said. "But in the current world, we're not used to this information abundance. And so very often we jump to the sorts of things we would do if we had no access to instant information before doing these simple checks to see what's out there."

Caulfield said that hoaxes like the Keanu Reeves example, which was a real (but false) story that circulated in 2012, are easily debunked through a quick Google search. If it were true, major media outlets would be covering the event, his family would likely make a statement, and he certainly wouldn't be engaging with fans as he left the set of his latest film.

Using SIFT, one would stop (not share the post), investigate the source (a nonverified or unrecognized account), find better sources (check for reports or statements from reputable sources), and trace claims (who announced the death? Are they in a position to have that knowledge?).

But Caulfield said that death hoaxes are a relatively simple example considering the complexity of disinformation tactics online. Oftentimes, disinformation depends on partial truths: social media posts with context purposefully missing, or an old video presented as a new viral moment. These posts are designed to create an immediate emotional reaction and dissuade you from seeing the original source and context.

"What people often do is they see that video, and they start to ask themselves questions like: Is this plausible? Could this happen? If this did happen, should I be upset about it?" Caulfield said. "That's kind of getting ahead of the first question, which is: Is this thing I'm looking at what I think it is, or is it something entirely different?"

One of the best resources for verifying a source is to check Wikipedia, a tactic that's long been discouraged by high school teachers who say the online encyclopedia is not a reliable source. Wikipedia is maintained by community edits, and anyone can recommend a change to a listing.

Caulfield said that in contrast to its early years, the site has become a robust source for checking the context of organizations, events, and public figures. Each page features citations at the bottom, which are a great nexus for understanding the breadth of a subject. Furthermore, any malicious edits are typically reviewed quickly and fixed, and pages for contentious articles and figures feature edit locks that only proven editors can unlock.

Quick Google sources can also be helpful, but Caulfield encourages using "neutral" language in a search. For example, a search query for, "Are soda taxes good?" will provide different recommended sites from, "Are soda taxes bad?" despite the searcher's intention of finding an unbiased report on the subject (in this case, Google will share sites that align with the non-neutral word used in the query). Instead, neutral phrasing such as, "Do soda taxes work?" or, "How do soda taxes work?" will net more neutral results.

In "Verified," Caulfield and Wineburg go into depth on how to search academic articles for trustable information, how to tell if a site is misleading you, and why a dot com isn't any less trustworthy than a dot org (and vice versa).

"People have talked about this era as a 'Post Truth Era,'" Caulfield said. "When I look at what's going on, it doesn't feel that way at all. It feels to me like people are sharing more evidence for what they believe than people have ever shared before in their life... people are spending more time looking into issues, defending what they believe, finding evidence than I think ever before in history."

The goal for Caulfield is to better equip readers with the tools to sift through all that information.

"I think when people see how transparent a lot of the trickery that people fall for is, it's a mile wide and it's three millimeters deep," Caulfield said.

Listen to the full Soundside interview by clicking "play" on the audio icon at the top of this story.

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