"'Don't believe everything you read on the Internet': Abraham Lincoln," reads a popular meme. Obviously, it's a joke; Abraham Lincoln lived and died long before the Internet was even a synapse. But the meme keeps circulating because, however humorous, the message continues to be relevant in the digital age.
The World Wide Web is a wonderful resource (I can't imagine having to actually go to a library and use an encyclopedia to find information), but it's also a Wild West of crowd-sourced material. You can, essentially, say whatever you want on the Internet. And so can everybody else.
This is why no English teacher worth her salt will allow students to cite a Wikipedia article as a source. Although the user-composed online encyclopedia has administrators that monitor content for accuracy, those fact-checkers can't possibly keep up with the growing beast that is the collaborative concordance. The teacher could let Johnny quote a random person on the Internet who said that Scout dies at the end of "To Kill a Mockingbird," but what good would that do anybody?
Media literacy is as scarce as toilet paper these days, and Facebook is one of the worst culprits. Mark Zuckerberg has openly allowed advertisers and political campaigns to tell bold-faced lies without any standard of integrity or expectation of truth. But Zuck can’t take all the blame here. At some point, all of us have to take responsibility for our own media consumption, which includes learning to evaluate sources.
Let me give you an example. One of my Facebook (and face-to-face) friends recently got married to someone from another country. After President Trump issued a 60-day moratorium on green-card-seeking new immigrants, my friend created a petition on whitehouse.gov and shared it to his Facebook feed. His petition asked that the law not apply to spouses of American citizens or to immigrants already in the United States, both of which would allow his wife to continue her green card application.
Here’s the thing, though: the executive order already makes both of these provisions, and more. It only limits immigration of people who want to enter the United States to work. Nothing is standing in the way of my friend’s wife’s green card process, other than maybe a delay due to short staffing and an unnecessarily complicated system.
“You haven’t actually read the law, have you?” I wanted to comment on my friend’s post in frustration. Instead, I held my tongue (or fingers) and kept scrolling. Getting into an argument on Facebook has never made the world a better place. But I still wonder what gave my friend the idea that his wife is now ineligible for a green card. Did he just read a headline and make assumptions? Did he stumble across a website that (maybe intentionally) didn’t do enough research? Did he just hear that information through the grapevine? In any case, my friend’s life would be easier if he had a little more media literacy.
Because there’s so much information available online, and not all of it is true, I want to share a few tips for how to evaluate the credibility of a source of information.
Consider whether the information is verifiable. Are you able to consult a primary or alternate source to confirm what you’re reading? In my friend’s case, if he read an article claiming that all green card applications are universally suspended, he could have looked up the executive order himself and quickly learned that that is not true. If the article quotes a person as a source of information, is there evidence that that person really exists (or if anonymous or cited as a pseudonym, is it clear that author knows the person’s identity)? Make sure you can trace the information back to a source.
Look for evidence of bias. Does the article or post share only one side of the story? Is the information worded in such a way that you can see the author’s personal motivation? I don’t know where my friend read about the new immigration policy, but my guess is that the article’s author cared more about opposing Trump than about the truth. That’s a major red flag. Look for stories that take an objective approach.
Evaluate reliability of the author and publication. What are the author’s credentials? Are they an expert in the field? A journalist who is trained to interview experts? Or just a random Facebook friend with no real authority on the subject? Look at the publication. Is it a reputable newspaper, or a known clickbait site? A source is more trustworthy if you can clearly see who is responsible for the information and what the publisher’s goal is.
If you are looking for accurate information about your community (and I hope you are), please turn to professionals who seek out first-hand sources and do their research before publishing something online or in print. If you have to choose, trust your newspaper over your Facebook feed.
In a “fake news” world, the truth — things as they really are — matters more than ever. As the saying goes, “the truth shall set you free.” But first you have to identify it. To that end, please, please, don’t believe everything you read on the internet.