Social Media BS Detection - A User's Guide
Here are some general guidelines for critically examining what shows up "trending" on social media. I've found that following the principles below is enough to clear out at least 98% of all BS that shows up on Facebook, Twitter, and the like. Given how much of it there's been since the 2016 POTUS election, the need for it is more critical than ever in recent history.
1) Dramatic claims require dramatic proof
The more inflammatory and/or conspiratorial the allegation, the greater the quantity and quality of evidence we should demand before accepting it. Whether it resonates emotionally with our own narratives or not not isn't enough.
2) Bias reveals itself in information & methods, not opinions
By definition, bias is any factor that selectively introduces errors &/or omissions favoring a particular conclusion. It may be random or deliberate. It may or may not be intentional. But it can only be demonstrated by examining the information and reasoning behind a claim. How offensive or "elitist" it is has no prima facie bearing whatsoever on whether it's true. Someone on the 10th floor may shout "fire!" because he/she has an agenda, or because they looked out the window & saw the flames & fire trucks. Any source that's truly biased will have a history of being chronically careless with facts, reasoning, and scholarship. In the absence of a clear demonstration of this in their claims, dismissing it as the "liberal media," "deplorables," or any other bitch-slap is a poisoning the well fallacy.
But that said...
3) Overt agendas pose significant risks for objectivity
Strident views don't necessarily preclude properly researched arguments, but they make them a lot more challenging. The more unhinged and inflammatory a source is, the greater the risk it presents for confirmation bias. Honestly... how objective can a website with a name like "100PercentFedUp.com" possibly be? (Zimdars, 2016)
Stick to sources that are established and reputable or those that cite them: Mainstream news outlets, governmental agencies, academic institutions, and the like. If science is involved, try to base claims on peer-reviewed research published in reputable journals like say, Nature, The New England Journal of Medicine, or the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Never rely on a single source for news and information, and wherever possible stick to those that are moderate and centrist. If any lean Left, make sure they're balanced by others that lean Right. A good spread would be something like this;
- Moderate Left: New York Times, Washington Post
- Centrist: NPR, BBC, Seattle Times
- Moderate Right: Wall Street Journal, The Economist
Above all else, just say No to op-ed, unhinged conspiracy theorists, & hysterical extremists, especially those that parasitically cite each other in circles. A figure with helpful guidelines is provided below.
Finally, bear in mind that if any source has to go out of its way to advertise itself as centrist (with monikers like "Fair and Balanced" for instance) it's probably because their track record for objectivity and thoroughness doesn't speak for itself. ;-)
4) URL's can be revealing
Established mainstream institutions generally have URL's based on high-level TLD's (Top Level Domains) such as .com, .net, .org, .edu, .gov, or .co.** (where ** is a prominent country code such as "uk" for the United Kingdom)--particularly those based in the United States & Western Europe. If a "news" site has a URL ending in .biz, .xxx, .com.co or the like, proceed with caution... especially if it has an Eastern European country code. Dozens of fake news sites that were bread-&-butter for Trump supporters during the election were recently traced to a group of Macedonian teenagers (Wikipedia, 2016b; 2016e; Silverman & Alexander, 2016). Fake news websites often try to gain credibility with names &/or URL's that parasitically mimic those of legitimate outlets. For instance, abcnews.com is the URL for ABC News' website, but abcnews.com.co is a known fake news site. Politico (politico.com) is a respected non-partisan political-journalism organization--Politicalo is not. Global warming skeptics & industry-funded "astroturf" groups are notorious for this sort of thing as well.
5) Fake news website lists are your friend
Since the 2016 POTUS election cycle a great deal of research has been done on the prevalence of fake news and propaganda, and their impact on public opinion (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017; Barthel et al., 2016; Conti et al., 2017; Rogers & Bromwich, 2016; etc.). The most notorious fake news sites are well-known, and a number of online resources document them (Wikipedia, 2016b; Zimdars, 2016; King, 2016; Dicker, 2016). Inflammatory stories should never be shared until their sources have been checked against these lists.
6) Much can be learned about a source from its "About Us" page
Most news & commentary websites have an "About Us" page where you will learn something about the people running them. Legitimate ones have established, broadly-based resources & are staffed by qualified professionals. Some will lean to the Left (e.g. - NPR or BBC), whereas others will lean to the Right (e.g. - The Wall Street Journal or The Economist), but all will have moderate agendas. Those that are run by pissed-off, highly-partisan activists are rarely objective or thorough enough to be trusted.
7) Trustworthy claims will be backed by scholarship
Truth is not fragile, and those who've done their homework have everything to gain from putting their sources and methods on the table. Reliable news will be clearly cited to other legitimate sources--mainstream news outlets, academic institutions, government agencies, and the like. Where science is involved, peer-reviewed research published in reputable journals should be available and will be either cited & linked, or accompanied by enough information to allow one to at least find the abstracts via search engines and/or citation databases. Claims that depend on op-ed and/or parasitic citations to similar forums do so for a reason. Those who cannot provide their own sources and methods should never be taken at face value. And those with a clear agenda who refuse to should be avoided like the plague--especially if they hide their identities as well, or have "Leaks" or "Exposed" anywhere in their names.
8) Google is your friend
The more dramatic a claim is, the more likely it is that it'll get the attention of mainstream media, liberal or otherwise. If Google searches return no mention of it anywhere except at partisan blogs, Facebook pages, and known fake news and fringe websites, it's time to sound BS General Quarters.
9) Online research and debunking tools are your friend
Online databases and encyclopedia like Wikipedia are worth their weight in gold. Wikipedia in particular is built around an editorial/peer review model that goes a long way to eliminating biased and/or incomplete research, and is arguably the most extensive online encyclopedic website in the world. Few if any questions liable to turn up in news stories won't reference subject matter that's treated in depth there, and further cited to other scholarship. Sites devoted to researching urban legends track fake news and social media rumors closely, and little survives their scrutiny. Among the best known and most reliable of these are sites like Snopes (a project of the San Fernando Folklore Society) and FactCheck.org. Both are supported by broadly-based non-partisan research, & subject to rigorous editorial review. A 20-second search at Snopes alone is enough to weed out at least 90% of the inflammatory BS on any social media newsfeed. Reverse image tools such as TinEye can be a great resource too. Searches of an image's address (right-click -> copy link address) there will return other sites where it's been used, complete with dates and times. If someone posts photos of a riot, refugee stampede, or some other incident from two days ago, and the same picture turns up in two-year-old articles about unrelated events it's time to start asking some pointed questions. Sharing any inflammatory claim "trending" on social media without checking resources like these first borders on negligence.
10) Last, but not least, common sense is your friend too
If it sounds like BS, chances are it is. To use one example a Facebook friend shared to my timeline last fall... The Vice President of these United States, with no history of such views, loudly proclaims that all women are lazy... at a campaign rally for a woman POTUS candidate on a major college campus... and two days later not one major news outlet has gotten wind of it... But a handful of websites with names like "100 Percent Fed Up" or "Freedom Daily" have the big scoop for us. Reeeeeally? :D
General Research & Scholarly Searches
The Arxiv (Scientific Research Preprints)
List of fake news websites - Wikipedia
Fake News Checker
False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and Satirical 'News' Sources (M. Zimdars, Merrimack College)
Snopes’ Field Guide to Fake News Sites and Hoax Purveyors
Urban Legends & Debunking
Politifact (A winner of the Pulitzer Prize)
Image Search Tools
CtrlQ Google Image Search
Google Images (Right-click --> Copy image address --> Search here by copied URL)
The Meme Policeman
News Outlets by Partisan Leanings & Credibility
Which of the following are likely to be trustworthy sources?
- cbsnewsonline.com.co.ru [hint: "ru" is the TLD country code for Russia]
- infowars.com [hint: See Wikipedia (2016d), Zimdars (2016), King (2016), & Dicker (2016)]
Allcott, H., & Gentzkow, M. 2017. "Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election." (No. w23089). National Bureau of Economic Research. Available online at http://web.stanford.edu/~gentzkow/research/fakenews.pdf. Accessed Feb. 3, 2017.
Dicker, R. 2016. "Avoid These Fake News Sites at All Costs." U.S. News & World Report. Nov. 14, 2016. Available online at http://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2016-11-14/avoid-these-fake-news-sites-at-all-costs. Accessed Jan. 30, 2016.
King, E. 2016. "Here's a List of Fake, Misleading, and Satirical News Sites to Beware Of." Complex. Nov. 15, 2016. Available online at http://www.complex.com/life/2016/11/list-fake-misleading-satirical-news-sites. Accessed Jan. 26, 2017.
Rogers, K., & J.E. Bromwich. 2016. "The Hoaxes, Fake News and Misinformation We Saw on Election Day." New York Times. Nov. 8, 2016. Available online at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/09/us/politics/debunk-fake-news-election-day.html. Accessed Jan. 27, 2017.
Silverman, C. & L. Alexander. 2016. "How Teens In The Balkans Are Duping Trump Supporters With Fake News." BuzzFeed News. Nov. 3, 2016. Available online at http://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/how-macedonia-became-a-global-hub-for-pro-trump-misinfo?utm_term=.fpX725bg4E#.nodKMZOE81. Accessed Feb. 3, 2017.
Wikipedia. 2016b. "List of fake news sites." Wikipedia. Jan. 22, 2017. Available online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fake_news_websites. Accessed Feb. 7, 2017.
Zimdars, M. 2016. "False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and Satirical 'News' Sources." Merrimack College. Available online at http://d279m997dpfwgl.cloudfront.net/wp/2016/11/Resource-False-Misleading-Clickbait-y-and-Satirical-%E2%80%9CNews%E2%80%9D-Sources-1.pdf. Accessed Feb. 7, 2017.