Looking for Truth in the Age of Fake News

How to make sure what you're reading is fact based.

BY MARIA WHEELER-DUBAS CURRENT September 13, 2017

“So the question remains…who is ‘mike’?” I asked.

I was with a group of high school students, and we had spent the better part of the last hour looking at ways to differentiate trustworthy information sources from the not-so-trustworthy options available en masse on the internet. As a part of the exploration activity, we studied multiple articles from journals, online news sources and websites and evaluated them using criteria from the C.R.A.A.P. test—a handy guide developed by the California State University, Chico.

One of the sources, however, was problematic for the students. It was a list of the top seven “miracle foods” for health and well-being. The list itself wasn’t particularly a problem; it was a standard line-up of veggies, green tea and grilled chicken. What I wanted to know from the students was would they trust or cite a website like this particular one. The website was unknown to them, but it came up third on a food-related Google search. The list of foods seemed reasonable enough, but it provided no sources for each health claim and suspect ads clouded the margins of the page. Most striking—at least to me—was that the author was simply identified as “mike.” Not Mike or Mike Smith/Jones/Talbot, mind you. Just … mike. Who was mike? Why should I trust what he had to say?

For me, this activity tied in with a bigger goal of encouraging seekers of truth, not just seekers of a moderately satisfactory information source. I doubt I stand alone in saying the past year or more has brought a near-constant onslaught of “fake news” and dubious claims. These were high school students, but for me, as a person of faith, there is a deeper issue here. In the midst of the constant barrage of information and misinformation, one thing is clear: As Christians, standing for truth is not an option. It is a commandment. So what is a Christian to do in the midst of a world wide web ready to tell us whatever we want to hear?

First, we need to become lovers of truth. We don’t need to idolize it, but we need to remember that Philippians 4:8 begins with “whatever is true” and Ephesians 4:25 tells us to “put off falsehood and speak truthfully,” and 1 Peter 3:10 says we must keep “a tongue from evil and lips from deceitful speech.” If we want to pour out truth, we need to seek it out first.

How do we do that on the internet? First of all, be aware what you are reading, watching, or listening to. What is the source? Can you verify it in anyway? A helpful guide to do this is the aforementioned C.R.A.A.P. test. The guide asks you to think about a specific list of criteria as you encounter a source. Here is a summary of it:

Currency: When was this information from this source written or recorded? Is it possible the information has since been updated? Can I trust the source based on the age of the information?

Relevance: Less important for a general news seeker, but if you are searching for perhaps a resource for a school or professional report, how relevant is the source for your needs? Is it too technical to be understood? Or too simplified to be of use?

Authority: Who wrote this article? Are they qualified to do so? If it’s a health-related article, is this author someone who is generally an outsider to the medical community; if so, why is that? A maverick is always more romantic, but it’s not necessarily a guarantee that they have special insight.

Also, for any article in general, the absence of an author can be a huge red flag. Of course, organizations like the American Cancer Society won’t always list an author for an information summary page, but if the organization is reputable, you’re probably safe for at least superficial information.

Accuracy: How do you know if this source is accurate? Do you have any way of verifying the information? Is the information riddled with typos (an indication that no one is reviewing or editing content)? Does this information source cite their sources? (A line simply saying “A recent study says …” does not count.)

What are those sources? Are they legitimate as well? Granted, journalists will not always be able to reveal their private sources; but this is not a guarantee of accuracy or inaccuracy. At least keep in mind that where the information is coming from.

Purpose: Who generated this source of information and why? In general, we need to look for sources that are as unbiased as humanly possible. Advocacy organizations will likely only give you one side of the story or the other; thus, for example, if you want to know about vaccines, GMOs or climate change, you are unlikely to find an unbiased source from an organization or social media page with any of those words in the title.

This seems daunting the first time anyone reads the criteria all at once, but after a few rounds of employing the criteria in your general reading, it becomes second nature.

As an important contemporary cultural addendum to this: As Christians, we need to value truth more than we value identity politics. If we are consistently reading news sources that make a habit of bashing either liberals or conservatives, I can virtually guarantee we are not seeking truth. We are seeking to confirm our own bias.

Thus, I would add the criterion—the most important—that we pray. Pray for truth, even if the truth is not what we want to hear. The truth may or not satisfy our inner desire to be right, and it might challenge us. But as Christians, we don’t have the option of picking and choosing “truths” that we like. Truth is not subjective. It is God’s. And we need to honor that—both in what we read and what we share with others.

I did eventually learn who “mike” was. After doing a little sleuthing on the domain name, I eventually learned that this “Mike” owns multiple websites that, at best, can be described as content farms. The material on his sites has been carefully crafted to be picked up by common search engine terms, and the information on the sites generally parrots the kind of information that someone searching a particular term would most likely want to hear.

On the one hand, an article about a few healthy foods doesn’t seem like a big deal, but one of mike’s other articles was a veritable horror list of inaccurate cancer information. Since cancer is a rather nebulous concept to many, the last thing the internet needs is more information to scare folks.

So let’s all have each other’s back and keep on top of our information sources. Our world is tough enough without inaccuracies driving us apart.

MARIA WHEELER-DUBAS

is a science education outreach coordinator at a nonprofit organization. She has a PhD in biology, and is a fangirl in all things involving Harry Potter, hockey, or cake pops.

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