One might hypothesize that our society would be becoming more truthful, in general, with our more advanced communication technologies. We have access to more information than ever. It’s relatively easy to find answers from reliable sources. People argue, in open public forums, about minute details of all sorts.

Yet we also now have a major presidential candidate who prefaces statements with “I heard” or “I’m hearing” or “A lot of people are saying,” and millions of people take those otherwise unsourced social media burps as gospel, especially when their feeds on Facebook create an echo chamber of confirmation.

In the days when people like Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Diane Sawyer and newspaper editors in every town vetted information before it reached the masses, rumors and half-truths rarely made it through the screening process. Much of the information-grifting behavior died on the vine. With social media, though, churning out and circulating more content – regardless of accuracy – is the primary business model.

Facebook

Before you share an article with your friends on social media, take a moment to ask yourself if it’s true.

Yet even social media companies have grown weary of the misinformation monster they have created and begun to see the horrendous flaws in profiting off falsities. Last month, Google, Facebook, YouTube, The New York Times, Washington Post, BuzzFeed News, CNN and others revealed their coalition against rumor-mongering, called First Draft News. Better journalism, combined with higher news literacy, will help.

Both of those are based on broad skepticism. The journalistic mantra is to trust but also verify, especially in what you hear from your social media channels.

The easiest way to do this is to simply ask one question of all information you intersect: “According to whom?”

If the answer is Facebook or Twitter, you have not dug deep enough, because social media channels rarely are the original sources of information. Accurate and honest media sources are proud of where they get their information. Dishonest ones try to obscure or hide it.

We live in an era when Free Speech in the U.S., the internet and publishing software affords deep and detailed fact-checking processes of all types. Sites such as Snopes and the Hillary Clinton-aligned Media Matters have become institutions in this field, but we have great power now to trace something to its origin on our own.

While media consolidation is a major concern in the industry, and should be taken very seriously, personal agency to investigate ideas and publish about them is unprecedented. In other words, you can do this sort of work, too. And you should, because there are less and less people in your life right now (such as journalists) who do this for you.

Snopes published this helpful guide to spotting fake news earlier this year. But in a more procedural sense, one of my colleagues at the University of Hawaii, Richard Hornik, visiting from the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University, recommends an approach he and his colleagues have used and honed during many years of teaching news literacy.

The online learning materials are here, but, in short, Hornik recommends starting at the source level of the critical information in the story and investigating that foundational material in depth, especially when you question credibility.

For a mnemonic, they use the acronym I’M VAIN:

  • Independent sources are better than self-interested sources.
  • Multiple sources are better than a single source.
  • Sources who Verify are better than sources who assert.
  • Authoritative/Informed sources are better than uninformed sources.
  • Named sources are better than unnamed sources.

Evaluating the sources of information in a story is about taking ownership of it. That does require some work. But, it also gives you power and insights about the shapes of societal discussions.

I also recommend social media publishers think of themselves more like the traditional model of what they do, as publishers, endowed with both the power and the responsibility of the press. In other words, when we share it, we own it. Think of misinformation like a virus that you don’t want to spread.

There are important reasons why Facebook and Twitter and various other social-media platforms have failed to adapt into organizations that provide reliable news. The New York Times, Washington Post, The New Yorker, etc., don’t make more money by producing more content; they make their mark through producing better content than anyone else.

Your social media channel reflects your standards as a truth teller and as an ethical person. Other people look at what you post and sometimes they rely upon it to make a decision or have a particular mindset.

Truth in our society, through the distribution of publishing power via social media, is the responsibility of professional journalists in charge of mass-media channels. But other people also are involved now. When choosing whether to share information today, with your many friends, you also have your finger on the button.

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.

    Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.