Even after hundreds of studies about how false information is spread on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other venues, Americans continue to spread inaccurate claims.
Much of the time, those who distribute misinformation to friends and followers are unwitting. They just pass along claims that bolster their own view of the world, without checking whether they’re true. That view may be that Muslims are murderous zealots, or that Republicans are greedy demons or that vaccines cause autism. Truth is less important than the message they want to send.
That’s not surprising. We accept the same low standard from President Donald Trump, whose record of lies is unprecedented. As our tolerance of dishonesty grows, we rationalize deceit as a means to persuade people to think the way we do.
But if we aren’t basing our opinions on facts, on credible and honest information, our opinions are worthless.
Forming judgments and views based on faulty information makes it likely that we, as individuals and as a society, will take steps that are ineffective or even counterproductive. It would be like a doctor treating you for measles when you have cancer.
Good decisions require factual information and sound data, but separating fact from fiction online can sometimes seem impossible. There are, however, sources that can help.
Fact-checking organizations have played an increasingly important role in helping Americans figure out, for example, whether to believe Bernie Sanders’ claims about health care and President Donald Trump’s claims about immigration.
Some of the best include Snopes.com, the oldest of the fact-checking sites. It started in 1994, before most of us were surfing the web.
Another good site is PolitiFact, owned by a Florida-based nonprofit, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.
There’s also FactCheck.org, part of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. The center was established with funds from Walter Annenberg, who was known for his magazine empire and his close friendship with President Ronald Reagan.
Other good sources for checking information include the Washington Post’s Fact Checker and Associated Press’ fact-checking items.
While fact-checking sites are a good means of verifying information, it’s also helpful to use news sources that are reliable. Newspapers and their websites, for example, are relatively solid.
That doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. But newspapers as a whole have a good record for delivering objective, accurate information.
A study by RAND, a global policy nonprofit, found that newspapers have changed little over the past 20 years in terms of how they report the news.
As stated in a piece for Nieman Lab, part of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, the study found: “Newspaper reporting is largely the same as it was in the past, at least when it comes to front-page stories. …”
The same study found that TV network news has changed significantly. Since 2000, broadcast news reporting has moved from precise, academic language to reporting with personal flair.
“It becomes more conversational … This also has meant more subjectivity: less straight reporting of preplanned stories, and more conversation among newscasters, between newscasters and expert guests, and between newscasters and the audience. Such conversations are interactive and feature personal perspectives …”
The move to subjective and personality-driven news was even more marked in cable TV, the study found.
“Prime-time cable programming is characterized by more-argumentative language, more-personal and subjective exposition of topics, more use of opinion and personal interaction, and more-dogmatic positions for and against specific positions,” the study found.
That means TV viewers must determine not only what’s true, but also what spin TV personalities are applying to the news.
A Pew Research Center study found that older Americans rely on TV for much of their news, while those younger than 50 tend to use a variety of sources. Checking different sites can help determine both accuracy and lend perspective, if news consumers are savvy about what qualifies as reliable media.
Staying informed about events and issues shouldn’t be so hard. But improvement will come only when Americans stop shrugging off dishonesty among their political leaders – and start being more discerning about the claims they believe and spread.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers in California, Indiana and New York, as well as across Kansas.