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How to Fact-Check the Internet

Secretly biased sites, viral hoaxes on Instagram, fake photos that look 100% real—no matter how digitally savvy you are, the web is full of false info. This guide will help you separate fact from fiction.

iStockPhoto/Getty Images

This photo of a dolphin soaring in Hurricane Dorian’s winds was popular on social media back in September. It looks crazy, but is it real? Nope! According to Snopes.com (which fact-checks tons of viral content), it’s actually a photo from Hurricane Frances in 2004, with a dolphin inserted into the image.

Tip 1: Understand the Shock-and-Share Cycle

1. You see something that’s OMG, like a headline claiming that climate activist Greta Thunberg is an actress. (ICYMI, she’s not.)

2. This triggers an immediate emotional response, instead of one that makes you go, “Wait, is this true?” So you quickly share it with your followers. 

3. When your followers see the post, they’re surprised as well, and they share it too. (It goes on and on and on.)

Shutterstock.com

Stop the insanity! Experts say the key is to exercise what’s called click restraint: Before you repost, retweet, or re-whatever, wait 30 seconds and ask yourself, “Do I know this is real?” If the answer is no, don’t hit “share” until you’ve done some research (more on that in a bit!).

Tip 2: Become a Decoding Master

This tweet was supposedly sent from Snapchat. Here’s how to find out if it’s real:

Tip 3: Ask Yourself: Am I Making These Common Mistakes?

  1. Reading Only a Headline: One study found that 59 percent of links shared on social media don’t get clicked. Don’t just believe the grabby headline—take time to read and understand the story.
  2. Thinking That First Means Best: Just because a site ends up in the top search spot doesn’t mean it’s the most reliable source. 
  3. Getting Wowed by Cool Visuals: Research shows that teens find data-filled charts and well-designed sites persuasive, but don’t judge something on looks alone. Anyone can make a fancy-looking website or infographic. Always check where the data came from. 
  4. Falling For a Trick URL: Fake news sites copy the names of real ones to get clicks, so always look at the URLs and beware of an extra domain after .com (abcnews.com.co) or a twist on a real URL (nytimesofficial.com instead of nytimes.com). 
  5. Not Realizing a Post is an Ad: Brands pay influencers and websites to be featured in stories, videos, and posts. If you see the words “sponsored content,” #ad, “paid partnership,” or “presented by,” it’s not neutral. Someone is trying to sell you something.

Tip 4: Influencer < Expert

@kyliejenner/Instagram (green smoothie); Jackson Lee/GC Images/Getty Images (Kylie Jenner)

Remember when Kylie Jenner claimed that drinking celery juice could cure literally everything? Even if you don’t, it’s the perfect example of what we’ll call celebrity nonexpert syndrome—when stars spew advice they’re not qualified to give (and we believe them!). So before you consider any information as fact, ask yourself, “What makes this person an expert in ________?” If the answer is “I don’t know” or “Nothing,” then don’t let them be your only source.

Tip 5: Learn These Two Words: Confirmation Bias.

Sometimes the real reason you fall for certain types of stories is . . . YOU! Confirmation bias leads people to accept views that match their own. So if you’re passionate about the environment, you may believe and/or share anything you see about the effects of global warming because you assume it’s true. (Beware: There’s misleading info out there on all sides.) On the other hand, if you see a story that isn’t in line with your thinking, you may just assume it’s not true. 

Additional vocabulary word:

impulsively

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