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How to Fact-Check the Internet

Not everything you read online is accurate. In fact, some posts, photos, and articles are intentionally false or misleading. This guide will help you separate fact from fiction. 

Sandra the orangutan washing her hands

iStockPhoto/Getty Images (phone); Courtesy of The Center for Great Apes  (orangutan)

If you think you wash your hands carefully, you should see Sandra. The orangutan uses a brush and a bucket of soapy water to thoroughly scrub her long fingers for nearly a minute at a time.

Recently, a video of Sandra’s handwashing technique went viral—along with a caption explaining that the great ape had picked up the habit during the coronavirus pandemic. Sandra, the caption said, observed the keepers at her Florida sanctuary washing their hands more often to avoid catching the virus—and started mimicking them. Thousands of people shared the orangutan’s scrubdown on Facebook as an example of how the pandemic is affecting even animals.

But it turns out that the explanation for Sandra’s behavior was a hoax. The orangutan’s handwashing was actually filmed last fall—months before the coronavirus had even been identified. The Center for Great Apes, where the orangutan lives, tried to set the story straight, but the false tale had already taken on a life of its own.

How did so many people get fooled? Let’s face it: The web is full of false information, from fake photos that look 100 percent real to viral hoaxes on Instagram to biased sites. Deciding what to believe—and what to share—online can be a challenge, no matter how digitally savvy you are. Here are our top tricks for figuring it out.

Understand What Makes You Want to Share Shocking Content

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1. You see an outrageous post, such as a photo of lions prowling a Russian city to enforce stay-at-home orders during the pandemic. (Reality: The photo’s from an old movie shoot.)

2. Your emotions—such as anger, amazement, or fear—instantly kick in. They block out the part of your brain that might say, “Wait, is this really true?” So you quickly share the post with all your followers.

3. When your followers see the post, their emotions are immediately triggered too. As a result, they share it with their followers. And the shock-and-share cycle goes on and on and on.

THE FIX 
Before you repost something, wait 30 seconds to make sure you aren’t reacting solely on emotion. Then ask yourself, “Do I know this is real?” If the answer is no, don’t hit “share” until you’ve done research.

Examine Each Post

Not all social media accounts are run by people. Some are bots—automated accounts used to spread misinformation. (Nearly half of all the Twitter accounts posting about the pandemic are likely bots, Carnegie Mellon University research shows.) Learn to spot a fake post by studying the tweet at right, supposedly sent from Snapchat.

Snapchat

1. Check the Handle. Don’t be fooled by the blue “verified” check mark. The company’s real account does not include the word team, it’s simply “Snapchat.” A quick search on the app would clue you in.

2. Spot Errors. Spelling and grammar mistakes are big red flags, whether you’re reading something on social media or a website.

3. Look for a Link. A big announcement like this would require additional explanation, but there’s no mention of where to find more info. That’s a sign something is fishy.

Go to the Source. All the retweets of this post were screenshots. Always find the original post—you can use the date and time stamps to search for it. If you can’t find the original, odds are a post isn’t real.


Ask Yourself: Am I Making These Common Mistakes?

ESB Professional/Shutterstock.com

1. Reading Only a Headline. A study by Columbia University found that 59 percent of social media links aren’t clicked on and read before they’re shared. Don’t just believe a headline. Take time to evaluate the story first.

2. Thinking that First Means Best. The top result in your internet search isn’t necessarily the most reliable source of information.

3. Getting Wowed by Cool Visuals. Research shows that teens find data-filled charts and eye-catching sites persuasive, but don’t judge a post or website on looks alone. Always check where the data comes from. University, government, and nonprofit sources are usually trustworthy.

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.

Check the Facts!

When professional fact-checkers come across questionable information, they open up multiple internet browser tabs to study the topic and its source. Let’s say an official-looking site for a group called the Earth Population Institute claims that Canada has twice as many people as the U.S. Before you accept that stat, use the “tab” technique to find out:

Who is behind the info, and can you trust them?

What is the evidence?

What do other sources say?

You could search for “U.S. population” in one tab and “Canada population” in another. In a third, you could search for “Earth Population Institute.” In this case, you’d find that the U.S. population is nearly nine times that of Canada—and that the Earth Population Institute doesn’t exist.

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