The Internet is so vast that you can find just about anything online, no matter how unreasonable and bizarre it is. So employing an efficient filter is often necessary to help to tell fact from fiction and to prevent people from inadvertently spreading nonsense because viral stories exploit your biases in an effort to get you to click like, share or retweet.
Are you tired of seeing stupid stories about the end of the world, how some new kind of cabbage can cure all cancers, that coughing prevents death from heart failure or any of the other thousands of inane viral stories being shared on social media? This is a simple introductory guide on how to avoid falling for bullshit on the Internet.
Wait for more facts to emerge
One of the biggest risks for falling for bullshit on the Internet is reacting too fast. When a new viral story or video hit, it is often shared thousands and thousands of times within a short period of time. Videos are made about it, Facebook posts are written about it, Tweets and retweets spread all over the Internet.
Keep your head cool, acknowledge the existence of the story to yourself, but do not fall for emotional manipulation that begs you to click “share” straight away. Do not share things that appeal to you if you have not fact-checked them sufficiently. The only thing that such actions accomplish is that you are spreading the nonsense around, and risk looking foolish if it turns out to be fake.
Check Snopes and other skeptical sources
Not everyone has the time or interest to fact-check stories in great detail. That is fine, people have other interests. However, there are some fact-checking methods that is both straightforward and fast. Search for the story on Google and add the word “Snopes” afterwards e.g. “obama muslim snopes” and you will end up here. Snopes is a website that critically analyzes questionable claims on the Internet and is a great resource for quickly checking the truth of a viral story. Sometimes, the story is too new or too uncommon for Snopes to have picked it up.
Snopes is not the only website that does fact-checking on the Internet. It is also possible to search for the story on Google and add the word “skeptic”, “fake”, “debunked” or similar words in order to find critical voices. Now, do not automatically trust these critics, because they too can be considerably mistaken. Instead, try to find out which is more reasonable: the viral story or the critics.
For specific claims, such as medicine, add words such as “CDC”, “WHO”, ” to get reliable medical websites. If the viral story makes claims about organization, such as “NASA”, go ahead and add that word too, or use “site:nasa.gov” to see if the NASA website has any information about it.
Search for red flags with regards to facts
Viral stories that are fake often make basic factual mistakes. Does something stand out as implausible or outright wrong? Is the story about how NASA has discovered something, but also promote conspiracy theories or make claims that are obviously false, such as the false claim that there is no gravity in space? Then there is plenty of reason to be skeptical towards the viral story. The basic idea is this: if the viral story play fast and loose with the facts, chances are that they are playing fast and loose with the truth of the basic premise of the story itself. If it promotes conspiracy theories, the source generally should never be trusted.
Do not rely on known cranks or satire websites
Some websites and Facebook pages such as Natural News, the Food Babe, Alex Jones are well-known cranks that should not be considered reliable. Never use them as a reference for any claim about science and do not under any circumstance share their content. There are many more Facebook pages that science-minded people should stop sharing from.
It is not only cranks that needs to be looked out for. There are many other websites that pretend to be news sites, but are actually parody or satire website that have no accurate content whatsoever and only fake news items. Examples of this is The Onion, Borowitz Report, Landover Baptist Church, National Report, The Daily Mash and many others. Always check the nature of the website you get the information from. By looking around you might find “news items” that are obviously fake or a note that informs users that it is a satire news website.
Is the story bias-conforming?
Should there be no skeptical material available at the moment on the viral story, either wait for more facts to emerge or spend some time analyzing what kind of biases this story appeals to. Is it a story about a politician many people strongly approve of or intensely dislike? Would the story if true have an impact of any particular political ideology? Is it on a hot-button issue, such as guns, feminism, immigration etc.?
If the story appeals to a particular bias, be careful. Being bias-conforming is likely one of the biggest reason many stories go viral. Be even more careful if it appeals to your own biases. Because of a cognitive bias called confirmation bias, humans are more likely to uncritically accept things that appeal to their bias, while being highly critical against things that goes against their position. Does the story sound too good for your position to be true?
Try to identify what human biases and positions the viral story tries to appeal to. Gun advocates? Obama haters? Anti-GMO activists? Karma comes back to bite you? The best way to reduce the impact of biases is to be aware of your own biases and the biases a viral story tries to appeal to. Beware, though, that this is not a perfect method and residual bias will always exist.
What narratives are being pushed? By whom? What do those narratives appeal to?
If it is a viral story that does not involve science or technology, but rather politics or social events, it becomes even harder to critically investigate. While facts are emerging, try to find out what kinds of narratives are being pushed in the mainstream and social media. What do people with different political ideologies think? Does their biases affect their interpretation of the story and in what way? Is a particular group being blamed? Do some attempt to trivialize events by making false comparisons?
For very events that are difficult to analyze, where facts might not be available in weeks or occur far away so that the largest news organizations do not have much material on it, one must be very restrained. What facts do all parties agree on? Use that as a provisional base from which to define what biases and position is taken by different stakeholders.
No really, wait for more facts to emerge
Viral stories become viral because of the actions of individuals. Anytime you share a story, you are exposing that story for anywhere between a couple to thousands of potential individuals who might share the story further. Do you part by not sharing stories that you have not fact-checked.