We live in a world of online trolls, foreign election interference and disinformation. Many of us get our information online or from our friends on social media. But it's become easy for interested parties to spread false or misleading content through these channels, especially with a view toward influencing election results. So how do you know if what you're seeing is reliable or comes from a reputable source?
Here's a cheat sheet to help guide you through the disinformation minefield that is the Internet.
1. Be skeptical
Critical thinking is one of the most useful weapons we have against disinformation. When looking at a story or a post online, there are lots of questions you can ask yourself about its legitimacy.
Does this story seem reasonable, or is it too perfect or too far-fetched?
Unreliable sources often exaggerate virtues of political candidates they favour, or exaggerate flaws of candidates they oppose. Stories that seem particularly outrageous or sensational often are and are usually a good indicator of whether the source is promoting one side or another.
Is this story similar to other stories I usually see?
If all the posts or stories you see lean toward one political viewpoint (which you share), that's a pretty good indication that you're in an online bubble and the information you get is biased. A healthy media diet includes a variety of views and perspectives. This is crucial to making informed choices about voting (or anything else).
When was this story published?
Once published on the Internet, content stays until it's deleted. And even then, if it's copied or republished, it can surface again and again. Stories that are a few years old are often out of date or no longer accurate, so it's important to know if what you're reading is current information.
Who wrote this story or post?
More reputable media sources publish the names of their authors and editors, as well as contact information for how to get in touch with them. You should also be able to find their public profiles on social media.
Does this story identify its sources?
A credible piece of journalism will identify people it quotes by name (unless they ask not to be identified, in which case the writer will say so). It will also include links or citations for sources of background information, statistics and other data, so readers can see for themselves where it came from. Disreputable outlets will try to hide or misrepresent that information.
2. Look for established media sources
It's become almost fashionable for certain political leaders to question the legitimacy of mainstream news sources — especially when they publish pieces critical of those leaders. It doesn't help that the newspaper industry is experiencing a prolonged decline in readership and profitability, which results in cutbacks or closures.
Nevertheless, established mainstream media outlets employ professional journalists, who are trained in a set of professional standards that are meant to uphold integrity and legitimacy. They fact-check, they quote (and protect) their sources, they publish under their own names, and they retract or correct stories when necessary. They're accountable to their readers.
While citizen journalism offers valuable perspectives, the people who write such publications don't have to adhere to the same standards (or any at all). They're often written anonymously. It's difficult to tell who the publishers are. They don't respond to requests for more information. They can change what they've published on the fly. They're free to conjecture and speculate however they want. They're accountable to no one.
How much information you can find online about an organization is a great indicator of how reliable they are. Shady or unreliable organizations make it difficult to find out who they really are and where they're publishing from. Reliable sources have clear, easy-to-find contact info, addresses of their offices, phone numbers of staff, etc. They're also quoted and cited and linked to by other reputable organizations.
3. Ask yourself, "Why am I seeing this?"
Social media platforms, news aggregators, advertising providers and other online feeds run on algorithms, which are basically recipes for computer behaviour. These algorithms are in turn fed by data about your online activity, artificial intelligence and machine learning. That means they track your online activity, forming a profile about you, which then determines what other kind of content to show you.
This is why, when you're shopping online, you suddenly see ads everywhere you go for the items you were just browsing. This is called retargeting, and content feeds work in a similar way. When you click on something or interact with it, you suddenly see more and more similar content. Online content providers benefit from you engaging and interacting with content, so once they determine you like something, they keep feeding it to you.
Similarly, advertisers and producers of paid or sponsored content identify target groups when they post content online. If you're part of the target group, this content will show up in your feeds. Some social media platforms, such as Facebook, have added an option called "Why am I seeing this post?" When you click on this option on a post or an ad in your feed, you can see if you were part of a target group and other reasons why you're seeing that particular post.
4. Don't spread fake news
Organizations or people who spread disinformation benefit when that content is shared. The more people who see their false or misleading content, the easier it becomes for them to accomplish their goals.
Before you share information or posts, making sure they're reputable will save you the embarrassment of having shared dubious content, and having contributed to disinformation campaigns.
When in doubt about the authenticity of any content, it's better to not share or re-post it.
5. Get out of your bubble
As discussed above, the algorithms for social media platforms, news aggregators and other content providers feed you content similar to what you've viewed and engaged with before. The more you interact with certain types of content, the more you'll see of that content. This can result in what's called a bubble, where everything you see has the same bias or perspective, reinforcing your beliefs and worldview.
In this environment, it's more important than ever to get a balanced perspective. It takes more effort and work to get a rounded view but you owe it to yourself (and to the rest of us) to be as informed as you can before you make election decisions.