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Spotting Junk "News"


You just saw this interesting link on social media. It makes very surprising claims–it might even promise to turn your world upside-down. But think before you click “Share”!

I’m going to assume that, if you’re taking the time to read this, you are someone who cares about truth and accuracy. You don’t want to share fabricated nonsense. You want the links you share on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms to be meaningful, informative, and truthful. I’m here to give you some tips on doing just that.

For example purposes, take this link I saw being spread around by some of my friends recently. My friends are a pretty good bunch, not usually susceptible to crackpot “theories” and other unscientific nonsense, but sometimes people still get taken in. It can happen to any of us, no matter how careful we are. But it’s also not hard to take a few simple steps to make sure that what you’re sharing is accurate. Much of this advice will focus on science reporting in particular, but it should apply just as well to other forms of journalism.

First, consider the source.

Is the article on some site you’ve never heard of? Does it come from a reputable news organization? The more obscure the source, the more likely it is you’re dealing with a hoax or a fraud. Do you think a site called “Expanded Consciousness” is likely to be an impartial, professional source of information?

When was it posted?

When an article was published is more important than you might think. Imagine some article is making a potentially earth-shattering claim. Then you see it was written in 2012. Well, shouldn’t you have heard about it sooner, if it’s such a big deal? That right there should tell you something is amiss. The link cited above was published in 2014.

On the other hand, if it’s a very recent piece, you should still remain skeptical. What do other sources have to say about it? Are there reputable sources reporting the same information independently?

Does the headline accurately represent what’s in the article?

Looking at the link above, notice the headline: Scientists link selfies to narcissism, addiction & mental illness. Reading through the actual text, however, one can find only the following passages to substantiate this claim:

According to psychiatrist Dr David Veal: “Two out of three of all the patients who come to see me with Body Dysmorphic Disorder since the rise of camera phones have a compulsion to repeatedly take and post selfies on social media sites.” ... A British male teenager tried to commit suicide after he failed to take the perfect selfie. Danny Bowman became so obsessed with capturing the perfect shot that he spent 10 hours a day taking up to 200 selfies. The 19-year-old lost nearly 30 pounds, dropped out of school and did not leave the house for six months in his quest to get the right picture. He would take 10 pictures immediately after waking up. Frustrated at his attempts to take the one image he wanted, Bowman eventually tried to take his own life by overdosing, but was saved by his mom. ... “Selfies frequently trigger perceptions of self-indulgence or attention-seeking social dependence that raises the damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t spectre of either narcissism or very low self-esteem,” said Pamela Rutledge in Psychology Today. ... The addiction to selfies has also alarmed health professionals in Thailand. “To pay close attention to published photos, controlling who sees or who likes or comments them, hoping to reach the greatest number of likes is a symptom that ‘selfies’ are causing problems,” said Panpimol Wipulakorn, of the Thai Mental Health Department. The doctor believed that behaviours could generate brain problems in the future, especially those related to lack of confidence.

So that’s three medical professionals giving fairly vague impressions of the effects of selfies, plus an anecdote. “Link” is the key word here. “Scientists” are claimed to have “linked” selfies with “narcissism, addiction & mental illness.”

Clicking through to the original sources, it turns out the main citation is a study. Studies are great: they have names attached to them, they have methodologies, they have results, they have conclusions–all of which we can examine for ourselves.

It’s fair to say, though, that the headline in this article doesn’t accurately reflect the content of the article. This is not surprising: headlines aren’t designed to inform, but grab your attention, so they’ll often sensationalize as much as possible. This is, of course, why clickbait works so well.

Is the article making claims not backed up by its sources?

If there are claims made in the article itself, how well are they sourced? Are scientific claims being presented by qualified scientists, or is the article just a bunch of anecdotes and speculation? Going back to what I said about studies: always seek out the original source, if you can. In the case of the selfie story, one of the authors of the original study actually put together an analysis of the media coverage, noting that a lot of sources drew the wrong conclusions and attributed results to the study that are simply inaccurate:

This study was a survey, which means we can’t make any causal claims; experimental research is needed to answer those questions. Narcissism could cause selfies, or selfies could cause narcissism, or a third variable could be driving them both. We can only state that we observed a relationship between these things among a nationally representative sample of U.S. men aged 18 to 40.

You wouldn’t know that to read the article I initially linked, though, would you?

Be skeptical, not closed-minded.

The saying goes that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If something sounds too good (or bad) to be true, trust your instincts and dig deeper. Skepticism is healthy. There is, however, such a thing as too much skepticism, as seen in individuals who regard virtually all mainstream discourse with such distrust that they’re almost impossible to reason with. Don’t confuse skepticism with rejection of mainstream science and reporting.

Is the story widespread and independently reported?

While a given story may never receive mainstream media attention, it should be possible to determine whether it is being reported on independently by multiple sources. Don’t trust stories where a hundred links all point back to one thinly-sourced article on an obscure site. A hundred versions of the same story are worthless if they’re all relying on a single common source.

This is exactly why scientists replicate each other’s experiments to determine whether the results are trustworthy. People make mistakes. Sometimes, people take shortcuts or are outright deceptive. Independent experimentation and independent reporting are necessities in order to weed out these errors.

It’s more important to be right than to be first.

Too often, sensational links are shared around rapidly without anyone taking the time to make sure they’re accurate. This is how hoax stories go viral! Don’t be part of the problem. Besides, who wants to look foolish by having to take down or apologize for perpetuating a joke article as a factual story? It’s worth putting in a little effort to avoid such embarrassment, and you can take pride in knowing you only promote reputable, accurate information to your friends and family.

But if you do mess up, just apologize and post a correction, then move on. None of us are perfect. We can only endeavor to do better.

Photo by Fiorenza Thompson