When you find a source of information, how do you know if it’s true? How can you be sure that it is a reliable, trustworthy, and effective piece of evidence for your research? This guide will introduce you to a set of strategies to quickly and effectively verify your sources, based on the approach taken by professional fact-checkers. Fact-checking is a form of information hygiene (see box below)—it can minimize your own susceptibility to misinformation and disinformation, and help you to avoid spreading it to others.
Mike Caulfield, Washington State University digital literacy expert, has helpfully condensed key fact-checking strategies into a short list of four moves, or things to do to quickly make a decision about whether or not a source is worthy of your attention. It is referred to as the “SIFT” method:
The term information hygiene refers to the “metaphorical handwashing you engage in to prevent the spread of misinformation” (Caulfield, “It Can Take”).
This idea has gained prominence in recent years, and particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, as we have witnessed a massive outbreak of misinformation, disinformation, hoaxes, and conspiracies surrounding this coronavirus. The World Health Organization (WHO) and other experts have even referred to the COVID-19 pandemic as an “infodemic”—an epidemic of information. In their February 2020 Novel Coronavirus Situation Report, the WHO noted that the COVID-19 outbreak and response “has been accompanied by a massive ‘infodemic’—an over-abundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”
This is a stark example of the real-world impact that our online information can have. In this case, false information that we view, “like,” and share can actually help to shape the public perceptions about the pandemic, as well as our responses and decisions about how to behave.
So, the message here is that, in addition to actual hygiene, we also need to focus on information hygiene and "flattening the curve" of dangerous falsehoods online by taking proactive steps to reduce their spread” (“Practice Information Hygiene”). Fact-checking is an example of good information hygiene. Much like hand sanitizer or hand washing, it isn’t a cure, but rather a prevention for the spread of misinformation (Caulfield, “Misinformation”).
If our information environment is polluted, we shouldn’t abandon it—instead, we should help to clean it up. That is, if we are frustrated with the content posted on platforms like Facebook or YouTube or with low-quality Google search results, why not clean it up by posting as much reliable information as we can?
Of course, a big part of this movement will involve putting pressure on the platforms themselves to act responsibly. But because the Web is a collectively-maintained and produced environment, we, as consumers and creators, can also participate in the process through direct action. Here are some examples of actions you might take to improve the information environment (Caulfield, “Info-Environmentalism”):