How can you tell if a source is trustworthy on the internet?
It is easy and cheap to obtain a web address and to create a website to promote any information or product you wish. There are many satirical websites on the web, and some are more obviously satire than others. Websites that create satirical, fake, or embellished content make money every time someone visits their page and the ads load, so the goal of these websites is to get as many people to click as possible. They use many different tricks to convince people to click, including outlandish or too good to be true headlines, unflattering imagery of a polarizing political figure or celebrity, click-bait wording like “facts the media doesn’t want you to know!” or “you won’t believe what happens next!”. Sometimes they try to spoof the name and look of an official website to trick you into thinking it’s a trustworthy source. Every time you click, they make money.
Not all of these types of websites are bad actors or have nefarious motives. Some are just trying to share some jokes. A local example is The Ostrich, an Alabama satire blog. Luckily Matt, the man behind The Ostrich, has tried to make it very obvious that his website is just for fun, but not all websites are this transparent. There are some sources out there that are sharing fabricated and sometimes dangerous information, and they’re getting more sophisticated all the time, trying to trick people into clicking their information, sharing their information, and then making money off of you.
Here are 10 checks that you should employ when reading a news report online from a source about which you’re unsure.
- Does this headline or content give me a strong emotional reaction? Are you intensely hoping that it’s true or false? Did it make you angry?
- How did you encounter this piece of information? Did a friend on social media share it? Did the algorithm show it to you because it thought you would interact with it?
- Is the headline written in a professional manner? Does it use excesive punctuation or allcaps to convey it’s message? Is it making a claim about sharing information that’s secret, priveledged, or something that “The media doesn’t want you to know”?
- Is this designed for easy sharing, like a meme?
- Consider the source of information. Is it a well-known source? Can you find an author? What about the About page for the website? How does the website describe itself? Does the contact information contain an email address or physical address? Does a google search of the name of the website raise any suspicions?
- Does this have a current date? When was this piece last updated?
- What sources are cited? Are they official or expert sources? Are the sources cited also used in other reports on this subject?
- Does this article link to other quality sources? Are those links still valid?
- Can you confirm that the images in the article are authentic and haven’t been taken from another source?
- Have you searched on a fact-checking website for this information or on other news outlets? Check a large, nationally syndicated news outlet or snopes.com, factcheck,org, and politifact.org.
The number 1 check is the most important check - did this information make feel strongly about the topic in one way or another? Did it make me feel angry? Did it make me feel smug about my beliefs or political candidate? Does it seem too good to be true or fit into my preferred story a little too well? If the answers to any of these is "yes", then it's worth reconsidering.