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Ask Molly: August 14, 2020

August 14, 2020

Dear Molly,

With so much information floating around online, how can the average person distinguish reliable and trustworthy reporting from everything else?

– Information Overload

Dear Information Overload,

We hear you on that one! There is so, so much information floating around out there, and keeping your head above water with reliable and trustworthy sources is difficult. It seems like every day there are a handful of new websites, blogs, and media outlets generating content to compete for valuable viewership. Frankly, it has us longing for the days of a daily newspaper delivery and three-station television sets. But alas, that’s not the world we live in and, like it or not, we need to adapt to overcome. But what exactly does adaptation look like? That’s the real question.

We’re not talking about picking a handful of your favorite media outlets and ignoring the rest. To do so would be ignoring potentially valuable information. And at CIA we understand that no one can afford to ignore the stuff we just don’t want to hear. No, what we’re talking about is how you can train yourself to more carefully evaluate information to decide whether or not each source warrants your time and attention. If this sounds daunting, that’s because it can be. Luckily, we have a few tricks up our sleeve to evaluate the credibility of sources, and today we’re going to share a few that you can use to trim your daily information consumption (and digestion, for that matter).

Over the past few weeks, I’ve taken the liberty of arranging a few (socially-distant) meetings with some of CIA’s most information-literate officers. CIA librarians and CIA analysts know, more than most, what it takes to filter through the vast amount of information competing for our attention. Analysts have made a career out of information, in one way or another, and as a country we rely on them to establish the credibility of intelligence that is passed to our decision makers. And so, without further ado, I present a few tips and tricks from the CIA on how you can improve your web literacy and filter out the noise.

1. Pause and Reflect.

Let’s say you’re scrolling down your social media news feed and you come across an article shared by a friend. The article, as most do, has a catchy thumbnail photo and a compelling ‘bottom line up front’ headline. Good or bad, the article is likely intended to evoke some sort of emotion. The first, and perhaps most crucial, step to increasing your web literacy is always to pause and reflect.

Articles may be framed in a way that preys on our emotions, with the goal being to get the reader to click or share the article. That often means that articles which may be factually inaccurate gain larger-than-expected viewership. In order to truly evaluate the veracity of a piece, we need to first set aside our own biases. It is such a convincing trap to believe (and share) information that matches what you already think. Taking time to reflect will ensure that we conduct a more thorough evaluation of the facts.

2. Establish Credibility.

Now that you’ve taken a step back from the article, take a few minutes to establish the credibility of the article, the website, the media outlet, and the author. Start with the URL. Are you looking at one of the standard top-level domains (.com, .net, .edu, etc.) or is there something not-quite-right? URLs ending in .co.com or some other non-standard variation are questionable and should be avoided as a primary source of information. What about the website itself? Though it may have an official-sounding title, does it seem like a professional publication? Legitimate media outlets have high standards, so a website rife with misspellings might be cause for concern.

Head to the website’s about and contact pages. Legitimate media outlets are clear about the ways in which you, the consumer, can contact them. If the outlet is missing a contact page, this could be a red flag. The outlet’s “About” page can give additional insight on the group, as well as their mission and goals. A legitimate media outlet will have a well-defined “About” page.

Check citations. Even if someone who purports to be an expert in a given topic has written something, see whether their citations are from reputable sources. If there are no citations, be even more skeptical and continue to investigate the author’s credentials.

And lastly, double-check that you’re not reading from a satirical website. Does the article seem a bit outlandish? Then it might be satire. If you’re not sure, head to their about page or check another source.

3. Verify. Verify. Verify.

Now we’ve come to the most time-intensive part of becoming an information-literate consumer, but even this doesn’t have to be too burdensome once you’ve turned it into habit. Establishing the credibility of a website is one thing, but confirming the accuracy of information presented is another beast altogether. As the famous adage goes: trust, but verify. What this means is that we should make it a practice to exercise healthy skepticism by verifying the information we consume. We can do this by finding multiple, unlinked sources to corroborate the claims made in an article.

While a lot of the research we do here at CIA is highly specialized and written by just a handful of experts, that is rarely the case in the outside world. You can almost always find a wealth of sources to verify information—unless, of course, the article isn’t as accurate as the author wants you to think.

And always remember, words are not the only way to lie. Videos, images, and audio files can be equally deceiving. Luckily, there are plenty of services online that you can use to verify the authenticity of images, video, audio, and text. This guide from the American Libraries Association includes of handful of these tools. https://libguides.ala.org/InformationEvaluation

4. Consider Stopping the Chain.

If, after establishing credibility and independently verifying the facts presented, you are reasonably sure that the information presented in the article is legitimate, that’s great! Use that information as you see fit, knowing confidently that you have taken the time to ensure its accuracy. ‘Knowing’ something to be true is one thing, but taking the extra few minutes to do a bit of leg work and independently verify its accuracy adds so much more to your understanding of the facts.

However, if after doing your due diligence you’ve found that the article you stumbled across in your news feed is inaccurate or otherwise misleading, consider stopping the chain.

Becoming a more capable consumer of information is, as our librarians and analysts will attest, a lifelong pursuit and one that is shared by all. I hope you find some of these tips and tricks valuable as you attempt to navigate through the many streams of information which compete for your attention on a daily basis. These skills will take some time to perfect, but with practice and patience, you’ll be sifting through information like a CIA analyst in no time.

Thanks,

Molly

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