Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Basics of Researching Online Media

“If you throw something up without fact-checking it and you’re the first one to put it up, and you get millions and millions of views, and later it’s proved false, you still got those views." 
- Ryan Grim, the bureau chief in Washington for The Huffington Post

Credit: lculig/Shutterstock
We’ve all read a story that is shocking, unbelievable, or just too good to be true. Some people may take the time to actually read the story before forming an opinion, others may judge on the headline either for or against the validity of the story based on their beliefs or perspective, and others may simply share or recirculate the story without reading it with the hopes that someone else can get to the bottom of it. Then there are those that merely believe anything and everything they read without thought. I mention this last group apart from the others since this gullible group is generally the target to those who intend to fool based on their agenda, beliefs, or just for the thrill of creating viral confusion or gaining their fifteen minutes of fame through a hoax. Gullibility does not imply someone is stupid, it merely means some people do not take or have the time to dig into certain headlines and others may just not know how to do it. To many these stories really are not worth the time to dig into and passing it along and looking back later for the solution is much easier. In some cases I just don’t think people care whether a story is valid or not anyway, it’s just getting “mind blown” that is the experience; the truth is boring to some. For others many stories support their beliefs or agenda and they will pass it off as fact since they have little reason or desire to verify it. Others may be quick to dismiss stories based on the same beliefs, again without verification. Technology is the carrier of these memes and it also the method in which to provide the antidote on a case by case basis. I come from a time before the World Wide Web of endless information when one had to search through books to find answers and in the case of the Internet you had to know what door to look through to find answers without a web browser, Google, or any way to simply enter a search cue into the system. Even before web browsers and the World Wide Web there were many emails circulated as hoaxes so this is not a new sensation although the large use of social media and the Internet has made this a growing problem. The leading social media platform, Facebook, has attempted to hinder the spread of hoaxes, but to little avail. 

There are many ways to look for the truth in a story, but the easiest way is to spot the misinformation. To spot the things that the story relies on as fact and expose it as a lie is the best method of dismantling a story quickly. However, there are some cases in which facts must merely be looked for elsewhere from more reliable means. An example would be in the case of a famous person dying, do not rely on fan sites for the information instead look toward an official channel of a band’s website or their agent for an official release.

I deal with identifying the validity of stories each and every day as I gather information for my weekly show, the Paranormal News Insider. I pride myself on searching for answers instead of merely regurgitating what appears in print on other sites. While I use many methods to search for the truth within information I have a fairly reliable method that has become a habit of use that I use when reading any type of story. This is what I call my basic “outside in” approach. With this approach I look at the top and bottom and move my way in to the core of the story to look for details of a hoax or misinformation. Once key details are established I can begin searching other resources outside of this page for more details to either confirm or deny this story, yet this also comes with pitfalls. Some stories have aspects of these that need to be researched to get a better feel of whether the story was created or shared by a credible source. Establishing the source is critical in determining the validity of a story.

With any story a headline can be deceiving. Many of us have become reliant upon a headline to provide us as much information as possible to understand a story without actually having to read it. If you have an interest in a story or intend to share the information it would behoove you to actually take time to read the entire story for content. There are many clues within the body of a story that can help you decide whether there is enough credibility in the story to pass it on. Again, headlines can be deceiving and the content of the story may have a different version of what you might actually think is there based on the deception.

Researching general stories found online:

The first step in determining the validity of any story is to first take the time to read it. A simple way of getting to the truth is to see if there is already someone who has done research on a story is to merely search for it. Use the keywords of a story and then enter “hoax” or other words that you think of that your gut is telling you about the story. Websites like Snopes.com, Hoax-slayer.com, urbanlegends.about.com, truthorfiction.com, and many others provide a resource of sanity about many of the hoaxes on the Internet.  Granted, one rule I always live by; NEVER RELY ON ONE RESOURCE FOR THE TRUTH!

Many people question the reliability of the leader of these sites; Snopes. This website is edited by a husband and wife team and while there may be mistakes all of the information gathered for a story is given out so the research behind every claim is there for the world to see. They have been judged by a number of other sites to be as accurate as you will find onthe subjects and the accuracy outweighs the minimal mistakes. The same holds true for another valued, yet many times questioned, resource; Wikipedia. This resource of information has received a bad rap from many people since it is an open-source where anyone can edit and update information. However, Wikipedia is watched closely for updates and requires legitimate resources for major changes or additions. Many have never questioned the validity of Encyclopedia Britannica, but Wikipedia has been found to be just as reliable mostly due to the diligent eyes on its content.

My “outside in” approach to validating online media:    

1. Consider the source
  •  Is this a legitimate website? Is the URL spelled correctly? No? It may be a mirror site (or spoof site) and is created to fool you into thinking it is a credible source. Is this a parody website? (onion.com type).  Is this from a website where regular people contribute in blog style? This is by far the most common type of website hoax where stories are spread via misinformation and will take the longest to unravel at times since the story is written by the author’s opinion and web of lies and misinformation. A list of these sites would be in the hundreds (see a small list below before the resources) and includes sites like beforeitsnews.com, many government, conspiracy, and UFO sites that are merely fronts for people’s thoughts, ideas, opinions, fears, and agendas.

2. Consider the resource
  •  The single most important thing after determining the validity of the website that the story appears on is finding the original source of the story. Any good media story that is merely copied and pasted will provide a link to the original source of the story at the bottom or sometimes the top of their posting. If there is a link open this one in a new tab and begin to evaluate it to determine the time/date is actually earlier than the one you originally opened. If this source appears to be an earlier version this is where you continue your research on the story beginning with determining if this is a legitimate source as well as if this story has a resource listed at the top or bottom of the story. The caveat with this is that there are some sites that back dates stories (such as celebrity death hoaxes) to confuse people. Continue to chase these sources until you reach the bottom of the rabbit hole. Unfortunately, many online media outlets do not take the time to fact check and are merely concerned with website traffic. Getting you to click on their website puts money in their pockets based on advertisers, so they honestly care little about the facts up front.
  • Go local. You can also search for and look at other sources local to where the story purportedly took place. During the Jerusalem UFO sightings that seemed extremely credible I was not able to find any mention of the sightings in any local or regional online sources in the area and have found the same in many other hoaxes. However, during recent unexplained noises in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, the best updates were available from the local newspapers which printed updates which were then copied by the regional news channel websites. Go to Google and search for the city where the story takes place and use words like “newspaper” or “news” and you should be able to find local sources. Granted, searching for phrases of meaning with the story can help speed up the process by bringing up the multitude of copies of the story and will allow you to see where they are coming from to aid in the search for the original source.
  • If the story does not list a source for the story then the content must be put into question as well as the person behind the post.  This is a positive indication that the person may have made this story up or has copied other information and created a version of a story about something else. Don’t be afraid to email someone associated with the site to find the source of their content; their answer or lack thereof will guide you to your answer. In some cases, such as a UFO, ghost, or cryptid news site the story may have been submitted to them. The question is then; did they evaluate, research, or investigate this story or merely put it up on the website as quickly as possible? Hoaxers and attention seekers will find sites like these to get their “stories” out in public quickly.

3. Consider the content
  • Is the story filled with frequent misspellings, run on sentences, or is the structure of the story all over the place? Granted, punctuation is not something many in the media worry about these days as they rely on spell check and many times the comments section will point out issues which they will silently correct.
  • Does the content seem to merely support and idea, opinion, or agenda more than actually reporting an event or story about something or someone? If so, this website is obviously peddling an agenda and not a legitimate story. I recommend using key terms in the article to be highlighted, right clicked, and searched for current information beyond this story and those that have copied that information until an actual source can be found if you have not done so already.

4. Consider the evidence
  • They say a picture is worth a thousand words and articles can live and die with them. While sadly it has become common practice for many news agencies to alter photographs in order to focus on certain things others will immediately fire you for such an act. Photographs have been edited long before digital methods such as Photoshop came along and most of us take edited photographs for granted as they appear on nearly every single magazine on the newsstands.
  • Many images are altered to provide visual evidence to support the story. If a story is reliant upon an image you can take simple steps to search for an original unaltered image if one exists. There are two methods; Google image search and TinEye that search the Internet for photographs that have been placed on the web and have been crawled and recorded on search engines. Both of these resources have plugins that will allow you to right click on the image and search from the prompt (see resources below). You will have to scroll through examples of these photographs and see if you can find other versions of this photograph that indicate that the one in the story has been tampered with.
  • There are limitations to mere image searching. For starters, if the person is using a photograph that has not been crawled and is not preexisting on the Internet you will obviously not find the original. Also, if an image is altered significantly it may not show up in simple image searches. You can combat this by cropping the image or altering the image eliminating an area you feel is put in digitally using simple methods such as using paint on Windows-based computers. After retouching you can upload it to TinEye to see if the alterations helped the search. Another reason for images not being found is if they are screen captures of videos. On more than one occasion I have traced an altered photograph to a video. In Google you can search for topics by category and if I hit a dead end with pictures I may try to search for relevant videos on the specific topic of the photograph to see if there is a video with the image.
  • Be mindful that just because you are unable to find an altered image does not mean the photograph in the story is legitimate. There are many other ways to determine the validity of photographs such as using InfranView and other software to find image inconsistencies created from digital manipulation to looking at the metadata, but I’ll save that for a more in-depth look at uncovering the truth.

5. Consider the comments
  • One highly overlooked method of finding the truth is based on those commenting on the story. Granted, reading through comments on stories that rely on belief tend to be full of opinions and arguments, but occasionally there will be a crusader of research (such as myself) that will jump in and provide useful information that can dispel these stories. I usually will peruse the comments section of the viral post as well as the original source to seek out clues or information that can help me unravel as hoax.

I will cover YouTube and other videos in a separate blog post in the future.

Sites to question or avoid based on who is able to publish on these sites, their agenda, or other questionable reasons:

  • Beforeitsnews.com, NaturalNews.com, InfoWars.com, DailyCurrant.com, NationalReport.net, WorldNewsDailyReport.com, AmericanNews.com, Celebtricity.com, Huzlers.com, DoctorOz.com, TheNewsNerd.com, News-hound.org, NewsWatch33.com, TheRacketReport.com, WeeklyWorldNews.com, Demyx.com, Empirenews.net, MediaFletcher.com, EmpireSports.co, Disclose.tv, FoodBabe.com, Chopra.com, ChristianAnswers.net, Heartland.org, TheLapine.ca, MediaMass.net, Newslo.com, NewsBuzzDaily.com, EmpireNews.net, TheOnion.com, The DailyMash.co.uk, Rumormillnews.com, Whatreallyhappened.com, Drudgereport.com, blacklistednews.com, rense.com, inquisitor.com, examiner.com, even huffingtonpost.com. This is by no means a complete list!

Resources and further reading:


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