Can That Be True? How to Spot an Illegitimate Claim on Social Media

Have you seen the commercial where a man and women are discussing truths and the woman always replies that it must be true because she “read it on the Internet.” The commercial then closes by the woman meeting up with her online boyfriend who claims to be (but is so very obviously not) a “French model”?

With the Internet being our primary source for information these days, it’s hard to remember that what is on the Internet is only as good the source reporting the information.

Both the glory and the pitfall of Internet information is that ANYONE, ANYWHERE can publish information on ANYTHING. If you Google long enough, you could probably find someone who claims the sky is red, the president is an alien, or that Atlantic Ocean doesn’t actually exist. So, how do you separate true internet claims from false ones?

Uncovering Untruths in Internet Claims

Check the credibility of the source.  Does the person making the internet claim have a profile picture, undisclosed name, and lack connected accounts?  Often, people will hide falsehoods behind a cloak of anonymity, and that should be a red flag for readers. Also, where is the piece published?  Some social media sites such as Wikipedia send entries through a peer review process, while others do not.  Where the piece is published should dramatically increase or decrease your trust in the source.

Is the piece a one-way communication? Does the piece allow for commentary?  When an internet claim is made, but does not allow for further commentary, that should be a red flag to readers.  Examples of red flag content includes: blogs where users are unable to comment back, You Tube videos with the comments turned off, or “no-reply” emails.

Consider the source. What does the publisher of the intenet claim have to benefit from the dissemination of this information?  If the claim is particularly beneficial to deliverer of the information, then consider taking a look at the other side of the claim or accusation so you have a more balanced view of the issue.

Separate passion from story-telling. Is the tone of the internet claim passionate, or inappropriate?  Some people express their opinions in a very passionate way, but don’t mistake passion for truth.  Do the claims stand on their own when the voice and tone of the piece is removed?  Is the tone and rhetoric distracting the audience from the truth?

Look for evidence.  Truth often comes out in the details.  Ambiguous and vague claims that make large assumptions and huge accusations about an entire company, group, or people mask the lack of evidence with rhetoric.  Look for specifics in the claims–solid numbers, facts, and research–followed by references to outside sources that can be checked.  Also, be wary of anecdotal evidence, which can be powerful, but is not necessarily factual.

Google the claims.  Most likely, if a shocking claim is being made, it’s been made by more than one source.  Google the claim to see if any credible sources are making the same claim.  Websites such as Snopes.com are also good places to check for social media falsehoods and scams.

Think critically.  At the end of the day, sometimes the only thing separating a believer from a non-believer of a ridiculous claim is critical thought.  If someone’s story or claim doesn’t add up or seems too good to be true, it probably is false.  There is no replacement for critical thinking and mindful reading.

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