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MicroMasters® at the University of Edinburgh

An introduction to the resources available to support your learning

Ways to evaluate information online

It can sometimes be difficult to discern whether information on the internet is trustworthy or truthful. The steps below are good general advice for thinking about the information you encounter.

The Four Moves

SIFT techniqueThere are four specific web-based techniques that can get you closer to the truth on the web more quickly. 

SIFT:  (S)TOP - (I)nvestigate the Source - (F)ind better coverage - (T)race claims, quotes, and media back to the original context

 

Stop

The first move is the simplest. STOP reminds you of two things. First, when you first hit a page or post and start to read it — STOP. Ask yourself whether you know the website or source of the information, and what the reputation of both the claim and the website is. If you don’t have that information, use the other moves to get a sense of what you’re looking at. Don’t read it or share media until you know what it is.

Second, after you begin to use the other moves it can be easy to go down a rabbit hole, going off on tangents only distantly related to your original task. If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed in your fact-checking efforts, STOP and take a second to remember your purpose. If you just want to repost, read an interesting story, or get a high-level explanation of a concept, it’s probably good enough to find out whether the publication is reputable. If you are doing deep research of your own, you may want to chase down individual claims in a newspaper article and independently verify them. Please keep in mind that both sorts of investigations are equally useful.

Quick and shallow investigations will form most of what we do on the web. We get quicker with the simple stuff in part so we can spend more time on the stuff that matters to us. But in either case, stopping periodically and reevaluating our reaction or search strategy is key.

Investigate the source

You want to know what you’re reading before you read it. You don’t have to do a Pulitzer prize-winning investigation into a source before you engage with it. But if you’re reading a piece on economics by a Nobel prize-winning economist, you should know that before you read it.

Conversely, if you’re watching a video on the many benefits of milk consumption that was put out by the dairy industry, you want to know that as well. This doesn’t mean the Nobel economist will always be right and that the dairy industry can’t be trusted. But knowing the expertise and agenda of the source is crucial to your interpretation of what they say.

Taking sixty seconds to figure out where media is from before reading will help you decide if it is worth your time, and if it is, help you to better understand its significance and trustworthiness.

Find trusted coverage

Sometimes you don’t care about the particular article or video that reaches you. You care about the claim the article is making. You want to know if it is true or false. You want to know if it represents a consensus viewpoint, or if it is the subject of much disagreement.

In this case, your best strategy may be to ignore the source that reached you, and look for trusted reporting or analysis on the claim. If you get an article that says koalas have just been declared extinct from the Save the Koalas Foundation, your best bet might not be to investigate the source, but to go out and find the best source you can on this topic, or, just as importantly, to scan multiple sources and see what the expert consensus seems to be.

In these cases we encourage you to “find other coverage” that better suits your needs — more trusted, more in-depth, or maybe just more varied. Do you have to agree with the consensus once you find it? Absolutely not! But understanding the context and history of a claim will help you better evaluate it and form a starting point for future investigation.

Trace claims, quotes, and media back to the original context

Much of what we find on the internet has been stripped of context. Maybe there’s a video of a fight between two people with Person A as the aggressor. But what happened before that? What was clipped out of the video and what stayed in? Maybe there’s a picture that seems real but the caption could be misleading. Maybe a claim is made about a new medical treatment based on a research finding — but you’re not certain if the cited research paper really said that. In these cases you need to trace the claim, quote, or media back to the source, so you can see it in it’s original context and get a sense if the version you saw was accurately presented.

Read more

Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers...and other people who care about facts by Mike Caulfield - This open ebook is an excellent guide to evaluating information on the internet.

Crash course in navigating digital information

Acknowledgements

SIFT technique by Mike Caulfield licensed under CC-BY