Read, Reference, Repeat: Fact Checking Before You Post


Photo by Picture Perfect Pose

This past week illustrated in numerous ways how misinformation can fly across the world of social media. One national story, one international story, and one case involving me personally all reminded me how easy it is to read and share without checking to make sure that you are actually passing on information that is credible.

I was also reminded how easy it is for unchecked information to spread quickly. Before you know it, information you failed to fact-check is being shared as the gospel truth. And if you shared the information from your organization’s Facebook page, for example, you could end up with a big mess on your hands. What stories brought this lesson to mind? Let’s dig in!

Paula Deen

If you did not know about Paula Deen before this last week, you very likely know about her now. The cherubic Food Network Southern superstar made the news for all of the wrong reasons. News stories tied to Paula’s fall from grace multiplied exponentially over the course of the week. In the midst of the craze, a person I am connected to on Facebook shared a story indicating that Deen was going to be hired by the Fox Network. I watched all day as this story spread, and in the evening that same connection announced they had shared the story knowing it had already been proven false. They wanted to see how many people would share the story without fact-checking it (or without questioning them on the credibility of the story). While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend trickery as a way to teach people to check the credibility of news stories, it definitely made a point.

Nelson Mandela

While the Paula Deen story was occupying Americans, internationally the world’s attention was focused on Nelson Mandela, who once again was hospitalized in critical condition. I am not sure how many times I saw various people on Twitter and Facebook announce that Mandela had passed, but it happened quite often. Each time someone passed on a story that Mandela had passed away, the story was shared and spread like wildfire. Perhaps you witnessed this in your circles as well.

And Then I Did It

It would be easy for me to turn this blog post into a “How not to pass on misinformation” post, but factually, I made the same exact mistake as the folks who spread those Deen and Mandela stories. In my case, I saw a blog post noting that Google Alert *feeds* were unexpectedly being killed by Google. I misunderstood the post, and thought that Alerts in general were being killed as a result of the changes to the feeds, so I shared the post and noted that I had seen this coming a few weeks in the past.


In my case, someone questioned my interpretation right away, and with a sinking heart I realized that I was in fact in the wrong. I had not done my own research to make sure the information I was sharing and interpreting (in this case the latter) was 100% spot on. The story was shared by a few people and I had to do some damage control, explaining that I had made a mistake.

Read, Reference, Repeat

What one can learn from all of these cases is that it is virtually impossible to be too careful about sharing information in the online world. Read what you share, and be sure you are reading it correctly. This is especially important these days because sometimes a headline will make you think a story is going to be one thing when it turns out the story goes a completely different way.

After you carefully read the story, look for other sources that corroborate the news item. Credible sources.

Then read the post again.

Now you can share it with confidence.

If this seems more time-consuming than what you normally do online, it is. If the additional time investment does not seem wise, just consider what can happen if your organization were to express a strong stance based on information that proved untrue. Which is better? Being the first to report incorrect news or being a little late in reporting correct information?

Which would you choose?

1 thought on “Read, Reference, Repeat: Fact Checking Before You Post”

  1. Dallas Heltzell

    Great article, except for one paragraph: “After you carefully read the
    story, look for other sources that corroborate the news item. Credible
    sources.” Unfortunately, the word “credible” is subjective. Credibility
    is in the eye of the beholder, and too many people define “credible” as
    “any source that agrees with my agenda.” For some, the only “credible”
    science book is one that teaches that the Earth is flat and the sun
    revolves around it, and the moon landings were faked. So an
    ultra-conservative spotting some wild-eyed misinformation on WorldNet
    Daily that he’d like to repost will look for “credible” confirmation
    only on Newsmax, Townhall or Drudge — and an ultra-liberal seeking to
    repost information he saw on the Daily Kos will seek out “credible”
    corroboration only on Salon, Truthout or Slate. Better to seek out
    longtime trusted news sources which have a financial and legal stake in
    long-term credibility instead of advancing an agenda, or a couple of the
    excellent urban-legends fact-checkers such as PolitiFact,
    or — especially in the case of mass e-mails — Snopes which all cite
    references instead of opining. All three of these sites have on occasion
    confirmed as true something I desperately hoped wasn’t true — or
    dismissed as baseless something I desperately hoped was a fact. That
    willingness to challenge all sides made them credible in my eyes.

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