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Are You Information Savvy?: Consumer

Savvy Consumer: How do you know what information to trust?

Why does this matter?
Being a savvy consumer will help you determine if the information you find is reliable.

Scenario:
For a Nursing course, you have to write a research summary geared towards new parents about the importance of childhood vaccines.  To get started you need to find relevant and accurate information on the topic. You’ve seen lots of references to vaccines recently on social media and in the news. What tools and skills might you use to determine the accuracy of the information you find online? 

Tools for Being an Information Consumer

Name of Tool Description Use for Consumers

Snopes
FactCheck.org (US)
FactsCan (CDN)
PolitFact (US)

Fact-checking websites Use the search box to verify the accuracy of your information (including images).
How to Evaluate Information Sources Library website listing critical questions for evaluating information sources. A useful list of questions to guide you through the process of critical evaluation of information sources.
Google Reverse Image Search Share a link or upload an image to find out where else that image has appeared on the web. This tool can be used to determine the original source of an image and whether it has been modified or is being used in a misleading context.
How to Spot Fake News  An image for evaluating news sources. A quick visual with 8 tips for evaluating news sources.

*Tools officially supported at the University of Saskatchewan.

Resources to be a Savvy Consumer

So in this complex information ecosystem, how do we go about evaluating information for credibility?  This video, Credibility is Contextual, helps illustrate that information source are not always 'good' or 'bad'; rather we have to dig a bit deeper and understand why we are using a specific information source and for what purpose. 

While "fake news" is a very popular topic at the moment, the term itself does not represent the complexity of the issues surrounding this phenomenon. Rather, First Draft's report for the Council of Europe, recommends examining the current state of 'information disorder' using the typology of mis-,dis-, and mal-information.

  • Mis-information. Information that is false, but not created with the intention of causing harm.
  • Dis-information. Information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organization or country.
  • Mal-information. Information that is based on reality, used to inflict harm on a person, organization or country.

Practical Techniques to Evaluate Your Sources

SIFT is a helpful acronym (from Mike Caulfied) outlining things to do to verify information online.  These habits are not meant to take much time, rather, they allow you to do a quick initial assessment to gauge whether a source or a claim deserves a closer look (much like a journalist or professional fact-checker would do). In general, you can try these moves in any order, and if you are successful, your work might be done.

  • Stop: 
    • When you first hit a page or post and start to read it — STOP. Do you know the website or source of the information and the reputation of both the claim and the website? If not, don’t read it or share media until you know what you are looking at.
    • Secondly, stop and check your emotions: Do you have a strong reaction to the information you see (e.g., anger, pride, vindication)? If so, slow down before you share or use that information. False news content is often created to catch our attention and appeal to our emotions. We tend to react quickly and with less thought to things that evoke strong feelings. By pausing, you give your brain time to process your initial response and to analyze the information more critically. Researchers have found that content that causes strong emotions (both positive and negative) spreads the fastest through our social networks.
       
  • Investigate the source
    • Before you start reading, determine who is the source (publisher, author, etc.) and what do others have to say about this organization or person. Knowing the expertise and agenda of the source is crucial to your interpretation of what they say. A quick Google or Wikipedia search will uncover clues about the source (and any biases might be present). This technique, called lateral reading, is used by journalists and professional fact checkers to quickly verify information. It’s a simple as opening a new tab, typing in the name of the organization or domain name + Wikipedia.
       
  • Find better coverage
    • Sometimes you care about the claim itself and not who is making the claim. Is the story or claim true or false? Does it represent a consensus viewpoint, or is it the subject of much disagreement?  Your best strategy may be to ignore the source and look for trusted reporting or analysis on the claim. Open a new tab and start searching (lateral reading technique). Look around to see if someone else has already fact-checked the claim. Fact checking sites Snopes, FactsCan (CDN), FactCheck.org (US), and Politifact (US) are in the business of verifying claims and can help you quickly determine the veracity of the information. You can also look to see if reliable news media sources have reported on the claim. Professional reporters are well versed in fact checking and are expected to verify claims using high quality sources. Search the claim in Google and review the News tab. Is there coverage from trustworthy news sources confirming (or denying) the claim. 
       
  • Trace claims, quotes, and media to the original context:
    • Much of what we find on the internet has been stripped of context. Is this the original source of the information, or is this a re-publication or an interpretation of previously published work? If you are not examining the original source, trace back to it. Open a new tab and go upstream to trace the claim, quote, or media back to the source. If the claim is about research, try to find the journal it appeared in. If the claim is about an event, search for the news publication in which it was originally reported.

To learn more about the SIFT method, consult this short course.

There are other models or techniques you can use to test the credibility of your sources:

i) IF I APPLY is a tool to question your sources while being aware of your own potential biases:

The Personal Steps: IF I

  • Identify emotions attached to the topic.
  • Find unbiased reference sources that will provide a proper and informative overview of the topic.
  • Intellectual courage is needed to seek authoritative voices on the topic that may fall outside your comfort zone or thesis. 

The Source Steps: APPLY

  • Authority established (does the author have education, experience, and expertise in the field?)
  • Purpose/Point of view (Does the author have an agenda beyond education or information?)
  • Publisher (does the publisher have an agenda?)
  • List of sources / bibliography (is the evidence reliable, sensible, and accessible?)
  • Year of publication (does the date of publication affect the information?)

ii) ACT UP is a more critical method that pushes against privilege and dominant narratives: Author, Currency, Truth, Unbiased, Privilege.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the act of seeking out information and opinion that supports your own opinion or worldview.  This video Escaping the Internet Echo Chamber (University of Alberta: Video) provides tips for busting out of your echo chamber (i.e. avoiding confirmation bias), using the acronym RACES:

  • Recognize your own bias
  • Algorithms
  • Critique sources
  • Engage other views
  • Self care

Wikipedia

You may have heard conflicting views on Wikipedia ('you can't trust Wikipedia', 'don't use Wikipedia for your research', etc.).  While we all use Wikipedia for a variety of reasons and purposes, here are some tips to help you use it more effectively: Evaluating Wikipedia: Tracing the evolution and evaluating the quality of articles

This video also demonstrates how to use Wikipedia for academic research.

Are you curious to learn more about Wikipedia? Wikipedia: Beneath the Surface (video) describes how information gets into Wikipedia and what goes on behind the scenes.  

Want to discover more?

Chapter 6: Evaluating Sources (from the e-book Choosing and Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Researchprovides practical information on how to identify relevant and credible sources.  As noted: "In order to evaluate a source, you have to answer two questions about it:

  • Is this source relevant to my research question?
  • Is this a credible source– a source my audience and I should be able to believe?"