CRASH COURSE: Research and Fact-Checking

To some extent, we can recognize that various forms of media — mainstream or otherwise — almost always have some nature of bias informing the topics that they report on and the way in which they report them. Nevertheless, it had been general practice for the field of journalism to try and remain as objective and neutral towards bipartisan issues as they could possibly manage — up until roughly the period following the First World War, that is. This problem of media bias has accelerated in strength over the last two decades, to the extent that mainstream outlets are perfectly willing to lie about the subjects on which they report; sometimes blatantly but most often by excessive editorializing (injection of personal opinions into the narrative of the story) and/or lying by omission of certain facts and figures.

If you’re tired of all the BS, lying and paternalism that now characterizes so much of our mainstream media, this guide is for you. Crucially, the point is to get the reader feeling at least somewhat confident in judging the merits of the points made and arguments put forth by various commentators on their own. Even so-called ‘fact checkers’ are frequently compromised by political interests and biases; as such, we no longer have the privilege of simply ‘trusting’ that these individuals and outlets have good, genuine truth-seeking intentions — if you really want to know the truth, you will first need to know how to accurately identify non-truths. Before you can become informed, you must learn how to avoid being misinformed.

As this is a “crash course”, the tips provided below are meant to be just that: tips, rather than some unassailable code of personal conduct. Rest assured however that doing your own fact-checking becomes much easier with practice. Eventually, you may come to a point where you are able to identify a bogus narrative mid-sentence. This is good: this means the ‘spell’ is being broken, and that’s precisely what needs to happen. To be blunt: you don’t want to ever act as stupid as the intelligentsia (elites + journalists + academics) believe you to be. It’s time to prove them wrong.

General tips for identifying potentially fraudulent claims

  1. Trust your instincts. One’s ‘gut feeling’ is as close to authentic foresight as one can get: Human evolution has provided us with this amazing ability to subtly detect when we’re being lied to, even through written text. If some claim that you read seems suspicious, there is no harm in doing a little bit of digging into whether or not it’s true — even if you’re wrong about it, you are still one step closer to genuine truth.
  2. Avoid blind trust in expertise, genuine or otherwise. This is very important to keep in mind, as it is common practice for journalists to introduce ‘expert opinions’ as a means of arguing their point for them. Funny enough, however, if you actually look into the background of these experts, many times they are not even experts in the field that they’re commenting on! This is most common with climate change rhetoric; you will find that many of the ‘experts’ referred to re: the value of carbon taxation or green energy are economists — economics being a social science, we should certainly not be taking our cues from them on how to ‘fix’ the climate. Of course, they will rarely (if ever) be referred to by their true profession within the article: They are banking on your assuming that they have ‘expert authority’ in the topic at hand.
  3. Familiarize yourself with commonly-used logical fallacies. Following from above, which is formally called “appealing to authority”, both journalists and the average person have a tendency toward employing logical fallacies in their arguments. In the above case, the fallacy results from assuming that an ‘expert’ is incapable of being wrong — but they are people too, not omnipotent gods. Because many people are unaware that these are fallacies, however, their use is something of a ‘quick and dirty’ way to make a claim appear more salient than it really is. Don’t be one of those people! See here for an easy guide to some common fallacies.
  4. Do not get comfortable with any one set of news sources. Even if you have found a given source to be generally trustworthy, you should not let your gut down: always trust your instincts, no matter where or from whom the information is coming. You should always be prepared to do some further digging on dubious claims, even for your favorite authors and preferred outlets. Ideally, you should be cross-referencing similar claims across different sources, while keeping in mind that truth is not built on consensus, but facts.
  5. Keep an eye on the ‘compliments:criticism’ ratio. An article (aside from an op-ed, where bias is basically intended) that provides five arguments for a position but only one against it is more likely to be driven by an underlying motive than one that provides a more balanced perspective. When reading such an article, it is good to get into the habit of trying to think up the missing counter-arguments yourself; then, go see if you can find those arguments presented elsewhere. Keep an eye on the terminology used, as well: Is the favored argument described using overwhelmingly positive terms, and the counter-view with primarily negative ones? If so, this is often evidence of bias and/or hidden motives.
  6. Ask yourself: who benefits? Who might benefit from having this information made public, whether it is genuine or not? This relates to the mantra of “follow the money”: it may be worth checking if an organization’s representative or industry/scientific expert cited in an article has donors or business ties that would benefit from that person’s opinion being so widely read.

General tips for verifying authenticity of information

  1. Use more than one search engine. Generally speaking, this means that you should not use Google as your primary search engine, unless you are familiar with using database search techniques such as Boolean Operators. This is because Google intentionally uses algorithms to push certain results higher than others, regardless of their specificity to the search input — as such, you are not as likely to get the results you’re looking for on politically-charged topics such as climate change, gender dysphoria, “fake news” and so on. In the first case, for example, searching “climate change skepticism” on Google yields a page full of links on how climate change is definitely real and skeptics are delusional; rather than any that really are skeptical of climate change. DuckDuckGo and Bing provide worthy substitutes to over-reliance on Google results. (To really drive the point home, consider the difference in results between searching the exact same term, “arguments against climate change”, on Google and DDG, respectively.)
  2. Get in the habit of auditing citations. This is somewhat more specific to academic articles or similar publications (e.g. by the UN et al. or other advocacy groups), but it is also good practice for news articles, too. What it means to ‘audit’ citations is for you to actually check where the citation comes from, rather than take for granted that the source is legitimate. As a relatively benign example, one UNESCO publication on countering fake-news (with journalists as the audience) featured a story about how fake news was allegedly used in Ancient Rome, backed with three, seemingly independent sources. An audit of these sources revealed that one led to an article behind a paywall in a financial journal; the second led to a blog post; and the third used that blog post as its own source! Which leads us to…
  3. Actually read the citations, at least for more dubious claims. I know this can be tedious for some (myself included), but if you are really in doubt or at all suspicious of a certain claim, try not to be intimidated by any apparent prestige or incomprehensibility of the citation that is provided. If you don’t understand a term, search it up. Try to figure out for yourself, as best as you reasonably can, what exactly the information is saying in relatively-plain English. I have oftentimes resorted to asking my Twitter followers if they have any background in a particular area, and if they wouldn’t mind clarifying a few terms or validating my understanding of the issue at hand. Gone are the days when you’d have to hang out all day at a public library, or take a course, or at least try to get a hold of someone at a university. You have all the world’s knowledge in your hands — use it!

Some resources for gathering information

This is a short, non-complete list of sites, tools and techniques that I either use myself or know of many people who use them for research. Now, the fact that I may not have found use for some of these things does not mean that you won’t; everyone is a little bit different in this regard.

In terms of programs, everything listed here is either completely free to use or at least offers an indefinite, limited-state ‘trial version.’ But, sometimes, the trial version is all you really need. As a disclaimer, I am not affiliated with any of these sites, products or services in any manner, nor am I receiving any compensation for endorsing them. I just think they’re useful and I’m trying to spread the love.

This section will be continuously updated as I find more sites/tools that might be of use. Last update: October 9, 2019

Websites

  • A resource compilation from Corey’s Digs — full credit to her, of course, for compiling this. Mostly US-specific, includes: obtaining background checks; information on registered charities; scientific archives; judiciary information; FBI press-releases and other government documents; etc.
  • Retraction Watch – updates with detailed explanations every time an academic journal or similar publisher is forced to retract an article. This site also hosts a searchable database, which lists every single retraction recorded by the site to date (believe me, there’s an enormous amount!). I often use this to ‘audit’ the academic credibility of certain, suspect authors, articles and journals.
  • Inside Philanthropy – this pro-industry site hosts a ton of valuable information on donor and organization profiles, activities, news, etc. As the name implies, it is an “inside look” at the philanthropy industry that has been invaluable to me in researching various foundations and NGOs.
  • Influence Watch – provides (often, though not always) detailed information, including historical roots and cross-org relationships, on various NGOs, political parties, foundations, and other “public policy influencers” worldwide. It is structured in a manner similar to Wikipedia, insofar as citations are typically provided to back up the information offered — that said, like Wikipedia, keep an eye out for possible editorial bias. This site is typically better used for a general overview of a given influencer, or as a “springboard” toward further avenues of inquiry.
  • Follow the Money – Canadian-specific; hosted by The National Post, this database lists financial donations (individual and corporate) made to political parties and candidates. I am not sure how often the database content is updated, however; the latest entries that I have seen date from 2017, though there could very well be more recent ones there as well.
  • Deletionpedia – how this works is that every time a Wikipedia article is proposed for deletion, a bot makes a copy of the page and uploads it to this site. If the Wikipedia article ends up being deleted, then the copy remains on the site; if the proposal is rejected and it stays up on Wikipedia, the Deletionpedia copy is deleted. So you do have to know what you’re looking for, but if so this site can be very useful for collecting links and information that might have been deleted from Wikipedia for less-than-honest reasons.

Tools

  • MEGA.nz – offers 50 GB of free, encrypted cloud storage, which can be further synced to folders on your hard drive for ease of up/downloading files. You can also set passwords on shared files (with an expiry date too, should you choose) so that only those you want to share the file(s) with are able to access it. You have the option to subscribe monthly for more storage, as well — I pay roughly $7 CAD per month for the Pro-Lite plan, which gives me 200 GB of storage (of which I’ve only used up half so far, in all honesty). Lastly, it is very easy to trade files between MEGA accounts (no need to download and re-upload), which is useful for downloading content (legally, of course!) from 4ch and 8ch, as it’s largely their file-sharing platform of choice.
  • XMind – for the visual learners among us, this program allows you to make “mind maps” or event timelines using easily-modifiable templates. I find this very helpful for collecting information in a manner that lets me “see” where all the parts fit in relation to the whole. You can get very creative with this; I use it for both general research and for outlining projects. The free trial version is fancy enough for me, but subscription access to even more features is also available. There is a mobile app version for it as well, which is a bit clunky to use but could be useful for those who are away from the computer more often than not.
  • Zotero – this is one that I did not personally find much use for, but it is very popular among students, academics and authors. It is basically a file-sorting program to help you organize citations, create quick citations and bibliographies, organize your files in the manner of your choosing, and download web pages and other content directly into the program, which uses metadata to detect and auto-fill relevant information for easier citing. If you don’t already have a system in place for organizing your files, this may be worth checking out.
  • Throw Away Mail – this site generates a temporary email address and inbox, which automatically deletes itself after 48 hours. I use this to download documents that ask for contact information before releasing the PDF, just to avoid creating an electronic ‘paper trail’ of my research history — I may be paranoid, but better safe than sorry, right?
  • Foxit PDF Reader – this is the program I use for reading and editing PDF files; again, the free version does the trick just fine for me. Adobe Reader may be fine for simply opening PDFs, but if you want the ability to highlight text, add side notes/comments, or even to create your own PDFs, this is what I recommend.

Misc. Resources

Advertisements