Fact checking is currently booming. This has less to do with a growing general interest in truth, on the contrary. Fact checking is an urgently needed corrective against the spread of lies, false truths and conspiracy theories. Questions about the reliability of news or information are a direct result of all the opportunities for digital publication in the so-called social networks and on digital platforms of their own. Anyone can operate journalistic or pretendedly journalistic platforms and channels, and anyone can use available platforms – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube – for their own information or disinformation purposes. Such channels often enough serve political propaganda and they are also used to circumvent, eradicate or discredit conventional (serious) journalistic media.
The fact checker as an institution
Not quite so new is that large news editors and publishing houses employ whole staffs of fact checkers, which examine the publications of other news organs or statements of politicians for their truth value. In this way the spreading of false news or even own errors is to be countered by a meticulous examination of all facts mentioned in a text. Meanwhile, numerous reputable Internet platforms have also been established that engage in nothing but fact-checking (Ellis 2019, Snopes 2019).
Fact checking strategies
In this post we will look at how fact checking can be learned and taught in the English FL classroom. Of course, such a check does not offer a 100% guarantee of finding and securing the truth. But it provides a list of guiding questions and checks with which one can reduce the probability of getting false information, especially a planned and targeted one. The simplest fact-checking rules could read like this:
- Don’t just believe – check.
- Never simply share. Always think and check before you actually share information.
- Always conduct your own research to check the facts.
Beyond this, however, a systematic examination of the information is always required. It can be carried out by means of the following guiding questions.
- Factual information: Which facts does the text claim to present? Are the facts factual? Do persons, places and conditions mentioned in a text really exist? Are they factually interrelated?
- Evidence: What evidence is presented for any claims that are made in a text? Are the sources explicitly mentioned? Are there other sources or references in addition to the author’s own assertions?
- Transparency: Does the text present different positions and views on the subject matter? Or is it biased and partisan?
- Inconsistencies: Do details and pieces of information in a text correspond convincingly with each other?
- Language: Is the language of a text linguistically correct, is it factual, formal and journalistic standard? Or is it, e.g., emotional or propagandistic?
- Layout and genre: Is the text presented in a professional journalistic layout and as a standard genre?
- Sources: What are the sources on which the information in a text claims to rely? Do they exist at all? Are they reliable?
- Reliability: Are these sources identifiable and traceable on the Internet? Are they established journalistic, institutional or official sources (universities, quality newspapers, state)?
- Double-check and compare: Do various sources independently make the same assertions and state the same facts?
- World knowledge: According to my own knowledge, how probable is the truth of a fact that is claimed in a text? Is it in accordance with what I know?
- Personal expert knowledge: Often we possess expertise that we do not so often resort to; in a given thematic context it may be very useful to (re-)activate personal expertise.
- External expert knowledge: In many cases it is inevitable to resort to external expert knowledge by consulting encyclopedia, books and specialized websites.
- Authorship: Who is the author of the text? What is known about her or him? What are their affiliations? What is their reputation?
- Institutional affiliation: Is the information and the website that presents it traceable to a reliable institutional environment, e.g. a university or established newspaper publisher? What is the cultural or political position of the institution (partisanship)?
- Permanence: Is the institution established and permanent? Or is the information occasional?
Social media check
- Source: Is the original source of a post identifiable, in particular if truth claims and seemingly factual statements are made? How reliable is this source?
- Reverse image search: If, in social media, a certain photo is claimed to show a certain place, person, object or action, you can use image search tools like Google Image Search to find out whether the photo has been circulated before and whether the same factual claims (persons’ names, places, time) were made. If the details differ, a fake is probable.
- Photoshopping: Sometimes it is obvious, sometimes it is difficult to decide whether a photo has been photoshopped, in particular if it is professionally produced.But sometimes there are clues such as inconsistencies of proportions (e.g. of head and body) or light and shadows. Sometimes parts of objects may be missing, or they may not belong to the scene or environment that is presented. Identifying photoshopping is detective work!
- Video analysis: Are there any indications in a video that it has been (re-)edited, using snippets or parts from pre-produced videos? Are the meta-data reliable, i.e. was the video released at the time that is claimed? E.g., is it really new? YouTube has a tool with which you can check the original upload date.
Fact checking as an attitude
There is no guarantee of truth, in particular not on the Internet. But practicing such checking routines not only help to better gauge the reliability of information. Rather, the ability to constantly reflect on our ways of handling information, news and assertions as an important cultural attitude can be developed in this way.
Further reading: Wolfgang Hallet (2020). Be your own fact checker. Informationen überprüfen. Der fremdsprachliche Unterricht Englisch 54, 163. 8-9. | Jan-Erik Leonhardt & Britta Viebrock (ed..) (2020). Medienkompetenz: Fake realities.Der fremdsprachliche Unterricht Englisch 54, 163. [special issue]. Find out more about this special issue. | Ellis, Megan (2019). The Best Fact-Checking Sites for Finding Unbiased Truth. Online: https://www.makeuseof.com/tag/true-5-factchecking- websites/ | Snopes (2019). Fact check. Rumors and questionable claims we have researched recently. https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/