Once you’ve decided you’re dealing with a good source of information, there are a lot more questions to ask about the actual story, information, or narrative you’re interested in. Here are a number of those questions.
Is it Current? Is it Local?
Check the timestamp: is this three years old? If so, is it still relevant? Be careful about a phenomenon called “Context Collapse”, coined by Danah Boyd: everything on the internet and particularly on social media seems to be taking place in *my context* *right now*. If you see an article being shared that says “Our area” for instance, look at the original source and original poster. Is it actually your area? Or is it a different area that only looks like your area because it is taken out of its original context and shifted to your own local context. If you see an article being shared that says “unemployment on the rise” for another instance, check the timestamp. Is it current? If it’s three years old, then unemployment might not be currently on the rise. Time is important to context as well.
Everything we share online seems to be relevant here and now even though it often isn’t. We just have to do some digging to find out whether it is or not.
Similarly, if someone posted something about a cure being found to Coronavirus, but it was posted in 2018, then it’s not COVID-19 that they’re talking about! Or if the article is from March or 2020 and you’re in August of 2020, then that cure was probably not all it was cracked up to be since it isn’t widespread news many months later.
What are others saying about it?
Another way of safeguarding against being duped by fake news or otherwise false information is to look at the same news story or piece of information from multiple independent sources. Are multiple world governments confirming the same bit of information? Are multiple news outlets with independent sources reporting the same story? Has the story or claim been debunked by other sources? Can we trust the sources doing the debunking? Have you checked independent fact-checkers like Snopes.com, factcheck.org, Politifact.org or the like? Have you looked to see what reporters from a variety of sources are saying about the story or piece of information (Twitter is probably a decent place to find this out)? Have you looked at sources from a variety of ideological backgrounds to find their takes on the story?
Is it Plausible?
We can often independently assess whether something is plausible or not just using our “common sense” (I hate that phrase, but it’s somewhat applicable here). Is it plausible that Hillary Clinton is involved in a child-trafficking ring that has headquarters in your local pizza place? Not really. Is it plausible that Bill Gates has microchipping technology so advanced that it can fit in a vaccine needle—something that outstrips any nanotechnology known to exist? Is it plausible that he actually wants to microchip everyone? To what end? Put your skeptic’s hat on and consider whether these claims are plausible and then go forward with researching the claims further through independent reliable sources only when you’ve decided it’s at least plausible enough to warrant further investigation.
Is it convenient?
If it fits too neatly with a particular ideological narrative about current events, politics in your society, or something similar; then it might just be too convenient to be true. Sometimes the truth really does fit a particular narrative, but the more neatly and tidily it does, the more skeptical we should be.
Is it possible that it’s a Deepfake?
Some information is just fake: it has been created from whole cloth to try to support a particular narrative or ideology. It’s easy to make up quotes, but there is now the technology to create video and audio using machine-learning technology that is surprisingly convincing. It just needs some source data—like a huge amount of videos of Obama’s speeches—and then some input data—like a person acting like Obama saying something outrageous—and then it can create a new video that looks and sounds convincingly enough like Obama saying the outrageous stuff. They can create images, voices, and even videos and at some point it very well may become impossible to tell which videos are fake just by looking at them.
What then? Well, we may be able to rely on alternative verification for videos. Maybe reporters will give affidavits stating that they were there when the video was shot. Maybe there will be an unfakeable piece of data embedded in real videos. Maybe the shear amount of videos people are likely to take at important events (whether it be news outlets or people on cell phones) will create a sort of public record. These are all questions for another day.
For now, though, remember that the more outrageous or convenient a video is, the more skeptical we should be that it is a genuine video.