Science Thursday: Fact-Checking and Sharing on Social Media

Happy Science Thursday! This week I want to talk about something very near and dear to my heart – fact checking. Now, before you run away to watch a cat video on YouTube, hear me out.

Science Thursday is probably my favorite series to write here, with Plug of the Month as a close second. Writing about my personal life has never been easy for me, and as much as I love Poetry, It’s a huge ordeal to search for that perfect poem that I find inspiring enough to want to share with you, and an even bigger ordeal to be inspired enough to write one that I want to share.

With my Science Thursday posts, I usually pick something that I know little to nothing about. I pick something that peaks my interest, I go learn about it, then I share with you what I found. To me, that’s fun. However, when I’m finding things to share, I want to make sure I’m getting the most accurate information, because not only do I want to have the facts for myself, but I want to make sure what I’m sharing with you is accurate as well. For my sugar post, I went to about 3 sources apiece for each kind of sugar, to make sure the information I had was backed up by something else. That doesn’t mean that you should take everything I write as gospel – there’s a distinct possibility that for all my efforts, I still have some facts that aren’t quite straight.

The important part (and I hope to convince you by the end of this post that it is indeed important), is to learn how to distinguish truth from fact. With so much virtual kerfuffle assaulting us everyday, and outcries over the extreme bias of the mainstream media, how are we supposed to determine what real (and what is fantasy)?

Fortunately, that part’s actually really easy. I’ve chosen 4 popular categories of aforementioned virtual kerfuffle (news, health, missing persons, charities), found either by conscious internet searching or the absent-minded Facebook/Twitter scroll so many of us are guilty of. I’ll go over where the facts are, where the facts aren’t, what happens when you’re not getting the facts, and what you can (and should) do about it.  Now may you go forth and question everything!

1. News Articles

Today's Front Page of Al Jazeera America

Today’s Front Page of Al Jazeera America

I’m going to be a little bit cynical here and say that, in general, the news doesn’t carry the facts. Talk to any journalist, editor, publisher, &c, and they’ll likely tell you the same thing: they’re out to sell stories. Now tell me, what news story do you want to read, “Chicken Crosses Road” or “Potentially Diseased Livestock Wanders onto Local Highway”? “Woman Steps out of House” or “Taylor Swift Leaves Apartment Wearing Sunglasses – Is it Time for Rehab?”

There’s a huge demand to have stories that people want to read or want to tune into, and this demand almost begs for hyperbole. A good example comes out of Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath. During the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King made his peaceful marches demanding equality. At the time, this wasn’t considered very newsworthy. Think of what the headline would have been. “Minister Politely Asks for Equal Rights by Walking Quietly.” I’m not saying that What MLK did wasn’t important, because it was, but his quiet marches weren’t getting the news coverage they needed (by quiet, I mean those that were not interfered with by police or extremist groups).

King’s friend Wyatt Walker, on the other hand, took a different approach. He would purposefully goad police forces into attacking protesters, creating sensational news stories that spread through the country like wildfire. The best example of this was a picture taken by Bill Hudson in Birmingham Alabama, during one of Walker’s and King’s protests. The picture shows a boy seemingly being attacked by a police dog with a cop grabbing the scruff of his shirt, and the boy standing there calmly, leaning into the dog. The picture brought to light the police brutality that African Americans faced every day.

HOWEVER, a little more digging gives another side of the story. Gladwell points out that in the picture, the cop has a tight hold of the dog’s leash, as if restraining him. Look a little closer, and you see the boy is bringing his knee up, as if to injure the dog. Finally, if you look to the background, none of the faces of those standing around (almost all of whom are fellow protesters) are alarmed.

So what’s the truth? Was the boy set upon by a vicious animal, or was a cop trying to protect a member of his K-9 unit? Personally, I think the truth lies somewhere in between. But what I think doesn’t actually matter. What matters is how the picture was portrayed. Walker knew that conflict made news, so he made sure that if he wanted people to listen, he had better make conflict.

Today, it’s less often that you have people like Walker trying to set what goes into the news, but it’s the news itself that tries to set what viewers and readers are getting out of the news. An earthquake happens halfway around the world, and the only person you have to tell you if it was devastating or not is sitting at a desk with perfect hair, reading a teleprompter.

Sorting through the muck of sensationalism is made even more difficult by the abundance of satirical news sources and articles that are just utterly false. Exhibit A: 25 People Who Don’t Realize the Onion isn’t a Real News Source (pardon the Buzzfeed). Recently I saw a Facebook post of a news story claiming terrorists were injecting oranges with HIV infected blood (not true and not possible, btw). Sorting through muck just became swimming through peanut butter with weights on your feet and your hands tied behind your back.

But there’s hope! Finding out if a news source is satire or not is as easy as clicking on a Wikipedia page for satirical news sites. If you’re still in doubt, searching “[News Source] false stories” will give you a good indication if you’re reading satire, real news, or just plain garbage (If a site was too many redactions, you might want to question their reliability).

As for horrifically shocking news stories like the HIV fruit, I highly recommend snopes.com. It’s a website dedicated to fact-checking, and as a bonus, they provide sources backing up their claims. When I saw the post on the HIV fruit, I immediately went to snopes, and not only did I find that there was absolutely no evidence of this found anywhere, the article provided a link to the CDC showing that even if someone tried to do such a thing, there was nothing to worry about, because HIV cannot be transmitted through food, except in very rare cases. Not only does the virus not live long outside of its host, the acid in your stomach is strong enough to kill the virus before it would ever get to your blood stream. (CAVEAT: DO NOT TEST THIS THEORY. It’s possible to have an open wound in your mouth that you are not aware of, and there are other diseases that can be transmitted by ingesting infected food/ body fluids, not to mention that’s just gross).

Stories like this are meant to instill fear an paranoia, and the best way to handle them is to debunk them. Think of it this way – the more outrageous/horrifying the story, the less likely it is to be true.

2. Health/Science Articles

Unless you’re reading an article from a peer-reviewed scientific journal, just stay away from these. There’s no magic food to help you lose 20 pounds in a week, you probably don’t have an obscure disease, and no, that trick doesn’t actually help you magically get rid of your wrinkles. Most of these article are clickbait, meaning they’re given catchy titles to make you want to read them, but once you follow the link you’re hit with all kinds of ads or the occasional virus.

I even recommend you stay away from the fitness blogs, gurus, and celebrity Doctors (I’m looking at you, Dr. Oz -_-). Not because I think these people are charlatans, illusionists, and snake oil salesmen (because oh, I do), but because these people are not your medical doctor (or alternative healthcare professional). It’s impossible for someone on the TV to be able to tell you what the best course of action for your health is, because they have no idea what your medical history is or what medications you take. Would you ask a stranger to tell you what parts you need to fix your car without having them ever look at your car? No? I didn’t think so. It’s the same with your body. Find a trusted mechanic that you feel comfortable talking to, and let them take care of your engine.

3. Amber Alerts/Missing Persons

This has less to do with your well-being or peace of mind than it does the safety of others. I’m sure you’ve seen it online more than once. A news story on how a lost child was found thanks to the collective power of social media, or a Facebook post of a distraught mother looking for a wayward son. Everyone wants to be the hero. They click share because they want to be a part of the happy ending.  But what part are they actually playing?

There are three major problems with sharing these posts: The person might already be found, the person might be being searched for by the wrong people, or the person might not exist.

Sharing a missing person’s alert for someone who doesn’t exist isn’t harmful, but sharing an unconfirmed alert could be. If the person/child is already found, law enforcement may be mistakenly called on the person’s family, putting them through additional grief and stress. If the person who originally posted the missing person’s alert is out to do harm, then every share puts that person/child in more danger. And if you were one of the people who shared that, guess who takes some of the responsibility? That’s right, you.

I’m not saying I’m fully against the social media search. My uncle found his missing dogs by sharing a Facebook post, and one of my favorite authors used Facebook to bring her 3 missing grandchildren home safely. That’s not always how the story ends, though.

If you are truly concerned about a post for a missing child, please, PLEASE, check the list of active amber alerts. You can even search a name directly or have Amber Alert updates sent to your phone.

If that’s too much work, simply google the child’s name. This works for missing adults as well. In almost every case, before a missing person makes it to social media, the local police department releases a statement, and you should be able to find it online, along with any updates. Social media is a powerful thing. Be careful how you use it.

4. Charitable Causes

If you’ve been here at SYU long, you’ll remember my Veteran’s Day post, in which I listed a number of charities meant to help veterans and active American Servicemen and women. I made a point of saying the charities I had chosen were legit, because I validated each one before I posted it. Sadly, there are many who would prey on the kindness of strangers, and create a fake charity under a noble premise, only to take your money and run.

There are websites through the Better Business Bureau and Charity Navigator that are great tools for verifying charities. The Charity Navigator site has the bonus of giving you the percentage of donations that actually make it to those it claims to help. You can also search “[Charity] legit” to see what various news sources have to say about it (e.g. have there been any scandals, do they have any events coming up, &c.)

For charities such as GoFundMe or Kickstarter, that’s more of an individual choice, as those charities are of a more personal nature.

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