If you’re only looking to bolster your existing opinion, don’t read any further. Any tidbit you find that matches your own stance will do.
However, if you’re looking for facts to form an opinion, I have several suggestions:
- Read publications by people on both sides of an issue. Read several.
- Check that the writers have done some fact-checking. Obviously, someone presenting a single side of an issue will leave out information that doesn’t conform to that opinion. But everything in the piece should be verifiable.
- Do some fact-checking on your own. There are many public sites where statistics can be verified. Yes, this is tedious and time-consuming, but don’t you want to know that your opinion is based on reality?
- There are also sites like FactCheck.org and Snopes.com whose mission it is to do the searching for you. They also tackle bogus chain emails. FactCheck’s old article about those chains is fun: http://www.factcheck.org/2008/03/that-chain-e-mail-your-friend-sent-to-you-is-likely-bogus-seriously/.
- Look for half-truths and consider context. I was once told that tax spending in inner-city school districts is higher per student than in suburban districts with much better test scores. This turns out to be true.
However, this fact needs to be framed with information about unfunded federal mandates that the schools are forced to cover. For example, a higher percentage of inner-city students get breakfast at school, and that comes out of the school’s budget. It is likely that more immigrants live in the inner city, necessitating the need for translation and interpreting services. Some of that is covered, and some is not.
To fully evaluate the fact about spending per student, we’d need statistics about many aspects of student life.
- Look for the original source. Some internet rumors have their basis in publications like the Onion, which produces non-news as satire. And yet, people regularly pick up Onion articles and run with them as fact.
- Listen carefully when someone denies an accusation. Are they covering the entire topic, or just the pieces that favor them?
- Remember that sound bites and video clips can be altered, spliced to make the speaker say whatever the splicer wants. Double-check these, too, preferably from a transcript.
- Repeat after me: Not everything on the internet is real! Appearing online doesn’t make a claim accurate, no matter how much you want it to be. That study claiming that chocolate will improve your complexion and help take inches off your hips is, sadly, not true.
- Lastly, be aware that entire industries specialize in helping you form an opinion. Whether it is marketing or financial services or plain old politics, double-check what you read. If something seems too odd/silly/unbelievable to be true, it probably is.
One of my favorite quotes comes from the TV series Leverage. The team of con artists steals an election in a tiny island nation by manipulating online information.
Did you know—and I didn’t know this—four out of five people, they don’t get their news anymore from the television or the radio. No, they get it from their smartphone or a computer.
. . . Any lie can last, you know, 10 minutes. See, what we needed to do is, we needed to get everyone to believe the same lie for the same 10 minutes.
Remember that when you’re reading online.