Just the Facts, Ma’am (Do Your Homework)

Deborah Dorman

As campaigns heat up this fall, the proliferation of false information will no doubt increase as well. Sometimes the false information comes from the campaigns themselves, but it is also generated by outside players seeking to disrupt the election or increase division. Often, misinformation is spread because it looks and sounds legitimate, agrees with one’s point of view, and is rapidly shared via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other sources.

With today’s technology, it is not only possible, but fairly simple, to do any of these:

* Synthesize someone’s voice

* Swap faces in a photo

* Rewrite a transcript

* Take audio and video clips out of context

* Use false photos (from another time or event)

We often see a quote attributed to someone who didn’t actually write it, even if it’s a terrific quote by someone else. There have been many notorious examples of all of the above manipulations in recent months.

Fortunately, it does not take a PhD in statistics or media technology to determine what’s true or what’s not. There are several independent, non-partisan fact-checking sites available to refer to before you share a bit of information. Studies have shown that professional fact-checkers are very good at finding the truth, and the sites are extremely easy to use.

Politifact is handled by the independent Tampa Bay Times, and is a Pulitzer Prize-winning site. Propublica is another Pulitzer-winning site, and it is an independent, non-profit organization focused on investigative journalism.

Snopes is independent and non-partisan, and you will be amazed and dismayed by reading through recent stories or urban myths.

Open Secrets is a non-partisan, independent site that provides information on where candidates get contributions and in what amounts.

Some news sources that are considered by media bias analysts to be the most unbiased are BBC, Reuters, NPR News, and The Hill, with the major networks (CBS, ABC, NBC) right behind them. People tend to stick to their right or left-leaning sources, but sometimes it’s a good idea to check sources outside of your comfort zone with a reputation for less bias. Bias is not a measure of truth or sticking to the facts, just how the media outlet leans in interpretation of the news. In general, those sources listed as least biased also rate quite well on sticking to the facts. However, those who do exhibit bias also may provide factual information, although some do not.

So, take a breath before you buy into everything you see posted, and do a little research of your own. You may be very surprised at what you find!