Since the 2016 presidential election, the concept of fake news has been in the headlines. News media pundits across the political spectrum have been expressing concern about the widespread dissemination of apocryphal and misleading information on the internet—especially via social media platforms—as well as the role concocted narratives may have played in determining the outcome of such a contentious election. However, this trepidation about the propagation of fictitious information is not new to the internet. In fact, such fears have been an integral part of the discourse regarding the internet, especially from its detractors, since it became widely accessible in the 1990s. At that time, the best method for coping with fabricated data and made-up stories presented as facts was old-school research fundamentals. The same is the case today.
In 1999, I joined the New York Office of the State Attorney General as a research associate. While I had access to premium databases, such as LexisNexis, I conducted much of my research via the nascent internet. Fortunately, the skills I acquired as a graduate student (i.e., conducting secondary research to substantiate theses) enabled me to sift through the clutter and find the most reliable information.
Later, in 2001, I brought my research expertise to the world of marketing services. I designed a course and trained my colleagues across the U.S. in conducting research on the internet. The fundamentals I used then are the same ones that guide my online investigations now.
Authorship—Who is the author of the text? What are the author’s credentials? Is the author a member of a professional organization or an employee at an institution that would hold him or her to an acceptable level of professional conduct when publishing information? If there is no author (red flag), then there’s ultimately no way to verify the validity of the facts cited.
Source—Journalists are often unable to provide the names of their primary sources. However, journalists will always use secondary sources to provide statistics and other facts to substantiate their reports. Which secondary sources are cited? Are they reliable organizations? Could one go directly to the cited sources and obtain the same information in the form of published reports? Do the sources adhere to established methods of research in generating their data? If the source is an organization that does not disclose the names of its principals (red flag), then there’s ultimately no way to verify the validity of its research.
Triangulation—Here I use triangulation metaphorically to describe the process of validating a data point using two other data points. This is especially useful for validating statistics and other quantitative data. Whenever one discovers a piece of information online stated as a fact, one should first apply the principles stated previously and then seek out at least two other sources that independently confirm the fact. If the piece of information is from a sole source that is simply repeated in identical fashion across the internet then (red flag), it’s very likely fictitious.
One of the most attractive aspects of the internet is its democratic nature. Anyone can post anything online with a minimal investment of time and resources. This always meant there was the danger that individuals would take advantage of the global communication network to propagate misleading information. As search engines and social media platforms have become increasingly effective at curating information, this danger has increased since people may no longer feel the need to verify the information appearing in their newsfeeds or in the first pages of search engine results. The response to this challenge should not be to create blacklists of websites or individuals ostensibly responsible for disseminating fake news. That undermines what is arguably the greatest characteristic of the internet: its facilitation of the free flow of information. Instead, we should seek to arm the public with the time-tested basic research methods that empower them to independently distinguish fact from fiction.