Congress made big news this past week with a vote to impeach President Donald J. Trump. And with that news came an onslaught of information — and misinformation — that we the people are having to sift through to get the truth, or at least something near it.
Anyone trying to learn about politically or emotionally charged topics like impeachment may find themselves wading through a sea of twisted facts or even outright lies peddled by online sources. But the same internet that serves up false information can also help you distinguish the real deal.
And that’s what we should all aim to find out. After all, even if the truth hurts, it’s still better than a comfortable lie.
One set of techniques presented by the Newseum, a nonprofit dedicated to news literacy, uses the acronym ESCAPE to help people remember to look at information’s evidence, source, context, audience, purpose and execution. When you’re reading something online that looks like news, you can often tell it’s not real by looking for how it falls short in those six areas.
Ask “do the facts hold up?” If you can, try to verify the evidence — the information included in the article or meme. If you can find names, numbers, places or documents elsewhere or even read the documents it’s referencing, see if they match up to what the information says.
“Who made this and can I trust them?” See if you can identify the source — an article’s author, for example, as well as its publisher, the website or news organization responsible for it. Can you tell who owns or is funding the site? Is the site an aggregator, taking articles from other sites and republishing them? Is the meme posted by some random person or an anonymous social media page? Some sources are more likely to have good information than others, so decide whether you think the source is likely to have researched the information well before you share it, even — no, especially — if you think the information is probably right.
“What’s the big picture?” This is asking for context, or “the whole truth.” The Newseum advises readers to think about whether other forces surrounding a story might put it in a different light. Current events, cultural trends, political goals and financial pressures might all color an article or meme.
“Who is the intended audience?” Much of what’s on the internet now is trying to attract an audience for advertising, among other purposes, and may use manipulative tactics to get more attention than it actually deserves. “Look for attempts to appeal to specific groups or types of people,” the Newseum advises — like choosing a particular image that a group would gravitate toward, presenting information in a certain format or using language or content designed especially for a specific audience.
“Why was this made?” An article or meme’s purpose might not be simply to inform. It might want to persuade you to do something or it might be clickbait, designed to attract attention in order to make money. Try to find the publisher’s mission — does it aim to be informative or does it have an agenda? If a particular agenda is stated, that’s important to know, but keep an eye out for unstated agendas too. Look for persuasive language or images and calls to action, which don’t belong in news stories.
Finally, ask “how is this information presented?” The execution, or the way an article looks, can change how it affects people. An article written in a serious-sounding style with proper grammar is more likely to be legitimate news than one written informally or with many spelling errors, for example. Memes on social media, in particular, have a vast array of styles which convey different meanings.
If you’ve paid attention, you’ll have tried to answer some of these questions about this very piece and you’ll have realized this is not a news article. Of course, this is an editorial representing the opinion of the Gainesville Daily Register’s editorial board. But just in case a reader isn’t very familiar with these news literacy techniques, we try to remain credible by marking this and other opinion pieces well to separate them from news articles.