Sifting Through Information

by Beth Cronk, Meeker County Librarian

Sorting fact from fiction is a challenge in our social media era. Many people have never been taught how to recognize misinformation and find reliable data and experts, so it’s not surprising many of us struggle with that. Librarians are trained to evaluate sources for credibility and to research beyond the claim to find out the source of information. I’m happy to share a few easy techniques you can apply to evaluate information.

The SIFT method is a good tool that I recently learned about at the Minnesota Library Association virtual conference. The name suggests the action of using a sifter to find the solid pieces of information in a flood of everything that comes through to us. The letters stand for Stop, Investigate the source, Find better coverage, and Trace claims, quotes, and media to the original context.

The first step is Stop. When you feel strong emotion, surprise, or a strong urge to share something you come across online, that’s a signal that your emotions might be getting in the way of your evaluation skills. We are all vulnerable to this. “This is outrageous!” “This is astonishing!” “This is exactly what I thought was true, and I want everyone to know it.” These kinds of thoughts and feelings about things we read and hear are just part of being human, but they can lead us to sharing misinformation if we don’t take the next steps.

The next step is Investigate the source. That can mean clicking on the small “i” next to a story on Facebook, looking for the blue checkmark for an account on Twitter or Facebook, or checking to see which website you’re on. Is it what you thought it was? Is it a believable source you’ve heard of before?

If you don’t recognize a source, do a quick search of the source name or website address with the word “Wikipedia” to see if there’s easy information available about that source. Wikipedia isn’t always accurate, but most of the time it’s an easy and reasonable place to start when you’re unfamiliar with something, and it has links to more information. If it’s a major publication or organization, you’ll probably be able to tell from the Wikipedia entry. Sometimes you’ll find out easily that your source is not worth trusting.

If you don’t find evidence that your source is trustworthy, the next step is Find better or other coverage. Do a quick internet search of the story. Most stories that are true are covered by multiple news outlets. Many times, you can find better coverage of the information in a different source; it might be the original story that other news outlets picked up. You might even find that someone has written an article to fact-check the information that you saw. If no one else is covering it and it seems like it should be a major story, that can be a red flag that it isn’t true.

The final step, if you haven’t already gotten to the truth of the matter, is Trace the claim, quote, or media back to the original context. Sometimes that’s as easy as clicking on the link within the story you first read; it may lead you right to the source material. If not, the search you did for other news coverage may bring you to the source of the information.

Make sure to look at the date of that source. Is it recent?

Look over the original source of the information. Does it seem to be saying the same thing as the story you’re trying to verify? Sometimes people take a news story or piece of information and purposely misrepresent it.

There are many more skills to learn about evaluating information, but these four steps are quick things that most people can do to make a big difference. The SIFT method is often taught to beginning college students; it was created by Mike Caulfield, who is a digital literacy expert who works at Washington State University. For more details, visit his website about the technique at infodemic.blog.

If you would like to dig deeper and find out whether some information you’ve heard is true, please contact me or Rachelle at the library. We have had extensive training in researching questions for library users and finding reliable information, and it’s part of our jobs to do that for you. We’re always glad to help.

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