A League of Their Own -

Lies are big news at the moment. Lies by politicians, lies by social media bots, lies by journalists… Most of the focus is on stopping the lies – less about helping us see the truth.

This week I wanted to look at some ways to tell when you’re been lied to in cyberspace.

How to tell when you’re being lied to

Many years ago, when I started using the internet for my research, I came across exactly these questions. From the earliest days, people were concerned about how you judge the truth of an internet article, post or web page.

I came across this as I compiled a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) to help people improve the way they search the internet.

(By the way, if you only use Google for searching, you’ll be amazed at how even Google only scratches the surface. The internet has other, rich resources – from Usenet newsgroups to databases, meta-search engines to directories. Check them out).

In fact, much of the advice I received came from misc.writing – a Usenet newsgroup for writers. And it was from librarians that I met online that I gained the following techniques for sifting the lies from the truth.

1. Context

Most traditional media have standards of fact-checking, which need not be followed by the creator of a web page or a contributor to a discussion group. In misc.writing, for example, a writer accused 90% of the advice posted about copyright law of being wrong.

However, we shouldn’t overstate the case. Mistakes also occur in newspapers. The problem is that as we grow up we learn techniques to judge the validity of traditional media.

Often this comes from the context in which it appears – we value information in a medical journal, for example, over a teen magazine. On the Net, that context is often missing or severely limited.

The counter argument is that the Net is so large that few inaccuracies will go unchallenged for long.

This is the philosophy behind Wikipedia where the public can edit entries – on the basis that the Internet community will prove the best arbiter of truth. The crowd speedily removes any nonsense or vandalism, in theory at least.

In practice, you need to look at whether a platform allows corrections to be made, or is even seen by enough people with the knowledge to do so.

2. Authenticity

How authentic is a website or posting? Many health sites, for example, are created by drugs companies, but don’t reveal that fact on the site itself. There are important-sounding history sites which are run by right-wing extremists.

Even the domain name is no proof of authenticity, as constant legal wrangles continue to prove. Although the Net is subject to laws of libel, misrepresentation and advertising standards codes (despite suggestions to the contrary) these laws are not always easy to enforce, and take time.

Google the name of the site or the writer to see whether others have raised issues with them.

Take a look, too, at any other posts or sites that the writer has created. While slickness is no guarantee of quality, a badly organised Facebook page or blog site suggests that the content may be sloppy in other ways too.

3. Double-check

Journalists always double-check information unless it comes from a totally secure source. The same should apply for any information you need to verify from the Net.

I’ve lost count of the number of urgent e-mails I’ve received from friends over the years, giving dire warnings of how Russians are about to take over my computer or that I’ll die if I drink Coke after eating mangoes. (I kid you not!)

Before passing this on to all your friends, do them a favour by checking on a hoax-debunking site such as Hoax-slayer. Or simply put the message text into Google and see what comes up.

4. Be particularly careful of messages you agree with

We all have a tendency to give more credit to messages that fit our beliefs. It’s all too easy to trust most what comes from our own political bubble.

But I believe personally that we have a particular duty in today’s world to reduce the number of lies going round – even if they suit us.

So before repeating that Johnson, Corbyn, Trump or Biden slur, just check your own prejudices first.

5. Look for “branded” sites

“Branded” sites from organisations you know and trust are likely to be among the more reliable – although even they should still be treated with care, and you should not take the domain name as proof on its own. Many authentic-sounding domain names have been bought up by others.

You might want to trust the BBC, but I’d be a bit more wary if the web address came up as!

Online and social media channels from established broadcasters, newspapers and specialised journals are more likely to have been seen first by editors, fact-checkers and lawyers.

Or, in the case of a tweet by an established journalist, at least been subject to a greater care than it might otherwise have.

But even here, mistakes can be made.

Academic departments of universities can be good too, but check to see if you’re reading the work of a professor or student…

6. Ask who’s paying

Good content takes time and effort, and while some people are happy to provide this for nothing, there’s no incentive quite like hard cash to ensure the website is kept accurate and up-to-date.

In some cases, it may be that the site relies on advertising, and therefore has a built-in incentive to keep visitors happy and supplied with good content.

Or conversely keep the advertisers happy though self-censorship.

Or you may find the site is backed by Drugs-R-Us, the KKK or the Chinese government.

Then again, I’d be even more sceptical if there’s no evidence at all as to who financed a state-of-the-art high-cost web-site that’s digging the dirt on your local candidate for election.

7. Look at internal evidence

Finally, check the text for internal evidence of quality.

Writing style, language, range of content, level of detail, clarity of design – all can give important clues as to the expertise of the provider.

Odd spelling or phraseology is a giveaway. While typos are forgivable, a sense that the language is not right could be a danger sign.

While it’s unlikely that a Russian bot will accidentally sign itself off by saying da or nyet, writers with depth of knowledge and experience tend to be relatively fluent in their use of language.

Look also for language that is precise, rather than vague. And for solid evidence to back up what they say.

Of course, liars know this too, so will often pepper their tweets or posts with vivid details to make them sound real. You see this particularly in urban myths. Look out for the kind of detail that looks superficially convincing but actually adds nothing to the story.

In addition, look for references and citations, clear identification of who “owns” the page or twitter handle, the date of the last update, contact information and email links. Lack of any or all of these should make you increasingly suspicious of the validity of what you find.

And – as they used to say on The Hill Street Blues – ‘Let’s be careful out there!’

Further reading

The Internet Search FAQ

Why can’t we agree on what’s true any more?