What people need most when confronted with a claim that may not be 100% true is things they can do to get closer to the truth. They need something I have decided to call “moves.”
Moves accomplish intermediate goals in the fact-checking process. They are associated with specific tactics. Here are the four moves this guide will hinge on:
- Check for previous work: Look around to see if someone else has already fact-checked the claim or provided a synthesis of research.
- Go upstream to the source: Go “upstream” to the source of the claim. Most web content is not original. Get to the original source to understand the trustworthiness of the information.
- Read laterally: Read laterally. Once you get to the source of a claim, read what other people say about the source (publication, author, etc.). The truth is in the network.
- Circle back: If you get lost, hit dead ends, or find yourself going down an increasingly confusing rabbit hole, back up and start over knowing what you know now. You’re likely to take a more informed path with different search terms and better decisions.
In general, you can try these moves in sequence. If you find success at any stage, your work might be done.
When you encounter a claim you want to check, your first move might be to see if sites like Politifact, or Snopes, or even Wikipedia have researched the claim (Check for previous work).
If you can’t find previous work on the claim, start by trying to trace the claim to the source. If the claim is about research, try to find the journal it appeared in. If the claim is about an event, try to find the news publication in which it was originally reported (Go upstream).
Maybe you get lucky and the source is something known to be reputable, such as the journal Science or the newspaper the New York Times. Again, if so, you can stop there. If not, you’re going to need to read laterally, finding out more about this source you’ve ended up at and asking whether it is trustworthy (Read laterally).
And if at any point you fail–if the source you find is not trustworthy, complex questions emerge, or the claim turns out to have multiple sub-claims–then you circle back, and start a new process. Rewrite the claim. Try a new search of fact-checking sites, or find an alternate source (Circle back).
- I am indebted to researcher Sam Wineburg for this language. ↵