How to Verify Online Information

How to Verify Online Information

Social Media & Misinformation Basics

Use these steps to investigate and better understand claims you've found online.

What to look for

When investigating claims we've found online, it's important to remember that we aren't just looking for claims that are totally made up, or fall into a true/false binary. Most misinformation contains some grain of truth, and many claims can be partially true, but misleading nonetheless. When we're monitoring, remember to look out for these types of claims:

Fearful or emotional claims: Content may be designed to scare you into changing behavior, make you feel angry or self-righteous. If content makes you think, "I must share this!" that's a good sign the content contains something misleading or biased.

Pseudoscience: Unproven cures, treatments, or wild explanations in scientific and medical fields should be treated with skepticism. This content has been particularly viral during the pandemic and vaccine rollout.

Conspiracies: These stories blame a boogeyman or many powerful elites acting in secret. QAnon, the New World Order, and many claims involving Bill Gates and vaccines are common conspiracies.

Hate speech: Messages that contain terms or themes that divide based on identity.

Outdated claims: A story or claim that was true in the past may be recycled in the present moment. Just because something was true once, doesn't mean it's true now.

False promises, scams, and fraud: This content will request personal information, offer a deal, or seem too good to be true.

What is verification?

The process of verification is assessing a claim by using online tools to understand its legitimacy or origin. We do this to help answer the question, "Is this misleading?"

As we verify, we'll work through answering four questions:

1. What is the claim being made?

2. Who shared this?

3. Where did this originate?

4. When was this originally posted?

We may not be able to answer all four of these questions, but answering even one of them can help us better understand the claim.

You'll notice we don't ask "why" a person shared a claim. First, it can be difficult to understand a person's motivations for sharing something. Second, it often doesn't matter why a person shared something. It may have been a joke or innocent mistake, but if contextual clues tell us others have been mislead by the claim (for example, commenters respond seriously to a satirical news article) it is still misleading.

What is the claim being made?

First, we need to assess the claim and decide if it contains a factual statement, or an opinion. Facts can be verified, as we can support or dispute them with evidence. Opinions are someone's personal feelings, and can't be verified.

An opinion like, "I think there are too many undocumented immigrants in our country!" can't be verified because there is no fact that we can prove or disprove.

This post shares a similar sentiment, but can be verified:

These statistics are true. However, this claim is still misleading. What the post does not fully explain is that these statistics relate to federal crimes. Of all crimes committed, federal offenses represent only a small part. Indeed, recent research has found that undocumented immigrants are less likely than U.S. citizens to commit crimes overall.

Who shared this claim?

Next, we'll take a closer look at who shared the claim. Basically, we want to figure out if we should trust this person to share accurate information, or if there are red flags telling us we should be skeptical. Questions like these can help us:

1. Are there clues in their bio? Do they mention a job, education, or credential that illustrates their knowledge? Are there links to organizations they're affiliated with? Do those organizations seem trustworthy?

2. Have they shared misleading information before?

3. Are they using a real name or pseudonym? Are they a public figure? Can you Google their name to learn more?

4. Are there clues in their username? Are they verified?

Again, we may not be able to answer every question, but answering at least one will help us assess the trustworthiness of the person who shared the claim.

This post contains what looks like a misleading claim: "No corporation or government has a right to demand to see your private health documents."

Let's look for clues in Dr. Simone Gold's bio to figure out if we should trust what she says:

The front page of AFD's website demonizes vaccines and calls to "stop vaccine passports." A quick Google search of AFD's name also brings up news stories and fact checks about misinformation the group has spread about vaccines, pandemic restrictions, and Covid-19 treatments. As the founder of AFD, Dr. Gold is not someone we should trust to share good information about vaccines.

We can also review content she's shared previously to confirm that she spreads misinformation. A quick scroll through her recent Twitter posts confirms that Dr. Simone Gold spreads misinformation often, and shouldn't be trusted to share accurate info.

Imposter Accounts

Sometimes, people will manipulate their usernames, profile pictures, and bios to impersonate someone else. Here's "Mayor Bill de Blasio" allegedly saying, "I have no spine!"

At first glance, this might seem legitimate: That’s a picture of Bill de Blasio, it says his name, there’s a verification checkmark. But, if we look at the handle -- @HIMANSHU -- we realize this isn't Bill de Blasio's account.

This user, @HIMANSHU, changed their profile picture and display name to Bill de Blasio to make it appear as though it were the mayor’s account.

@HIMANSHU even took advantage of the fact that they had a blue verification checkmark — just like Bill de Blasio — to make it look more legitimate. Sometimes, people will try to make it look like they have a blue check by inserting an emoji at the end of their display name.

When it’s big and blown up like this, it’s pretty obvious this isn’t Mayor de Blasio. But if you’re just quickly scrolling through your Twitter feed, you might not realize it!

Where did the claim originate?

Next, we'll want to figure out where a claim came from. Sometimes, a user will totally invent a claim out of thin air. More often, however, a user sharing a dubious claim heard it somewhere else first. Use these three tactics to understand where a claim came from, and if we should trust it:

1. Look for existing fact checks.

2. Find exact instances of the same claim elsewhere

3. Look for other clues in the post.

Fact Checks

First, do a quick Google search to see if the claim has already been fact checked by a trustworthy news organization. These U.S.-based news organizations are part of the International Fact Checking Network. These organizations all produce high-quality fact checks about common claims. If you find a claim that can be debunked by one of these fact checks, that’s great. You don’t have to do any further investigation work!

Here's a screenshot of a post making the rounds on Reddit recently, which appears to show a newspaper article from 1912 predicting global warming. Searching for keywords related to the post -- 1912 newspaper climate change prediction -- surfaced a fact check from Snopes, whose reporter found the newspaper article to be real.

Find other instances of the claim

Here's a short video clip that was spreading on Telegram. This 11-second clip shows Democratic Senator Dick Durbin saying, "Here’s the reality. We have millions who have died across the world by this vaccine. We may never have an accurate count. We have hundreds of thousands who have died in the United States."

Other than being cut down to a short clip, the audio isn't obviously edited. However, Sen. Durbin and other Senate Democrats have supported the Covid-19 vaccine, so this post seems misleading.

We can find other instances of this video clip by searching for Sen. Durbin's words within quotation marks. Copy the whole quote, place quotation marks around it, and plug it into Google. This search surfaced a second, longer clip of Durbin's remarks.

It turns out Durbin's remarks were cut down and taken out of context. He says the same thing in the second video, but his words before the quote in question make it obvious he simply misspoke. The longer quote reads:

“There are two hosts of programs on Fox primetime that can only be described as anti-vax quacks. I’m referring of course to Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. They have been spreading, what I consider to be, irresponsible information about vaccines across America and the efforts of this nation to deal with them. Here’s the reality: We have millions who have died across the world by this vaccine….”

For further confirmation, we can go to Sen. Durbin's website and see in his recent press releases that he encourages everyone to get vaccinated. We can be nearly certain that Sen. Durbin simply misspoke in his senate testimony, and we can confirm that he does, in fact, support vaccination against Covid-19.

Look for other clues

Claims may have other clues that can point us to their origin. Recently, this claim about vaccine hesitancy across education levels spread on social media. I noticed the screenshot references the source of the data: Carnegie Mellon University.

A basic Google search using keywords referenced in the post -- phds vaccine hesitant carnegie mellon university -- pulls up information from the University about this study. It turns out this was a legitimate study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon.

When was the claim originally made?

Information that may have been true at one time can be recycled in the present moment and presented as current and correct. However, just because something was true at one point does not mean it is currently true. These types of misleading claims are especially relevant during breaking news events, or during a period of time when information is rapidly changing -- like during a global pandemic.

Investigating images with reverse image search

This is an image whose caption translates to, “Pandemic news! U.S. vaccines are free, but people in Singapore are waiting in long lines and paying out of pocket for Chinese vaccines.”

Is this truly a picture of people waiting in long lines for Chinese-made vaccines in Singapore? We can find out where this picture came from by reverse image searching it. Using the Chrome browser, right click on an image and select "Search Google for image."

Click on any of the images listed under "Visually similar images" and then begin browsing.

One of the first images is a match. Click through to the original content by clicking the blue "Visit" button.

It turns out this image is old. The Twitter post, claiming this photo was from Singapore, was posted in July 2021. However, we've found the exact same image on a GMA Network news article from May 2021, syndicated on MSN. The caption on the original image identifies it as Manila, Philippines and says these people are waiting for Pfizer vaccines.

Additional Resources

Looking for more information about verification?

We recommend the First Draft "Essential Guides" series, which covers all of the basics of social media monitoring and verification, and are available in English, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, German, and Hindi.

The Essential Guides cover:

Verification on Mobile

If you mostly use your phone for monitoring misinformation, check out First Draft's webinar Verification on the go: How to use your phone to verify online material

Deeper Dives

Too much information: a public guide to navigating the infodemic, By the First Draft staff

Verification Handbook For Disinformation And Media Manipulation, Edited by Craig Silverman (available in English, Italian, German, Arabic, and Turkish)

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