The Art of Fact-Checking

Totally real, guys.
Image Source: Know Your Meme

Recently, a post about McDonalds popped up a few times on my Facebook News Feed. I won’t link to it here because I don’t want to send any links or traffic to people who deal in spreading misinformation for a profit, but the gist of it is that McDonalds had set a new policy banning employees from serving customers trying to buy food for homeless people. I had two quick reactions to this story, one right after the other. The first was one of outrage. How could anyone lack compassion to that degree? The second was one of pure disbelief. It simply didn’t seem true. First, I worked at McDonalds when I was 17, and opinions about its corporate overlords aside, the staff and managers were generally decent human beings. Second, McDonalds is a franchise, which means that decisions about how to operate its stores generally fall to franchise owners and not the corporation that licenses its name. Third, say what you want about large, multi-national corporations, but they’re not generally known to turn down a buck from any source.

So, I did what any rational person would do – I Googled it. I was tempted to just ignore it, but even though 9.9 out of 10 insane, unbelievable stories ends up being false, there’s always that 0.1 that ends up being true. One of the first links I came up with was a Snopes page shooting down the story. Apparently, the story spread to several different spammy sources and became widely shared on social media. This isn’t the first time I’ve gone to Snopes to check crazy stories. Often, the link is right there on my Facebook page under the “related links” that comes up after you click on a story. It’s not hard to look things up on the site, and if something isn’t listed, it’s not hard to verify the information through Google. Yet, people keep sharing these stories. I understand their pull. I’ve fallen prey to them myself. It’s just hard to resist clicking on something sensational, and often, these stories prey on things a lot of us want to be true (e.g. “This food is bad for us,” or “This major corporation is evil”). But, the thing is, these stories very rarely are, so it’s time to put on our skeptics caps and get to work. Whenver you see a story that seems even a little wild, ask yourself “Is this true?” If the answer is even a “maybe,” look it up on Snopes, or Google it. If the story comes out as a hoax, do not repost it. Just let it die like the foul piece of junk that it is.

In the era of blogging, professional journalists are not responsible for a lot of the stories we see on social media. Unlike journalists, the people who write these stories do not usually risk their jobs by spreading misinformation and do not have to be held accountable for what they print. Occasionally, this means that legitimate whistleblowers have an outlet, but more often than not, it means that misinformation and straight-up lies can spread like wildfire. People can say anything on the Internet, and without professional publication standards or a system of accountability to filter out the junk, we have to take responsibility for checking the facts before we pass on information.
In a related rant, when you see something that seems sensational in a major news outlet, check and see which section of the website it’s posted under. If it’s listed anywhere labelled as “Comment,” “Opinion,” or “Op-Ed,” understand that it is based on opinion alone and is not a news story, no matter how much you agree with what it says. You may repost it, but you must do so with the understanding that you are representing an opinion and not necessarily facts or news. There’s nothing wrong with sharing an opinion – I write about my opinions all the time (I’m doing it right now) and regularly share opinion-based articles. But, opinions do not always represent reality, and it’s important to understand that.

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