The Martians invaded Earth on Oct. 30, 1938, landing in New Jersey, then wreaking destruction as they advanced on New York City. At least that’s what many a panicked listener thought after tuning in to Orson Welles’s radio drama of H.G. Wells's ‘“The War of the Worlds.” Welles used a newscast format to dramatize the classic science fiction story, but some people automatically associated “news” with reality. The power of mass media to misinform – in this case, inadvertently – was clearly established.
Today the battle continues. On one side, authenticated fact. On the other, rumor, supposition, and deliberate deceit. The biggest battlefield is social media, where two New York Times headlines, “Google and Facebook Take Aim at Fake News Sites” and “Twitter Adds New Ways to Curb Abuse and Hate Speech” suggest that defending the reliability of information and sifting through what’s useful from what’s toxic takes constant vigilance. With that in mind, here are tips for your own use in assessing the reliability of information that turns up in your web searches or social media feeds.
- Government websites: Even if you don’t trust government to get policy right, state and federal websites are the best source for information about the overall economy – such as income, demographics, export/import revenues, expenditures, and much more. It’s worth adding .gov to your search terms when looking for demographic breakdowns or macro data on product categories or economic sectors.
- Be your own fact-checker: When aggregators pass along information without linking to a source, use terms or phrases from their reports in fact-check searches of your own.
- Be wary of “scoops”: Scientific experiments must be replicable to be verified as accurate. By the same token, don’t take news and information on face value when they come from just one source, unless it’s a source you really trust.
- Separate opinion from fact: A great deal – perhaps the vast majority – of web content is opinion, not reported fact. Seek out straight news-reporting first. Then, armed with a factual basis, you’re in a good position to decide whether analysis and commentary make sense to you.
- Don’t over-distrust the mainstream media: While there’s competitive pressure on legacy news organizations and serious information websites to post news as fast as they can – sometimes to the detriment of good reporting – their main value proposition continues to be accuracy and accountability (although that's no longer a guarantee). Go with information from organizations that have a financial incentive to get it right.
Authentication and reliability are crucial in the business world. Market research rises or falls with the authenticity of survey data. Digital advertisers need trustworthy authentication to be confident their messages are reaching targeted audiences. Moral of the story? Like anything else, if you want good value in information, you have to proceed with healthy skepticism and shop around. And if you hear that the Martians have landed, don’t run – verify!