Not everything deserves to go viral
Twenty percent of Americans say that they use the Internet as their main source of science news. Unfortunately, as you have probably been told many times, you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Yet, according to data from 2014, Facebook users share almost 2.5 million pieces of content every minute. That’s a lot of stories and posts to wade through. So, how do you evaluate what is worth reading and sharing, and what you should just scroll on by?
1. Who wrote the article?
Take a look at the website where the information is published. Is it governmental (does the website end in “.gov?”)? That’s a good sign! Does it come from a news agency you trust or is it a satirical news website like The Onion?
2. Look it up on Snopes.com.
It only takes a minute. Enter the topic or title on snopes.com or a similar website and it will immediately tell you if it’s known to be bogus. It’s quick and easy fact checking.
3. Is it bias-confirming?
As humans, we tend to like hearing things that confirm what we already believe. We are typically less critical of information if it suits our position — think politics or highly debated topics like GMOs. Be aware of your biases and think critically about everything you read.
4. When was the story written?
If it is very recent news, it might be worth waiting a while for more facts to come out. Give it a few days and if you still see the story around, go through these other steps and then consider posting it. In the meantime, someone else may do the debunking for you.
5. Does it cite one or more journal articles?
You may not have access to the journal articles depending on whether or not they are open access, but quotes from researchers can be helpful as they are typically less inclined to make wild allegations. They know their science best after all.
6. What is the methodology like?
You may be less keen on looking into the methodology of a study that backs up what you are reading, but if you want to be sure that you’re sharing worthwhile information, it can be important. You may not understand all of the science, but try looking for red flags: If the article talks about impacts on humans, was the study done on humans? Does it involve reasonable doses and use of whatever it is talking about? Nobody cares whether there might be a tiny health benefit to eating 1000 chocolate bars a day. They would also make you very sick!
It is hard to be absolutely, 100 percent sure about the information you share, but asking these questions can help. If in doubt, keep your finger off the share button and gather more information or talk to an expert. If you do realize that you shared untrue information, don’t panic and don’t just delete it. Edit your post to explain why it is untrue. You might actually teach someone else something new!