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The other day I saw someone with a shirt reading “Eppur si muove” (“And yet it moves” in Italian). Supposedly, the 17th-century Italian polymath Galileo Galilei said these words under his breath after the Roman Inquisition forced him to recant his claim that the Earth moved around the Sun. But while it makes for a very compelling vignette, there’s just one problem: there’s no proof Galileo actually said it. In fact, the quote first appears over a century after his death, meaning it’s highly likely to be spurious. Yet as Ralph Keyes points out in The Quote Verifier, this quote has become central to Galileo’s intellectual legacy. This is a prime example of why fact-checking is so important.

What is fact-checking?

Simply put, fact-checking is the act of verifying the factual accuracy of material. It’s a step beyond the kind of verification we discussed back in January. With fact-checking, you’re not just trying to figure out the provenance of an item; you’re trying to decide whether the item is empirically accurate. To use the fictitious Galileo quote as an example, a fact-checker would want to determine whether or not he actually said those words. There are several ways they could do this. The best way would be by checking primary sources such as Galileo’s own writings or the records of his trial before the Inquisition. Secondary sources from the time period, such as the earliest biography of Galileo, could also be useful.

Why is fact-checking important?

Fact-checking has assumed greater importance in the Internet Age. Before the Web, traditional media outlets such as newspapers, network television stations, and major publishing houses were in a position to vet much of the information that people consumed. While this system was far from perfect, these entities had the resources to invest in fact-checking, so the average consumer could be reasonably confident that the content they consumed adhered to basic standards of accuracy.

Now, however, a blog written by a private individual can have just as much clout as a major newspaper. While this has made it easier for traditionally marginalized voices to make themselves heard, it does present new challenges. Many blogs are solitary projects, which can make it hard to fact-check the material they publish. It’s not just a question of time, either. A hunger for clicks can also encourage a sensationalizing approach that places little importance on factual accuracy. 

Why do we fall for fake news?

The concept of fake news has become firmly embedded in our cultural consciousness over the last several years. It’s a growing problem–researchers have suggested that fake news tied to politics racked up 150 million views in 2019 alone. Now it might be tempting to assume that fake news is only a problem for people like your crazy uncle who treats everyone to political jeremiads at every family gathering. But the siren song of fake news can be irresistible, and it’s not just the naïve or uneducated who fall for it.

Some researchers argue that this is the result of motivated reasoning. In other words, people are more likely to believe information that comports with their existing worldview. Other experts argue that people who don’t take the time to think about what they read are more likely to believe false information.  

The ease of sharing information online can also exacerbate the problem. If someone sees that something has been widely shared, they may conclude that it must be accurate. After all, how can millions of people be wrong?

How to fact-check like a pro

Thankfully, the Internet makes it easy to perform the kind of fact-checking that was once the domain of newsroom professionals. LexisNexis has published a handy guide that can help you assess the accuracy of information. Some of the most important tips are:

  • Be skeptical. Always be prepared to question claims, and be prepared to do your own fact-checking.
  • Consider the source. Does the writer have any relevant expertise? Could they be biased? While the perspective of the avid amateur can be valuable, expertise is a good measure of authenticity.
  • Go with your gut. If your instincts give you reason to doubt something, it’s worth looking into the matter further.  
  • Do they provide sources? Authoritative content creators always show their work, whether it’s by hyperlinking to other websites or including more traditional citations. Don’t be afraid to check those sources for yourself. Even the best content creators can accidentally misinterpret material.
  •  Is the material playing with your emotions? If so, there’s a good chance they may have sacrificed accuracy for clicks.

Understanding the difference between primary and secondary sources can also help with fact-checking. The University of Massachusetts—Boston’s library has a good overview of the topic, but the gist is that:  

  • Primary sources are first-hand accounts of something, including letters, diaries, and legal decisions.
  • Secondary sources are second-hand accounts of a subject, such as newspaper articles or articles in scholarly journals.

Primary sources can seem definitive, but bear in mind that they can have their own biases. A colleague told me about a student of his who was writing a paper based on Depression-era records from the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC). Many of those records portrayed minority-owned homes in a less favorable light than homes owned by white homeowners. My student’s initial inclination was to take those assessments at face value until I pointed out that the HOLC inspectors were likely subject to the prevailing racial prejudices of the era, whether consciously or unconsciously. Don’t be afraid to read them through a critical lens.

Are there any good fact-checking tools?

Google offers some easy ways for you to fact-check material, and they’ve also started flagging material that covers rapidly evolving topics. When you see these flags, it’s a sign it might be worth digging a bit deeper. They also offer a suite of tools that can help you out:

  • Google Fact Check Explorer helps you find out which claims have already been verified (or debunked) by other fact-checkers.
  • The Google Fact Check Markup API allows webmasters to integrate ClaimReview data into their CMS, making it easier to display fact-checks.  

First Draft's verification toolbox on can also come in handy, as it offers links to quite a few helpful resources, from ways to verify a website’s DNS listing to reverse image searches. Fact-checking can require you to approach a subject from many different angles, so having all these tools at your disposal can be quite helpful. 

Summing it all up

Fact-checking can seem daunting, but it’s absolutely essential. Even the savviest individuals can be taken in by fake news, so it’s imperative that you cast a critical eye over everything you read online. This is especially important if you aspire to be an authoritative content creator, as factual errors are a surefire way to erode your credibility. But while the Internet offers a plethora of misinformation, it also offers powerful tools to fight back.

Check out “5 steps to verify social media source accuracy for publishers” for other ways to be smart about online content.