look it up! (then research everything you looked up)

Es­ti­mated reading time is 10 min­utes.

BACK UP AN ARGUMENT by quoting some­thing found on a web­site and, re­gard­less of your in­tel­li­gence or your re­search skills, you’ll likely be told, You can’t be­lieve any­thing you read on the in­ternet.” My normal re­joinder is to point out that’s akin to saying that you can’t be­lieve any­thing you read in the library! 

Like a li­brary, the in­ternet is a repos­i­tory of sources for in­for­ma­tion. Some of it is fac­tual and ac­cu­rate, some of it is not. You can go into the world’s best li­braries and pull books from the shelves that will as­sure you that:

  Di­nosaurs and man walked side by side.
•  The Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery.
  The Nazis didn’t kill all those people.
•  Bill Clinton had 43 people mur­dered while Gov­ernor of Arkansas.
  We found weapons of mass de­struc­tion in Iraq.
  Michael Jackson sold more records than Elvis and the Beatles.

You can do the same thing on the in­ternet. There are now more than 1,800,000,000 web­sites: if 99% of them are run by id­iots, or care­less writers who don’t be­lieve in fact-checking, or out-and-out fake news sites, that leaves al­most 2,000,000 sites that are filled with facts!

If someone has a his­tory of pub­lishing fact-based ar­ti­cles, you can prob­ably as­sume they are going to keep on doing just that.

How these sources are used is up to the reader!

There are sources of in­for­ma­tion that are based on false as­sump­tions but do not seek to de­ceive. The ad­min­is­tra­tors of the web­site truly be­lieve that they are cor­rect, but they’re not. There are also sources of in­for­ma­tion where the data is out­dated and in­cor­rect. 1

These sites should not be con­sid­ered ‘dis­in­for­ma­tion sites’ or ‘fake news’ sites—they are ‘just plain wrong’ sites.


Research Everything: cover of first issue of PSYCHOLOGY TODAY from May 1967.
Psy­chology Today has been run­ning con­tin­u­ously as a sub­scrip­tion and news­stand pub­li­ca­tion since the first months of 1967. It brings cur­rent news and rel­e­vant ar­ti­cles to the masses in a manner that some of those masses can un­der­stand without a de­gree in psychology.

Look up everything every time

When you use a web­site, look up its sources—then look up the sources that those sources used! If you find a source that is con­sis­tently fac­tu­ally ac­cu­rate, trust them until they prove otherwise!

How do you know a source is con­sis­tently fac­tu­ally accurate?

You wait six months or a year. When a “hot” news story be­comes old hat and the dust has set­tled and the facts are known, re­call the “facts” that your source orig­i­nally pub­lished when the story was hot. It shouldn’t take long to as­cer­tain the re­li­a­bility of your source.

Here are four things you can do in the here-and-now when looking things up:

1.  When you read some­thing news­worthy on a web­site, copy the state­ment in full, paste it into your browser, and look it up and see if it’s ac­cu­rate. If it’s not—if words have been al­tered or deleted—be wary.

2.  If it is news and not pro­pa­ganda (fash­ion­ably re­ferred to as “fake news” these days), the first page of your browser will list at least a few rec­og­niz­able, main­stream news organizations—such as but cer­tainly not lim­ited to the As­so­ci­ated Press, the BBC, The New York Times, or The Wall Street Journal. If all the sites on the first page are un­known to you, be wary.

If someone has a his­tory of pub­lishing bull­shit, you can prob­ably as­sume they are going to keep on doing just that.

3.  While looking up the quote, you will usu­ally see the con­text in which the orig­inal state­ment was made. If it’s a dif­ferent con­text than the one used by the site you are using, be wary.

4.  Sometimes the eas­iest way to verify a state­ment or al­leged fact is to use one of many re­li­able fact-checking web­sites. These in­clude but are not lim­ited to (and are listed al­pha­bet­i­cally below):

Fact Check
Media Mat­ters
Open Se­crets


Just follow these few tips and you should not end up being one of those people con­vinced that we found WMD in Iraq, or that Bill Clinton had 43 people mur­dered as Gov­ernor of Arkansas, or that mil­lions of un­reg­is­tered voters voted for Clinton in the 2016 elec­tion, or that Canada is se­cretly plan­ning to build a wall 3,987 miles wide along their southern border to keep out il­legal aliens and as­sorted riff-raff.


Research Everything: cartoon by Rob Rogers of Americans falling into hole of fake news.
Amer­i­cans who iden­tify as con­ser­v­a­tive and Rep*blican often score poorly in cur­rent event quizzes. They also be­lieve that their news sources are fair and bal­anced while everyone else’s are fake. (Car­toon by Rob Rogers for The Pitts­burgh Post Gazette.)

Prisoners of our assumptions

A rather im­por­tant issue when doing any re­search is con­fir­ma­tion bias, some­thing we all do. We un­con­sciously tailor our re­search to find the facts that verify our beliefs:

Con­fir­ma­tion bias oc­curs from the di­rect in­flu­ence of de­sire on be­liefs. . . . Once we have formed a view, we em­brace in­for­ma­tion that con­firms that view while ig­noring, or re­jecting, in­for­ma­tion that casts doubt on it. . . . We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good be­cause they con­firm our prej­u­dices. Thus, we may be­come pris­oners of our as­sump­tions.” (Psy­chology Today)

The only way to combat this bias is to be aware of it in one’s own self when re­searching facts and issues.


Research Everything: photo of a bull shitting.
Does this need a caption?

Bullshit is not inherently bad

Which leads me toHow to tell if what you’re reading is bull­shit” by STL Media Works. It ad­dresses the prob­lems of searching cred­ible and re­li­able news sources on the in­ternet and finding bull­shit in­stead.

“Reading bull­shit isn’t in­her­ently bad. There’s a wide, wide spec­trum of it, and un­less you can read through it all mind­fully and dis­cern what’s merely a bad take and what’s an out­ra­geous lie, your brain is going to break—the re­la­tion­ship be­tween con­suming media and knowing some­thing true will be­come watery.

Most im­por­tantly, you’ll hamper your ability to en­gage with what you’re reading, and the whole point of jour­nalism is to make the reader en­gage with the real-life thing being reported.”

The writer lists five points to keep in mind while reading any­thing on the in­ternet (and what fol­lows is a trun­cated ver­sion of the much lengthier orig­inal article):

Why am I reading to this?

Asking your­self why you feel com­pelled to click on some­thing pro­vides a few im­por­tant safe­guards against bull­shit in­fil­tra­tion: it keeps you from reading junk just to sate some af­fir­ma­tion deficit you have. 

Why does this exist?

Good jour­nalism ex­ists to chal­lenge its reader, even if it’s about some­thing they gen­er­ally agree with. Any jour­nalism that doesn’t do that is likely bullshit.

Who is the person writing this?

If a jour­nalist has a long his­tory of great work, you prob­ably know the thing you’re reading is good too. If they have a long his­tory of bull­shit, then you know they’re prob­ably not going to break that habit any time soon.

Who are the sources?

Good jour­nalism tries its best to put sources in con­text, and you should al­ways be wary of sources that are taken out of con­text. Even when good jour­nal­ists source anony­mously, they should be as spe­cific as pos­sible and they should al­ways try to re­in­force it with as much on-the-record re­porting as possible.

Follow the link

The re­porting process is now more trans­parent than ever, and jour­nal­ists should try to link as much as they can to be as trans­parent as pos­sible. Readers can use the pri­mary sources to eval­uate what they’re reading more thoroughly—if some­thing ap­pears to be good re­porting but it links to a bunch of de­bunked studies or dog-whistle opinion pieces, then you know it’s prob­ably bullshit.


Research Everything: papercut of Alice in Wonderland by Tina Tarnoff.
Alice In Won­der­land by Tina Tarnoff. This is an orig­inal pa­percut, an art form in which an en­tire image is hand-cut from a single sheet of paper. Avail­able on Etsy.

A Wonderland of alt-facts

And this brings us to “How ‘Googling it’ Can Send Con­ser­v­a­tives Down Se­cret Rabbit Holes of Al­ter­na­tive Facts” by Abby Ohlheiser for The Wash­ington Post (May 29. 2018). In­cluding the sub­title, these are the opening sentences:

“Based on the exact words you type into the search bar, Google is giving you dras­ti­cally dif­ferent in­for­ma­tion. . . . Type Russia col­lu­sion into a Google search, and the search en­gine will try to guess the next word you’ll type. The first of those is delu­sion. Ac­cept the sug­ges­tion [Russia col­lu­sion delu­sion], and you’ll find your­self in a con­ser­v­a­tive rabbit hole.”

Abby is, of course, dis­cussing Google’s au­to­com­ple­tion fea­ture. Be­cause the fea­ture seeks to as­sist users by of­fering them pop­ular op­tions based on the key­words typed into Google.

But those op­tions can take on dif­ferent mean­ings, as they can ap­par­ently be ma­nip­u­lated. Ohlheiser con­tinues (edited for this article):

Googling it has be­come the news equiv­a­lent of do-your-own-research. But nei­ther Google nor search terms are purely neu­tral. For Francesca Tripodi, a post­doc­toral scholar at Data & So­ciety and as­sis­tant pro­fessor in so­ci­ology at James Madison Uni­ver­sity, the search re­sults are a pow­erful tell of a phe­nom­enon she set out to document.

De­spite a pop­ular idea that the con­ser­v­a­tive media’s core au­di­ence pas­sively ab­sorbs what­ever they’re told, Tripodi’s re­search found that plenty will Google some­thing they’ve read or seen, often with the in­ten­tion of fact-checking or chal­lenging their own beliefs.

A lib­eral and con­ser­v­a­tive might set out to re­search the same topic, ‘but based on the key­word, Google is giving you dras­ti­cally dif­ferent in­for­ma­tion,’ Tripodi said.

And, her re­search in­di­cates, con­ser­v­a­tive media—along with bad ac­tors and ex­treme groups looking to am­plify their mes­sage to the main­stream right—have gotten re­ally, re­ally good at an­tic­i­pating what their au­di­ence will search for and seeding their in­for­ma­tion to show up, promi­nently, as a re­sult. The very searches meant to fact-check one’s own be­liefs can end up simply en­forcing them!”

As for the pop­ular idea that the con­ser­v­a­tive media’s core au­di­ence pas­sively ab­sorbs what­ever they’re told, I can vouch that I know one con­ser­v­a­tive who does, in fact, look things up.

And that is not meant sar­cas­ti­cally: every other con­ser­v­a­tive I have dealt with—either in face-to-face con­ver­sa­tion, on per­sonal email com­mu­ni­ca­tion, or on the internet—appears to have swal­lowed what­ever bait the vast rightwing con­spiracy was dan­gling in front of their au­di­ence that day. 2

I have al­ways as­sumed they simply re­fused to re­search any­thing be­cause they might find ac­tual facts that cast doubt on their long-held po­si­tions. 3

Ac­tu­ally, I still be­lieve that, but Francesca Tripodi’s re­search now casts doubt on my long-held position.


Sack cartoon FacebookBot 1000
Car­toon by Steve Sack for the Min­neapolis Star Tribune.

Coda: the bot problem

“Face­book, along with most other so­cial net­works, has a bot problem. From Facebook’s per­spec­tive, bots can be in­dis­tin­guish­able from le­git­i­mate users. These au­to­mated pro­grams can be used to scrape users’ per­sonal in­for­ma­tion without con­sent, fab­ri­cate in­flu­ence cam­paigns, covertly push agendas, spread dis­in­for­ma­tion, and make scams more convincing.

While au­to­mated sys­tems can de­tect more glaring bot ac­tivity, more so­phis­ti­cated bots can mimic human input so ac­cu­rately that Face­book can struggle to tell the dif­fer­ence. As a re­sult of its failure to stop bots on its plat­form, it ap­pears Face­book is in­stead trying to nor­malize the idea that bots are just a part of life on the in­ternet. Bots won’t be stopped any time soon.”

The two para­graphs above open the ar­ticle “In­side a Face­book bot farm that pumps out 200k+ po­lit­ical posts per month” by Paul Bischoff for the Com­par­itech blog. To read the ar­ticle in its en­tirety, click here.

If someone has a his­tory of pub­lishing fact-based ar­ti­cles, you can prob­ably as­sume they are going to keep on doing just that. Click To Tweet

Research Everything: photo of interior of Redmond Library in Washington.

FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page is of the in­te­rior of the Red­mond branch of the King County Li­brary System. Fi­nally, as reading is on my mind, find these ar­ti­cles and check them out: “6 Rea­sons You Re­ally Can’t Be­lieve Any­thing You Read On­line” and “False Versus Fake: Why no news is true news.”



1   Prior to the in­ternet, it was dif­fi­cult for writers in the field of rock and pop music to find ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion about records. Con­se­quently, many well-intentioned writers had to make as­sump­tions or even just wild guesses at things as el­e­men­tary as the date a record was re­leased or how many copies it sold.

Con­se­quently, many books about rock and pop music that were con­sid­ered ac­cu­rate sources prior to the world wide web should be cited with wari­ness. This in­cludes every book from the ed­i­tors of Rolling Stone mag­a­zine pub­lished in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s.

2   For years, talking points that em­anated from Grover Norquist’s of­fice could be heard on rightwing AM radio talk shows non-stop.

3   While the over­whelming ma­jority (as much as 90%) of the people that I com­mu­ni­cate with reg­u­larly are left-of-center, the over­whelming ma­jority (as much as 90%) of lit­er­ally un­be­liev­able emails come from those con­tacts who are right-of-center.


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