Assessing Critically

Ask yourself the following questions and you can better differentiate between facts, fiction and opinions, and assess if the content is factual and trustworthy:

• What am I seeing? Firstly, be aware of what you are reading or seeing. Is it a news story, opinion piece, review, satire, marketing copy, gossip, a wiki entry or a chain status update? Within the piece of writing, which are the facts and which are the opinions?

Who is the source? Who produced or provided the information? Knowing who the source or the writer is gives you an inkling of how much you can trust the content. For example, if an article comes from a credible online newspaper, you may choose to believe it more than one that originates from a tabloid. Knowing the source also gives you an idea of their background, motivation and agenda. You can look up website owners on whois.net or checkdomain.com. If you cannot ascertain the source or if it is anonymous, you should exercise extra care in determining the veracity of the information.

What does the language tell me? Language often reveals clues to the writer’s motivation. For example, loaded or highly charged words may hint that the writer is overly biased or is pushing a specific agenda. Language also helps you sort out thefacts from the opinions. Words and phrases such as “show”, “confirm” and “according to” point to facts and evidence; others such as “claim”, “argue”, “it is believed” and “in his view” indicate opinions. 

Where is the proof? Have verified facts been provided as evidence? Does the argument make sense and logically lead to the conclusion? Based on what you already know, what information do you think has been left out or skewed so as to support the opinions expressed? Have both sides of the story been told?

Am I being biased? Be mindful of how your personal bias can affect how you view and assess information. Human beings are prone to cognitive biases such as selective perception, which occurs when our expectations or beliefs affect our perceptions. Many were duped by the fake pictures circulated during Hurricane Sandy, arguably because the devastation caused by the storm was expected to be widespread and severe. Another type of bias is confirmation bias, which happens when we favor information that supports what we believe or want to be true, rejecting information that is contradictory. For example, if you hold the view that genetically modified (GM) food is unsafe, then you may consciously seek out or notice corroborating facts and opinion online, which further validates your pre-existing belief, while viewing opposing information as unreliable.

Can I check if it is real? A cross-check on search engines and social media often helps you know if what you are viewing or reading is real. There are also some sites that verify or catalogue urban legends, myths, hoaxes and scams, such as Snopes.com. One rule of thumb is to always cross-check important information across multiple news sites.