Fake news, red herrings and conspiracy theories – is it true!


Seeing all the fake news, red herrings and conspiracy theories posted lately I though it might be worth making a few points about searching for information,  the veracity of information and sources available and ways of checking the reliability and accuracy of sources.

There are a variety of ways to check out the accuracy, reliability, authenticity and validity of Internet items: Consider the source – who is posting this? What is the purpose of the site, does the organisation and/or the author have credentials or other credibility in the field. Look beyond the headline to the whole story, is it consistent? Are there supporting links – if so do they check out? Look at the date – old stories are frequently re-posted long after they have ceased to be relevant. Is it a joke/satire look at the site and author to find out? Consider your own biases, are you allowing your own beliefs to affect your judgement – do you want it to be true because you agree with the opinions? Ask the experts – librarians are good, or use one or more of the many fact checking sites! https://www.makeuseof.com/tag/true-5-factchecking-websites/

Google itself is simply a search engine not a “source” if a key word appears in an Internet publication then Google will pull up the doc in the search results. Google DOES NOT check accuracy of information, reliability, authenticity, validity or anything else. It may find possible sources but it is up to the searcher to check accuracy, reliability, authenticity, validity etc. “Google Scholar” is an offshoot of Google that “tries” not always successfully to access academic sources and avoid the “junk”, biased news items and opinions from Joe Blow down the street.

DuckDuckGo is another search engine (again not a source in itself) of the meta-search type – this means it pulls its results from searches of other search engines and other sources. DuckDuckGo has a focus on privacy for the searcher.

Because Google customises results using data it collects about what users read, two people asking the same question are likely to get different lists of search results (often similar but in a different order). DuckDuckGo does not collect such information so two people with the same question will probably (although not definitely) get the same list.

So with time Google will tend to reinforce people’s “confirmation bias” ie. it will provide documents which have similar views to those the person has accessed before. This means that if you hold a particular opinion Google is likely to preferentially provide you with search results that support that opinion. This can be overcome to some extent by using the settings in Google search, but much more reliably by ensuring that you open items you disagree with rather than just those you agree with!

You don’t have to use Google there are a number of other search engines around. If you are happy to stay with the ones that collect your information and will probably sell it on and may also use it to skew the results they give you then you can try Bing or Yahoo. If you want to try and get away from the “Big Brother” aspect then DuckDuckGo is probably the best known of the “Private” search engines but there are others – https://www.vpnmentor.com/blog/best-private-search-engines-true-no-log-services