Source criticism for Internet publishing

Today, anyone can publish anything on the internet. This has had many positive effects on freedom of expression and, by extension, democracy. But it has also had profoundly negative impacts, since the editorial filter provided by professional journalists sifting through the facts is gone. Therefore, it is more important than ever to review sources critically. Here are a few things to consider.

Source criticism on social media

“On social media, source criticism is very much about being critical regarding what we should share,” says Jutta Haider, a researcher at Sweden’s Lund University, who studies digital culture and algorithms. According to Jutta, we should think not only about source criticism but also about source confidence—that is, which sources we trust.

Since it isn’t possible to review all claims posted on social media, it’s even more important to identify trustworthy information sources, which can then be used to fact-check news items that pop up. Alternatively, a quick Google search before sharing could help identify sources that support or disprove the claim.

Learn more about source criticism

Algorithms that help…

In the simplest terms, an algorithm is a set of instructions with a beginning and an end. These instructions often follow the structure: “if x, then y,” just like a flow chart. In social media, algorithms track what we follow, like, and share. Using this information, which becomes the “x” part of the instructions above, the algorithm suggests the content or ads that it thinks we will like, based on the choices of others whose digital behavior is similar to ours.

As a result, the greater the number of people who like and share a post, the greater the number of people who will see the ‘liked’ and ‘shared’ post in their feed, which they can then also like and share. The post begins to spread, and suddenly “goes viral.”

... and hurts

But just because something is liked and shared by many people, does mean it’s true. In fact, it is often just the opposite. In 2016, the US online magazine Buzzfeed investigated how news had spread in social media in the final months before the presidential election. They concluded that fake news posts had generated more engagement than the collective top real news from 19 major channels.

During the campaign's final three months, the 20 most engaging fake news posts generated 8,711,000 shares, comments or comments on Facebook. In comparison, the 20 most engaging top real news stories from 19 leading news outlets, including the New York Times and Washington Post, together generated only 7,367,000.

It is difficult for people to keep track of the large number of sites, accounts and sources available online. Therefore, according to Thomas Nygren, historian and source-criticism researcher at Uppsala University, we find it difficult to sort through them. And since we receive no help in this task, we often accept as true whatever it is that we have heard or read several times.

Do filter bubbles exist?

In his 2011 book: The Filter bubble: What the internet is hiding from you, media activist Eli Pariser coined the term “filter bubble.” He argues that the algorithms that control what we see in searches and on social media create a “bubble” for us, where we only find content that confirms our existing world view, while posts with opinions that contradict it are omitted. The expression had a major impact and was frequently discussed in both media and social forums.

Over time, however, the debate has become more nuanced, and there are several researchers who believe that filter bubbles aren’t necessarily related to the internet and algorithms, but rather to normal human behavior. In the US, there has long been talk of echo chambers, which allow you to choose politically biased news broadcasters, such as Fox News and MSNBC, which reinforce your opinions in a constant echo.

Annika Bergström, media research leader at the SOM Institute at the University of Gothenburg, doesn’t believe filter bubbles exist—or at least doesn’t believe that the phenomenon has increased due to digitalisation. Jesper Strömbäck, professor of journalism at the University of Gothenburg, holds the same opinion. He believes that although there is a certain amount of evidence that we choose media based on our interests and political opinions, other news outlets reach out widely enough that it is difficult to speak of any real filter bubble.


Download our checklist “Investigate an online source with five simple questions"

It is more important than ever to review sources critically. Our checklist helps you determine whether an online source is trustworthy. You will learn:

  • What are common warning signs?
  • How do you develop a source critical approach?
  • How and where can you fact check an article?

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