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How can you tell if something is true? Here are 3 questions to ask yourself about what you see, hear and read

Institute, WEST VIRGINIA — Truth can be tricky to determine. Every message you read, see or hear comes from somewhere and was created by someone and for someone.

I teach media literacy, which is a way to think about information you get in the messages you receive via media. You might think media means the news, but it also includes TikTok posts, television, books, advertisements and more.

When deciding whether to trust a piece of information, it’s good to start with three main questions – who said it, what evidence did they give and how much do you want to believe it? The last one might seem a little strange, but you’ll see why it’s important by the end.

WHO SAID IT?

Let’s tak a YouTuber, for instance. If you’ve watched him or her for a while and they're reliably correct, that’s a good start. At the same time, make sure you don’t confuse the person having an opinion with actually having knowledge. Just because you like a source doesn’t make it trustworthy.

This is true for websites, too. When a site grabs your attention, take a second to check the source at the top. Some fake sites use names that sound trustworthy – like “Boston Tribune” instead of “Boston Globe” or “www.cbs.com.co” instead of “www.cbs.com.” You can click the “About” page to see where they’re really coming from, use lists of known fake sites and other fact-checking resources to avoid getting played.

WHAT'S THE EVIDENCE?

Evidence is what you show when someone says “prove it!” It’s the details that support what a source is saying.

Primary sources – people or groups who are directly involved with the information – are best. If you want to learn about the release of a new game, the company’s official accounts or channels would be primary sources.

Secondary sources are one step removed – for example, news stories based on primary sources. They aren’t as strong as primary sources but are still useful. For example, most news on gaming site IGN is based on information from game company sources, so it’s a good secondary source.

Can a blogger or YouTuber be a secondary source? If their claims start by referencing primary sources like “Electronic Arts says,” that’s good. But if they start with “I think” or “There’s a lot of buzz,” be careful.

DO YOU WANT TO BELIEVE IT?

Emotions can get in the way of knowing what’s true. Messages that make you feel strong emotions – especially ones that are funny or make you angry – are the most important ones to check, but they’re also the hardest to ignore.

Advertisers know this. Many ads try to be funny or make the things they’re selling look cool because they want you to focus on how you feel rather than what you think. And being older doesn’t mean you’re automatically better at spotting false information: 41% of 18-to-34-year-olds and 44% of adults 65 and older admitted to having fallen for a fake news story in a 2018 study. Other research showed adults over 65 were seven times as likely to share articles from fake sites as younger people were.

So if you’ve been eagerly waiting for that new game, and somebody posts a video that says it’s coming out early, your wanting it to be true can make you ignore your common sense – leaving you open to being fooled.

The best question you can ask yourself when you’re thinking about a message is, “Do I want to believe this?” If the answer is yes, it’s a good sign you should slow down and check the source and evidence more closely.