From the newsroom


Sunory Dutt

Some months ago, the Internet was rife with reports of the sudden death of a leading septuagenarian actor, a  ‘living legend’, and attracted nearly one million ‘likes’ on its Facebook page over a few hours. It was retweeted, shared and reposted thousands of times on the Net. Many webizens took it as the absolute truth and spread the word.

When the news broke, the editor of a city afternoon daily I wrote for had to decide whether he wanted to run the story on the front page or wait to confirm facts from reliable sources. Between scoring breaking news bragging rights and sounding the death knell for the daily’s credibility by publishing an unverified story, he chose not to run it. A wise decision – the entire story was a hoax!

Instances of unverified information being shared on the information superhighway in a matter of seconds, is not new. For example, in January this year, Coca Cola launched an advertising campaign, claiming to tell the truth about its products (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zybnaPqzJ6s). Eleven days later, there was a new fake campaign doing the rounds on the net (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHhCP5ad-zM), using the exact same imagery and much of the same messaging as the original. I must confess I too was among to gullible many who mistook the fake for the real thing thinking, “What an honest company!” and shared it on Facebook, only to be apprised later about the deception.

Go to the right sources….

As a writer, you’re only as good as your last byline. And that in turn rests heavily on your credibility. Readers appreciate good stories, but they don’t easily forget bad ones either! The ignominy of getting your facts wrong or misquoting information will stay with you longer that you’d want. So get your brass tacks right by getting information from reliable sources like news agencies, established/official websites and whenever possible, from spokespersons.

Almost anyone can publish on the Web. But often, it’s not regulated for quality or accuracy like in the case of newspapers or television broadcasts. So the onus of evaluating the resource or information lies on you.

How to verify if the Internet info is legit?

Here are a few pointers:

– Check with Snopes.com. Rumour has it that it’s a great site for verifying hearsay. Just kidding! There’s no one-stop panacea. Be very critical of the information you find on the Web and carefully examine each site, trawl through various pages and slog it out, checking and cross-checking your facts.

– Doing a background check on the author or sponsor of the page could help you establish the credibility of a page. I’d suggest sticking with reputed sites. When writing health and wellness articles, I usually rely on Mayo Clinic, WebMD, MedlinePlus and MedicineNet, especially to research medical conditions. Why? Because the information on these sites is well researched, objective and supported by evidence and case studies.

– Wherever possible, verify the legitimacy of Internet material with a non-web equivalent. For example, if I were researching a particular skin condition, once I’m done with my reading and fact-finding, I’d check with at least two or more dermatologists to validate my notes and provide their expert opinions on that particular condition.

– I’d be weary and even suspicious of sites that don’t provide any contact information (like an e-mail or postal address). Because with anonymity, there’s greater potential for irresponsibility. Often those with ambiguous qualifications seem to speak with authority on complex topics, about which they might have no real knowledge or expertise. Look for other publications by the author or publisher. Does he/she have a significant body of work to be taken seriously, or is this particular site just a flash in the pan?

– Make sure the information is current and up-to-date. You can ascertain this by checking on the last time a particular page was updated. Avoid ‘zombie’ sites. In other words, stay away from undated information whether it’s presented as fact or commentary.

– Examine the writing style. Knowing the motive behind the page’s creation can help you judge its content. What’s the agenda of the site, and why does it exist – to inform, educate, entertain, sell a product, persuade, gain attention or generally be a rabble-rouser?

It takes only a fraction of a second to share a link or re-tweet vignettes of information. But before making your significant contribution towards illuminating the world wide web, stop, think, and then share. Sometimes all it takes is simple common sense to figure out between true and false.

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