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Four questions to ask when consuming information online

The information age also known as the jet age has brought a significant increase in available sources of information, bearing in mind the incomparable increase in internet availability and accessibility of technological devices.

While social media is a convenient way to gain access to news and stay connected to friends and family, it is not that easy to differentiate real news from fake news on social media. For some, social media continues to support the increasing distribution of user-generated information, which includes false claims, hoaxes, fabricated and conspiracy theories with the primary sources being social media platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook.

What this means is that any person in possession of a device which is connected to the internet is a prospective consumer or distributor of fake news.

The automatic character, the repetition of information, the permutation and the production of user-generated content, the anonymity, the impersonal character, the distortion of a totally different representation of the initial content are all the characteristics that allow some users turn social media into a dangerous tool. In addition to this, the widespread phenomenon of social media’s malicious use is said to be affecting the public sphere – from government to individuals–to influence knowledge and perceptions and to generate behaviours in a direct or indirect way.

Massive digital misinformation is becoming pervasive in online social media to the extent that it has been listed by the World Economic Forum (WEF) as one of the main threats to society. Whether a claim (verified or not) is accepted by individuals is strongly influenced by social norms and by the claims consistency with the individual’s belief to include confirmation bias. Many mechanisms animate the tide of false information that generates wrong beliefs in an individual, which once adopted are rarely corrected.

So, asking questions becomes a means for prospective information consumers with online civic reasoning to look out for in determining if the information is true or false.

According to an author, Tom Nicholas, nowadays people not only doubt expert advice but believe themselves to be smart and have decided to attend the university of Google. He, however, blames this phenomenon on the smartphones and tablets we carry around thinking it can answer anything. 

While I am all for asking questions, asking the right questions at this juncture becomes salient.

Question 1What sort of content is it?

While an author hopes to convey a certain message, it is up to the reader to decide what it means. The reader interprets the media content and takes a lesson from it. This brings to mind what a friend once said “treat a media message as a moral lesson.” What this means is that once the message behind a content has been deduced, then it becomes the information left behind in the reader’s mind.

Interpreting a message can be done by asking the question- ‘for what purpose was it made?’ This is because sometimes it is meant to cause panic, inform or entertain. Is it a news story, an opinion piece, an advert or reaction to a previous message by someone else?

Also, look out for the underlying message. Does the content seem to have a glaring slant (political/religious)? Sometimes it is hard to tell from just one story, so, if possible, look out for more stories by the author to determine the reason or purpose of the message.

Question 2- What is the source of the content?

The prospective information user needs to note that the media is a representation of social reality and not windows of the world but rather are “images” that are created by the author. To better understand a message, it is better to identify the source of information as messages are composed for a particular purpose. The source of a message is known to be a key element of a message as sometimes the source’s credibility provides the input to manipulate a message.

Some contents, especially news contents usually cite the sources for the information provided. These are the people quoted or documents and reports cited. As you digest the information, note who is being cited. Is it a religious leader, a politician or an expert who produced such information?

According to experts, sources of propaganda to look out for include government and political actors, activists and marketers, industrial hoaxers and fake news satires.

Question 3- What is the evidence or proof?

Evidence is simply the proof that the sources offer what they know. It could also be referred to as data that corroborates what the source is revealing. At times, certified sources may speculate and just be guessing, so evidence becomes the game changer here, it solidifies the message churned out.

It could be in the form of documents- maybe something the source saw as an eyewitness, got from an organization,or discovered in public space.

It could be data- gotten from a website, a publication or experts.

The next is to find out if and how the authors verified the evidence- did they check with a lot of sources and was it vetted. Looking for all these signs and identifying what evidence (data/documents) a story contains, will enable the reader to determine if a message can be trusted or not.

So, basically, you need to only trust information with verifiable proof.

Question four- How was the information interpreted?

Most stories are built around an idea, a trend, an angle on a news event, or sometimes breaking news. Even content that is not narrative usually has a thesis or a point. So, the next step in knowing whether the message is reliable is to ask whether the message makes sense, and if the conclusions are supported by the evidence offered.

It means, you have to think about what conclusions are being drawn, do they follow logically from what has been cited? and are there too many conclusions being drawn from evidence that does not support all of them? One way to test conclusions is as if the same evidence might be used to draw a different interpretation. the indicators to look out for are:

-Are there enough evidence?

-Were the opinions of the other side adequately represented?

-Are all position questions (5Ws and H) answered?

So, look out for the signs.


Misinformation online has become so pervasive in social media that it has been listed by the World Economic Forum (WEF) as one of the main threats to human society. Whether a news item, either verified or not, is accepted as accurate and true by a user may be strongly affected by social norms or by how much it gels with the user’s system of beliefs.

Many mechanisms cause false information to gain acceptance, which could generate false beliefs that, once adopted, could be extremely averse to correction. So, asking the right questions before clicking on a link to rebroadcast or read is therefore paramount. Basically, all you need to do is ask yourself, is this true?

The researcher produced this Media Literacy Article per the Dubawa 2021 Kwame KariKari Fellowship partnership with Crest FM to facilitate the ethos of “truth” in journalism and enhance media literacy in the country.

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