This is often called the era of fake news due to the sheer volume of websites that spread faulty information, whether to sell products or merely get clicks for ad revenue. Social media is responsible for the rapid spread of misinformation, often with good intentions, simply because it is so easy to click the “share” button without first vetting the source to make sure it is reliable. All of us live with an overabundance of data, and we cannot help but allow confirmation bias (the instinct to believe the things we want to be true rather than to objectively evaluate them first) to influence the information we embrace as well as that which we forward.
Finding Credible Sources of Information
This problem becomes especially difficult when many websites are designed to look like news sources, some even go so far as to impersonate legitimate news outlets with look-alike logos and domain names. A few quick tips can help readers verify whether they are reading a professional news source with editorial oversight. First, check for an “About” page, a link for which should be in the header or footer section of the page. The “About” page (or a “Contact” page) will have information on the actual human beings responsible for editing the content of the site. If this information is not readily presented, it is highly unlikely that the source is reliable. Many sites also include disclaimers in these sections, stipulating that they are “for entertainment purposes.”
Other sites make broad claims of revealing truths that “the mainstream media” is trying to oppress, especially with regard to mysterious cancer cures. These conspiracy theory promoters will rarely reveal who supplies their information, much less who writes the stories for their sites. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence — a general tenet of scientific inquiry — and sites that make such claims without providing credible support for them fail this most basic test of trustworthiness.
When determining the validity of a site, it is also wise to start by looking at the domain name itself. If it ends in a .org or a .edu, there is a stronger chance that it is legitimate than if the domain ends in .tv, .co, .me, or any range of other domain extensions. Many fraudulent sites use real domain names, often ending in .com, and then ad another extension afterward that might go unnoticed. Just because it looks familiar at first glance does not always mean a website address is legitimate — make sure you look at the whole address.
Miracle “Cures” That Seem Too Good To Be True Probably Are
Perhaps most importantly, a reader should note what the website stands to gain from your visit. Is it selling ad revenue or products or ideology? Many sites that serve up misinformation are trying to direct potential customers into a sales funnel. This is a marketing technique by which a website encourages people who already “believe” in the product(s) it offers to become customers after being enticed by a “free” sample of some sort. Often such sites will promise special information through online courses, DVDs, or ebooks that come at a high price, and sales are often triggered through a use of scare tactics about medical science and untrustworthy media.
Many opportunistic charlatans feel that lung cancer patients are an easy mark. They fuel the desperation that a patient or caregiver might feel in order to make a sale or direct the reader to another site that will be eager to take money in exchange for a promised miracle. Simply put, if a doctor had actually cured 35,000 patients of cancer, this would be impossible information to suppress. Such a treatment would have become the standard of medical care. Taking the moment to evaluate such incredible claims will potentially save both time and money.
There is also a cottage industry of “wellness warrior” types who misrepresent their own experience in order to sell some particular form of treatment or seminars or consulting services. Examining their stories might take time, but it can often reveal that the image they peddle is not a reflection of their actual personal experience. A small bit of skepticism can go a long way.
Navigating headlines is no easy task. But before we click “share” and pass it along, each of us should take the extra few minutes to determine if the message we are spreading is one of truth.1-5