How do we discern between true facts and fake ones?

Lynne Cope Hummell


How do we discern between true facts and fake ones?

How do we know the facts? How do we really know what is true and what is not?

For instance, in fact-checking for a story recently, I searched online for a source for the claim that "Americans use 100 billion plastic bags a year." When I first read that sentence, the cynical side of me questioned: "Says who?"

While I can believe that it's true, even though I can't really wrap my brain around a "billion" anything, I wanted to verify the number before printing it.

I found several environmental websites that attribute the source as the Wall Street Journal.

Only one site that I found, that of the U.S. International Trade Commission, gave what looked to be a study as a source. A link led me to a 148-page report on a 2009 investigation into a petition filed by the Hilex Poly Company in - of all places - Hartsville, S.C., and another bag company in Texas, regarding the importing of polyethylene retail carrier bags (PRCBs) from Indonesia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

According to the report, apparent U.S. consumption for PRCBs declined by 7.0 percent during the period of investigation, from 109.8 billion bags in 2006 to 106.2 billion bags in 2007 and 102.1 billion bags in 2008.

At the end of that paragraph was a footnote that pointed to "CR/PR at Table IV-3." I searched some more and found the table and sure enough, there were the numbers. And the source: "Compiled from data submitted in response to Commission questionnaires and from official Commerce statistics."

That sounds reliable enough. But how reliable are the data if they were submitted by potentially offending importing or exporting parties as part of a U.S. investigation? Might they want us to believe that we import more - or less - than we actually do? Who reported those numbers? Under what kind of pressure? Was that person having a good day? Was he or she scrambling to get the report together at the end of a difficult week?

Certainly, I am pushing here well beyond the bounds of how we generally accept the information we are given. But I'm using this as an example of how easily we accept what we read without checking the facts behind it.

It seems lately that it happens often, especially in the political arena. In the months before the last presidential election, we learned a new phrase: "fake news."

And we have also learned about "click-bait" - those pesky little ads with intriguing headlines on various websites, especially social media sites. We get sucked in by such claims as "Use of tin foil in baking destroys brain cells" or "This common vegetable will cause abdominal worms."

Merrimack College communications professor Melissa Zimdars wrote a great checklist for her students titled "False, Misleading, Clickbait-y and/or Satirical 'News' Sources." It went viral. (A quick internet search will lead you to it.)

A couple of her tips are to avoid websites that end in "lo," such as "Newslo"; watch out for sites that end in ".com.co" - especially if they sound like a real news source, such as "ABCnews.com.co"; and check multiple sources of trusted outlets.

The point is, we must keep our guard up to discern what's real and what's not. Pay attention. Read more. Listen. Don't believe everything on the internet.

We want you to know that The Bluffton Sun is reliable. And that it's OK to bake your potatoes in tin foil.