The ‘Sieve’ Strategy: A four-step method for detecting misinformation

The ‘Sieve’ Strategy: A four-step method for detecting misinformation

Pioneered by digital literacy experts, the “Sieve” strategy is a technique to detect fake news and misleading social media posts, says Amanda Ruggeri.

It’s no secret that misinformation is rampant on social media. And it is more so in some subjects than others. Research has found, for example, that around two-thirds of the most popular YouTube videos about vaccines contain incorrect information. The fallout can be severe: an increase in inaccurate anti-vaccination content online correlates with a decline in vaccination coverage, especially among children. That has led to larger outbreaks of potentially deadly diseases, such as measles, than have been seen in recent years.

“Misinformation is worse than an epidemic,” Marcia McNutt, president of the US National Academy of Sciences, put it in 2021, implicitly referring to the Covid-19 pandemic. “It spreads at the speed of light around the world and can prove fatal when it reinforces misplaced personal bias against all credible evidence.”

There are many reasons why misinformation travels so quickly – according to some research, even faster than accurate information. One reason is that people are more likely to share a claim when it confirms their existing beliefs, regardless of its accuracy. This cognitive bias may help explain why more misinformation appears to be shared by individuals than by bots. One study, for example, found that only 15% of news shares spread up to 40% of fake news.

That’s a worrying statistic, but there is an improvement. As much as individuals are the ones responsible for sharing a lot of misinformation, we are also the ones who – by being more mindful of what we “like”, share and amplify – can help make the biggest changes.

When it comes to not being misinformed, being aware of our human fallibility, such as our quickness to believe what we want to believe, is a good first step. Research shows that even being more reflective in general can “prevent” us from believing fake news.

But it’s not the only thing we can do. In particular, the researchers found that there are some simple and concrete strategies that we all can (and should) use, especially before we are tempted to share or repeat a claim, to verify its accuracy first.

One of my favorites comes with a nice acronym: the Sieve method. Pioneered by digital literacy expert Mike Caulfield, it’s broken down into four easy-to-remember steps.

1. S is for… Stop

Perhaps one of the most destructive aspects of the modern era is urgency. Thanks to everything from our constant phone use to non-stop work demands, too many of us seem to navigate the world at breakneck speed.

Being online, where both the news and content cycles are very fast and often emotive, can put us in a “desperate” mindset. But when it comes to identifying misinformation, proximity is not our friend. Research has found that relying on our immediate “gut” reaction is more likely to lead us astray than if we take a moment to stop and reflect.

The first step of the Sieve method disrupts this tendency. Stop. Do not share the post. Don’t comment on it. And proceed to the next step.

2. I for… Investigate the source

Posts appear in our social media feeds all the time without us knowing exactly who created them. Maybe they were shared by a friend. Maybe they were rejected to us by the algorithm. Maybe we follow creators on purpose, but never see their background.

Now is the time to find out. Who created this post? Exit the platform and do a web search. And because search results can be confusing, make sure you’re looking at a reputable website. One that fact-checkers often use as a first port of call might surprise you: Wikipedia. Although it is not perfect, it has the benefit of being a crowd source, which means that its articles about certain famous people or organizations often include aspects such as controversy and political bias.

As you investigate, ask:

If the creator is a media outlet, are they reputable and respected, with a recognized commitment to verified independent journalism?
If it is an individual, what expertise do they have in the subject at hand (if any)? What financial ties, political leanings or personal biases might be at play?
If it is an organization or business, what is their purpose? What do they promote, or sell? Where do their funds come from? What political leanings have they shown?
And finally, once you’ve done your analysis (which can only take a few minutes), the most interesting question: Do you still trust this creator’s expertise in this subject if they say something you don’t agree with?

3. F is for… Find better protection

If, from the previous step, you find that you still have questions about the credibility of the source, now is the time to dig deeper. What you’re looking for is whether a more reliable source, such as a reputable news outlet or fact-checking service, has reported and verified the same claim.

No surprise, but I found Google to have some of the best tools for doing this. Obviously, there’s Google itself, and if you specifically want to see if a news outlet has covered it, Google News.

But I sometimes prefer to use the Google Fact Check search engine, which searches only fact-checking sites, specifically. Keep in mind that Google says it doesn’t check the included fact-checking sites, so to make sure your results are reputable, you’ll need to do a little more research – I’d like to see if a branch has signed up to the Poynter International Fact-Checking Network, which you can check here .

If it’s a photo you’re investigating, use the reverse image search tool to see where else the image appears online. Google has one, but I also like TinEye and Yandex. (You can also use this for videos: take a screenshot from a video and enter it for your image search).

Your goal? To see if there are any reliable sources that report the same information as you see and say that it has been verified.

4. T is for… Trace claims to their original context

Most of the time, you’ll do this at the same time you’re trying to find better coverage, at least if you’re using the tools mentioned above. But the idea here is a little different. You are trying to find out where the claim came from.

Even if you see that a claim has been reported by a reliable media outlet, for example, it may not be an original report; they may have gotten the claim from another store. Ideally, the original story should be linked – so always go there – but if not, you may have to find it separately.

Importantly, you want to know not only if something like this is really true, but if something has been taken out of context. If you see an image, does the way the image is described in the social media post you see match its original caption, context, and location? If it’s a quote from the speaker, has anything been edited or taken out of context or, when you look at the full interview or their speech, does it seem like they misspoke at the time?

Taking this step before deciding whether to share a claim alone can feel overwhelming. But a time investment of just a few minutes may save you not only embarrassment – but help ensure you don’t spread misinformation that, at its most dramatic, can even lead to illness and death.

Today, anyone can make a claim on social media. And anyone can only be the person who reshares the claim is the person who makes it viral. This means that it is the responsibility of each of us to ensure that what we post, like, and share is, first and foremost, completely true.

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