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Magazines > Information Today > September 2022

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Information Today
Vol. 39 No. 7 — September 2022
Insights on Content


A KERNEL OF TRUTH IN IT: Malinformation Moves to the Forefront of Fake News

by Amy Affelt

Typically, when writing and speaking about fake news, I refer to two general categories of false content: misinformation (incorrect information given without malice) and disinformation (incorrect information given with an intent to deceive). Misinformation occurs when an individual is simply incorrect about a fact, whereas disinformation is usually part of an overarching agenda to advance particular views and to gain support. Disinformation is often intentionally deployed in order to move people in the wrong direction.

Increasingly, the category of malinformation is being discussed. According to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), malinformation “is based on fact, but used out of context to mislead, harm, or manipulate.” The key phrase in that definition is “based on fact.” Malinformation often combines misinformation and disinformation to generate an entirely new supposition, creating mental whiplash as the content consumer ingests factual information that, perhaps, they already knew to be true and then continues reading the additional information that surrounds that fact but is false.

Since malinformation “stems from the truth but is often exaggerated in a way that misleads and causes potential harm,” according to the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, it needs extremely cautious, more rigorous review. Because there is a kernel of truth in it, it is easy to turn our information veracity skills on autopilot and take the entirety of its content as truth. What methods of evaluation are best for diagnosing malinformation? Is the CRAAP (currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose) test sufficient? Should we use the SIFT (stop; investigate the source; find better coverage; and trace claims, quotes, and media to the original source) method instead? Or is malinformation taking us on a journey to unchartered territory, warranting a combination of the two—and more?

CRAAP

In 2004, Sarah Blakeslee of California State University–Chico challenged students to ask themselves, “Is this CRAAP?” when trying to prove or disprove information. Blakeslee invented the CRAAP test as a way to evaluate content by asking the following five questions:

  • Is the information current?
  • Is it relevant to your information needs?
  • Is it authoritative? (This question involves investigating the source of the information, including the author, and determining the ease of contacting them. It also suggests reviewing the URL.)
  • Is it accurate? (Steps to answering this question include determining if the source is a peer-reviewed journal, if the information can be verified by additional sources, and if it includes an analysis of the language, such as the use of an unbiased tone and the requirement that it be free of emotion. It also advises examination for misspellings and grammatical errors.)
  • What is the purpose for the existence of this information? (Users should ask themselves if the author or authors have made their intentions clear; if they are objective and impartial; and if they are trying to sell something or provide entertainment, as well as if political, ideological, cultural, religious, institutional, or personal biases are present.)

Although the CRAAP test has served librarians well for almost 20 years, academic librarians are increasingly questioning whether other approaches might better serve emerging, nuanced categories of fake news.

SIFT

In April 2022, I had the privilege of speaking at the Texas Library Association’s annual conference in Fort Worth, Texas. One of the sessions, How to SIFT Through the CRAAP, was standing room only. In it, Kelly Hoppe and Mark McKnight from West Texas A&M University’s Cornette Library advocated for librarians to “upgrade their information literacy toolkit,” arguing that SIFT is a better method than CRAAP for evaluating web-based resources.

Mike Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University–Vancouver, developed the SIFT method in 2017. SIFT is a strategy of four moves to make when evaluating a source. Let’s look at them more in depth:

  • Stop—Ask yourself if you are familiar with the source of the information, and if its reputation is good enough, or if you should fact-check the information yourself.
  • Investigate the source—Where is the media from? Does the source have expertise, or do they have an agenda? Or both?
  • Find better coverage—Find the best possible source of the information you are evaluating, along with multiple sources that might confirm expert consensus.
  • Trace claims, quotes, and media to the original source—Working backward, go to the original source of the information. Similar to the childhood game Telephone (in which something is repeated over and over and changes with each telling), the same can sometimes be true of information. For example, if you are looking at a video, can you also view the preceding and succeeding scenes? If you are viewing a photo, does the caption match the content? If a conclusion is made about research data, review it to make sure the findings really prove the statement.

CRAAP and SIFT are not mutually exclusive. In fact, in order to be as thorough as possible, they should be used in tandem. However, malinformation—which is some of the most nefarious content because it contains partial truth—can cause us to let our guard down as we recognize the familiarities and then fail to consider the incorrect aspects as we nod along. In order to counteract that complacency, it can be helpful to emphasize the fact that the content is “partially false,” instead of labeling it as “partially true.” If we begin the fact-checking process knowing that some of the information is incorrect, we tend to look for that incorrect information as a first step, beginning the evaluation process with a sense of healthy skepticism.

ADDITIONAL STRATEGIES

In examining potential malinformation, we need to focus more heavily on certain aspects of each checklist and employ some additional strategies. Analyzing malinformation involves a two-step process. First, we need to find the kernel of truth and reconfirm its veracity. Second, we need to review the rest of the claim and determine if it is being distorted, manipulated, or completely fabricated.

Hoppe and McKnight’s admonishment to “SIFT Through the CRAAP” can be used as a slogan for evaluating malinformation. That is, we want to use the most applicable aspects of each technique in order to find the most effective process in evaluating partial truths. The following are the most critical evaluation steps to take when analyzing malinformation:

  • Start with the kernel of truth. Even if you feel fairly confident that the information is correct, double-check the authenticity using a standard checklist (such as IFLA’s How to Spot Fake News infographic; see the sidebar on the next page for the link).
  • Parse out the additional information, creating a point-by-point list if the contents are voluminous.
  • One by one, examine the facts using the most applicable tenets of CRAAP and SIFT.

The applicable tenets include the following:

  • Is the information correct as of this time? Check to see if something that was once a best practice or accepted as conventional wisdom has been cast aside since better information became available.
  • Independently, can you verify the information using credible sources that you know to be reliable?
  • Is the source domain name legitimate? Try using the domain lookup tool at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN; see the sidebar for the link). On that site, you can enter a URL and gain basic information about its incorporation, such as date created and registrant and administrative information.
  • Can you easily contact the source of the information?
  • What is the source’s policy for correcting errors or addendums to guidance that have evolved over time? Is that policy easy to find?

Try verifying the information on a fact-checking site from a credible institution instead of a site devoted to fact-checking. USA TODAY and Reuters both have dedicated fact-checking sites with transparent standards (see the sidebar for the links).

SIFT’s suggestions to find the best source of the information as well as additional sources of the information are key in evaluating malinformation. See if you can lend credibility to the truism while simultaneously debunking the falsehood.

A FUTURE OF CHANGE

Going forward, it is likely that additional fake news categories will be added to the current triumvirate of misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation. Luckily, SIFT, CRAAP, and key librarian and info pro content evaluation skills will continue to serve us well as we continue this work. It is often said that change is the only constant, and that is certainly true in the world of fake news, as incorrect information continues to proliferate in ever-changing formats and disguises.

It is also often said that the survivors are those who best adapt to change. As librarians and information professionals, we need to take an active approach to avoid complacency. As we work to outwit and outlast the bad actors of content creation—and to survive and thrive as the most respected and trusted custodians of truth—we need to continually sharpen these skills, change course when appropriate, and add to our skill set as new tools are developed.

LINKS TO THE SOURCES

U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency: Mis, Dis, Malinformation
cisa.gov/mdm

Canadian Centre for Cyber Security: “How to Identify Misinformation, Disinformation, and Malinformation”
cyber.gc.ca/en/guidance/how-identify-misinformation-disinformation-and-malinformation-itsap00300

LOEX Quarterly : “The CRAAP Test” by Sarah Blakeslee
commons.emich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1009&context=loexquarterly

California State University–Chico: Evaluating Information—Applying the CRAAP Test
library.csuchico.edu/sites/default/files/craap-test.pdf

Hapgood: “SIFT (The Four Moves)”
hapgood.us/2019/06/19/sift-the-four-moves

IFLA: How to Spot Fake News
blogs.ifla.org/lpa/files/2017/01/How-to-Spot-Fake-News.pdf

ICANN Lookup
lookup.icann.org/en

USA TODAY : News | Fact Check
usatoday.com/news/factcheck

Reuters Fact Check
reuters.com/fact-check


Amy AffeltAMY AFFELT is director of database research worldwide at Compass Lexecon, a global economic consultancy, where she finds, analyzes, and transforms information and data into knowledge deliverables for Ph.D. economists who testify as experts in litigation. She is a frequent writer and conference speaker on Big Data, the Internet of Things, adding value to information, evaluating information integrity and quality, and marketing information services. The author of two books, The Accidental Data Scientist: Big Data Applications and Opportunities for Librarians and Information Professionals (Information Today, 2015) and All That’s Not Fit to Print: Fake News and the Call to Action for Librarians and Information Professionals (Emerald, 2019), Affelt was the Big Data columnist for EContent magazine. She is also an SLA fellow. Affelt has a B.A. in history, Phi Beta Kappa, from the University of Illinois–Chicago, and an M.L.I.S. from Dominican University. Send your comments about this article to ecletters@infotoday.com or tweet us (@ITINewsBreaks).