SIFTing Through Misinformation | Just Visiting

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Regular readers of this space will know that I’ve long been a fan of Mike Caulfield’s work on developing heuristics that will help people better recognize misinformation online. 

I was such a fan, I used Mike’s SIFT method for one of the experiences in The Writer’s Practice, and if I had to do it over again, I’d add like three more assignments, even make it the focus of a first-year writing curriculum. It’s a fundamental skill for not only scholarship, but citizenship as well.

Caufield and his method have recently become more widely known[1], including a feature from Charlie Warzelin the New York Times, highlighting Mike’s SIFT method to processing information online.

SIFT stands for:

1. Stop.
2. Investigate the source.
3. Find better coverage.
4. Trace claims, quotes and media to the original context.

It works. In fact, it just worked for me the other day on Twitter, and I share this experience to hopefully spur others to learn and pass on the gospel of SIFT.

In short succession I saw a number of high profile accounts[2] re-tweeting a tweet thread that purported to be a statement from French president Emmanuel Macron saying that he was imposing restrictions on those who refused to get vaccinated so that the vaccinated populace could move more freely. It invoked the right to learn freely for his adolescent daughters as an example of what should be possible now.

My first thought was: Wow, that’s huge.

My second thought, as a vaccinated person who is now concerned that the intentionally unvaccinated populace is putting everyone at risk was: Maybe it’s about time.

I wasn’t alone in that second thought, given that many of the quote-tweets suggested that President Biden should make a similar statement. It clearly touched a nerve of frustration among many who believe that we should be and could be beyond these difficulties. 

Before I even hovered over the re-tweet button, my SIFT training kicked in. Training is exactly what it is, as the more you engage in Caufield’s process, the more likely you are to see benefits – like not embarrassing yourself by repeating misinformation –  and then to repeat the process next time around. I’ve been SIFTing online for a couple of years now, and the heuristic has become second nature.

Stopping allowed some questions to kick in and I began to investigate the source purely through observation. The account tweeting the quote[3] did not appear to be a news source or even a verifiable individual of any kind. It had a picture of Donald Trump behind bars for its avatar, something a reporter would not choose. 

At this point I had enough information to know that I should not re-tweet it because the sourcing was sufficiently dubious and I didn’t even bother investigating further. This took all of 30 seconds, if that.

Had I wanted to continue my investigation, I could have googled part of the quote to see if it showed up in anywhere else, and would have found that the answer was no, that the tweet itself was the only source. Such a statement from the president of France would’ve been worldwide news, not something confined to a single tweet by an anonymous account.

Not too long after I made my assessment, I saw some debunking tweets, pointing out that – unlike what was invoked in the quote – Macron does not have adolescent daughters. His youngest stepchild is in her 30’s.

This is good critical thinking and internet sleuthing, but the important point about Caulfield’s SIFT method is that it does not require anyone to know or even learn anything about Emmanuel Macron. The fight against misinformation isn’t primarily about presenting the accurate information. Rather, it is about identifying the unreliable sources of information and knowing that whatever they say cannot be trusted, as was the case here.

Caufield’s method worked perfectly for me, and would have worked for anyone else in this situation, and again, it takes very little time and requires learning no new information to perform.

The old method of examining the truthfulness of the claims and information that we see as rooted in critical thinking practices, e.g., Does Macron have adolescent daughters?, is both outmoded and outmatched by the pace and volume of online misinformation. SIFT is a tool for this medium and this time.

It’s not a guarantee. Failing to STOP is still an option, and I can’t claim 100% vigilance over myself, but it sure feels good when it works.

I’ve been thinking lately about extending the principles of SIFT  – Does this information come from a reliable source? – to broader applications. For example, there are major public figures who are consistent intentional sources of misinformation. Rather than bothering to figure out if what they’re saying has a modicum of truth or accuracy, why shouldn’t we be prefacing all our understanding of what they say with the knowledge that they are purveyors of misinformation?[4]

Such a shift would both improve the accuracy of our public discourse, and save a heck of a lot of time. 


[2] Names withheld to protect the guilty.

[3] It has since been suspended by Twitter.

[4] I’m thinking Christopher Rufo, he of the invented CRT panic is a good example here.