False Information

Question: How do you tell whether or not a painting is an original?

Answer: You test parts of the art work.

Method: Testing a painting requires learning a lot about the artist’s work. Once the artist’s techniques are understood, examining the paint for evidence helps determine if it is an imposter.  Squinting at signatures from several pieces comes next.  They take close-ups of the signature and mentally disassemble them. Do the signatures match known signatures?

Increasing knowledge of painters’ lives is crucial before examining their artwork. Examiners study more details when judging authenticity. Knowledge is the key to success.  They learn about patina of both the frame and the paint. An expert recognizes differences in a canvas’s weave and discusses how a canvas is attached to the frame.  Looking at the details is important before deciding whether or not a work is a fake.

Is there a smell of oil? How much smell determines the painting’s age. Once the findings are written, the inspector searches for consistency. One finding does not determine an original. Consistency among findings measures the probability of authenticity. Then before publishing a verdict, the inspector requests another expert’s opinion.

How can those experts on Antiques Roadshow do all that work in just a few minutes?

A penne for your thoughts.

Question: What do you call a fake noodle?

Answer: An impasta.

Now here is a tough question. How do you evaluate information found on the internet?

Knowing whether or not one is reading fake news, a crazy opinion, or legitimate research is a fundamental skill for today’s information age. A huge information processing change occurred over the last century. During grandpa’s high school years, teachers did not commonly require students write research papers. The assignment was to summarize an expert’s thoughts.

After WWII, students were asked to read more than one expert and to compare their work. Little research was conducted before graduate school. In the 1960s, undergraduate college students were expected to read five authorities for a research paper and learn to assemble a bibliography.

Standards quickly changed after the advent of the World Wide Web. Today the availability of information has demanded more advanced skills. Now millions of records are digitized daily and made available for research and that is just for genealogy according to the Brigham Young University Library. Archives and libraries copy ancient works. Students can translate copies of documents that were never seen outside of a single library in 1950. Student research papers now quote 20-40 documents for the grade of A.

The requirements for forming an opinion are also more stringent today. After all, we each carry a computer in our hip pockets. We can study a lot of information before making decisions. But do we? Since the 2016 election, fake news, information manipulation and ignorant comments are discussed daily. When government leaders provide inaccurate remarks and inflammatory comments, the public feels confused as well as upset. We trusted leaders and they proved themselves flawed. What should be done? How can we avoid spreading fake news? How can we vote for better leadership?

We need to use evaluation skills. Knowledge is the key to making sound decisions. Students learn to evaluate documents in elementary school. I hope we will not be left behind on this topic like parents were when math education changed.

Using a search engine is natural for children with smart phones. They are always trying to discover something. This is not true of people who grew as the search engines do, by trial and error.

When search engines were young, people manipulated their questions into a few general terms. Usually nouns. Later people simplified complex questions into simple terms and then approached the search from several angles. If the engine could not provide an answer, searchers pretended to be a different people with new needs. The search engine needed to be fooled into an answer that might be close enough to fit our original need.

I remember a lesson that used an “Italian pasta recipe” as the search challenge. I submitted “spaghetti recipe” to the all-knowing computer as any housewife would do. When the search failed to produce a list of spices, a process for ensuring al dente, or even a suggested shopping list, I tried looking at the issue as a chef would. As the day moved on, I tried less likely roles: Dietician, historian, child, and a factory manager. I substituted different pasta names and ingredients. As I remember, I never did find all the spices, portion size for large gatherings, homemade noodle recipes or hot water management tricks. This was not a trauma, I already had Mom’s recipe, but it was an example of trying to match my brain to the computer’s operations.

Nowadays we speak in natural language and ask questions. The computer speaks in whatever voice we like and gives us what we want.  I do sometimes have trouble finding answers for certain research topics or for complex questions; but my computer grows more intelligent daily. I still use variations of my teacher’s strategies. Failure on a first try moves me to ask shorter, simpler questions. For research challenges I locate one author, search for his/her articles and read the bibliography for more references. This process is slower than a search engine, but effective.

Every day the TV news challenges our evaluation skills. I never knew before the presidential election, that some people believed the news reporters spoke the truth. I guess world travel helped me come to a different conclusion. I learned that Italian TV produced different stories than England. Japan didn’t report the stories of the same topics.  One news event with so many different perspectives. Each of these networks control what people see and ultimately think. Worse yet, in the USA, the three main news channels spouted the same words and pictures with minor changes. This indicates reporters learned about the event from the same source. There was no competition among news programs to find the truth. Today I am suspicious of the news and yet still gullible when national crisis is discussed.

I can trust the internet to provide more report variety even if the information is not correct. Donald Trump popularized the term “fake news” during the 2016 election. Sixty minutes defines the term as, “An inaccurate, sometimes sensationalistic report that is created to gain attention, mislead, deceive or damage a reputation. Unlike misinformation, which is inaccurate because a reporter has confused facts, fake news is created with the intent to manipulate someone or something. Fake news can spread quickly when it provides disinformation that is aligned with the audience’s point of view…Such content is not likely to be questioned or discounted.”

The second part of the definition says some people like “fake news”. This suggests that truth is not as powerful as it once was. Opinion agreement matches the fake news. This reminds me of when Hitler took over a whole country using disinformation. I did not imagine “The Home of the Free” would let conniving men control our politics. When did news slip to the same level as advertising?

Ok, evaluation skills appear more important than ever. The Business Insider ran a story from Brett Lo Giurato Dec 10, 2016 that analyzed one fake news feature during the election. His analysis showed a majority of Trump supporters believed an untrue story about Hilary Clinton being connected to a child sex ring. “These types of inaccuracies, distortions, and obsolescence are problems that predate the “fake news” phenomenon — or whatever you want to call it — of this election cycle. But they are arguably as big of a problem, if not bigger, for the news media to reckon with in the days, months, and years ahead.”

Perhaps we cannot change the news. We can change our methods of acting when we hear a story. We do not have to believe the talking heads so readily. We can gather several reports and evaluate them. This moves us from passive to active roles.

Awesome Library provides simple information evaluation tools. Mary Ann Fitzgerald in 1999 urged people to use verifiability, which just means find lots of resources and check them for consistency. Sound familiar? The art experts use consistency to search for painting authenticity. Gaern Arnold (2009) urged people to spot fake websites.  The following sites teach people how to spot fake content.

According to Kathy Shrock, one can use the 5 W’s to evaluate content.

Who? Did an expert write the content? Who was the sponsor?

What? What is the purpose of the site?

When? When was the site created?

Where? Where does was the site come from?

Why? Why is the information useful? Why is it better than other sites?

According to the University of California Berkeley Library, the method of evaluating the web’s content reliability  focuses around these words.

  • Authority: Who is the author? What is their viewpoint?
  • Accuracy: Is it free from errors-spelling, well-written?
  • Objectivity: present more than one side of the issue?
  • Authenticity: Are the references provided?
  • Timeliness: When was the site created/updated?
  • Relevance: What are the analytics, budget management, and level of attention to details
  • Efficiency: Ease of navigation


Authors can provide a bibliography or reference list at the end of the article or sprinkle source material throughout the piece. Others provide links to their sources so you can read the material yourself.


Readers can make tables to compare the evaluation data or hold it in their minds depending on the situation. We just do not want to make an opinion or plan an action based on “impasta”.


You can evaluate online stores. An evaluation tool can be made with a spreadsheet asking for rates of 1-5 for each content category.


  1. Content: Offers deals and products not available on other sites, price, product specifications
  2. Attractiveness:
  3. Advertisement:
  4. Functionality: Provides technical aspects of products, rates ease and speed of navigation, ease of reviewing, ease of posting comments. Provides security for checkout, answers frequently asked questions, tell how long the site has been in business. Allows people to rate the site.

Evaluation is a method of providing more information so that decisions based on values can be made


Inaccuracies, distortions, and obsolescence are problems that predate the “fake news” phenomenon. What is the best way to manage potential “fake news”?