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Guest blog | Source analysis and the evolution of the internet

By Daniel Skyle.

The internet has brought huge gifts for us: knowledge, tools, cat GIFs, and an increasingly connected world. It has also turned out to have negative side-effects: it's a brilliant megaphone for propaganda and fake news, a playground for hate speech, and a hidden combat-zone for information warfare between countries.

The role of the journalist has always been very important. When it works well, journalism gives the public crucial information and speaks truth to power. Journalism is still changing to adapt for the internet; we don’t know exactly where that evolution will take it, but we know journalism is bobbing along a rising tide of disinformation online. It seems we have reached – and passed – a tipping point, where sources for clear information are increasingly rare, and trust increasingly valuable.

The core of source analysis

Source analysis is about getting as close to the actual source as you can, to get as clear information as possible, and then analyse that information to find the truth. And if you work with journalism, it includes the next step of how to spread that truth most effectively to the public. Part of the very basics of journalism are of course the ’Five Ws and one H’ – Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? There are several more detailed techniques and structures to help increase source analysis after that.

If you work with journalism, source analysis becomes like breathing. Quite similar to breathing, actually; it becomes a habit, but so much of a habit we sometimes forget that we can do it even better, just as we can learn to breathe in a more relaxed and healthier way. Source analysis is a practical skill: when you train it, you get better at it. It is this that the public needs us to do, to help them get clear information that they can trust.

When I teach source analysis, I've found it works best for people when it's adapated for the kind of work they do. Along with the practical techniques, these are three big picture points I try to include:

  • The source analysis mindset

I think that source analysis is a mindset, a basic curiousity: ’What is true here? I want to know.’  With that, we get the drive that moves us to find sources, to verify them and then to analyse the information so that we are certain. But that basic curiosity has to be alive to make people go deeper and check things carefully.

  • Countering bias

Bias is what we think is true. Everyone has biases. Part of source analysis is countering those biases that lead to disinformation and misinformation. I have two favourite counter-biases: the first is simply, ’What could be another explanation for this?’; the second is from Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, a specialist in decision-making and information analysis. Kahneman says his favourite bias to try to counter is ’Overconfidence’, when we are so confident in our judgement that we decide not to check information at all.

  • The trap of being a journalist or academic

One trap I see is how journalists and academics (or other professions who work with source analysis) often take for granted that everybody else has the same source analysis skills too. It's like any skill set; if you're used to it, you almost can't imagine that other people don't even know the basics. Part of our job as journalists is to use source analysis skilfully and well, and present our findings for the public good. It is becoming an increasingly important part of our job to help teach source analysis to the public, too.

A currency of trust

Source analysis is part of the very core of journalism. With the rise of fake news, disinformation, and information operations on the internet, it has become more important than before.

We might be heading into a time where trust is a rare commodity, and possibly even a currency for those who do careful source analysis online. In the sea of information on the internet, journalism can become the slow, careful tugboat of truth.

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Daniel Skyle is a journalist, speaker, and trainer. One of the subjects he focuses on is teaching source analysis and information analysis for the Web, and how trends are evolving with weaponized internet. His most recent book is Source Analysis for Elections - a Beginner's Guide. He is currently writing a university text book on the subject. 

You can reach Daniel at sourceanalysisforelections at protonmail dot com