Sharing information has never been easier, and the recently enacted social distancing protocols have enabled all of us to become more comfortable using digital technologies to find information and communicate with friends and family.
In January, who would have imagined attending a “Zoom party?” Since we now have greater access to information than at any other point in history, we need to be mindful that not everything we read on the internet or social media is accurate. So, what can you do to help verify the information that you encounter online?
Before I became a professor, I was an auditor with a public accounting firm.
My job entailed asking essentially the same question every day: “Are the company’s financial statements correct?”
To answer that question, we did three things. First, we assessed the risks of potential errors. Then, we gathered and evaluated evidence about the areas that were more likely to be incorrect Finally, we formed an opinion about the accuracy of management’s information.
During each phase, we employed “professional skepticism,” which the auditing standards describe as “an attitude that includes a questioning mind, being alert to conditions that may indicate possible misstatement due to fraud or error, and a critical assessment of audit evidence.”
Additionally, the evidence that we used to answer our basic question needed to be “relevant and reliable.” Relevance refers to whether the evidence helps us answer our questions, and reliability refers to its authenticity and objectiveness. If our evidence did not possess both of these attributes, it increased the likelihood that we would not be able to find any errors or fraud that were present in the financial statements.
The concepts of “professional skepticism” and “relevance and reliability” can easily be transferred from the context of financial statements to our daily lives to the information that we consume each day through the internet and social media.
Here are a few questions that you can ask yourself when evaluating sources:
Is it from original source?
Written text, images, and videos can be easily edited, so you should try finding the original source of information. Watching excerpts of speeches may not provide the overall context of someone’s comments. Images can be cropped, merged, or otherwise altered to change the underlying message. When you find information on the internet that is not from its original source, try locating the website that originally published it. Use that version to help you make your decisions.
Is source familiar?
Is it an outlet with a national or an international reputation? Or, do you have previous knowledge of the source? If not, try conducting a quick internet search of the source to gather information about it. Research suggests that anywhere from 5% to 15% of Twitter accounts could be robots. If you cannot substantiate a source’s reputation, you should not rely on it.
Is content current?
Our challenges in society are evolving quickly, and there always seems to be new information available. Sometimes, content that is even a few months old will not reflect everything else that we’ve learned about a situation. Be mindful of the publication date of the information, and do a quick search to determine if anything more recent was published on the subject. Using outdated information could, unfortunately, result in wrong conclusions.
Is the content unique?
Information can be difficult to verify. However, if multiple sources are independently reporting similar facts, this will increase its reliability. Reports that are unique to only one source are more challenging to substantiate. This does not mean that that information cannot be trusted, but you may want to exhibit a bit more “professional skepticism” with such a source.
Does content appear to be accurate?
This is the perfect time to adopt a skeptical attitude. If something seems too good our too outlandish to be true, then maybe it is not accurate. Try doing more research to substantiate what you read.
If it is difficult to corroborate that information, then you should doubt its credibility.
Remember that the quality of your decisions is often directly related to the quality of the information that you use.
Now more than ever, it is important to act like an auditor and evaluate the sources of information that you use to learn about our world and to draw conclusions about how to make it a better place.
Michael Ozlanski is an Assistant Professor of Accounting in the Sigmund Weis School of Business at Susquehanna University.