This week, we’ve been making big claims about big oil. But if you’re a skeptic, how do you determine whether we’re right? Here are some tips for becoming a critical reader of online content.

Are you skeptical? Photo: cameronparkins

Here are seven ways you can evaluate Matador’s claims about big oil… and to fact-check online content in general:

1. Is the author transparent?
First things first: Who is the author? Does he or she use his or her own name? What background or biographical information does the writer give about himself or herself? How does this information provide insight into the information and perspective the author presents?

Sometimes, legitimate reasons exist for an author to obscure his or her identity, but generally, if a writer isn’t attaching his or her name to the writing he or she is publishing, then you have every reason to be skeptical about the claims the writer is making– or, at the very least, the writer’s motives.

2. Believe but verify.
Even if the writer is transparent, take some extra steps to learn more about the author if you’re still skeptical about his or her background or motives. A simple Google search is likely to pull up more background information about the writer… though a caveat is in order here: not everything you read online is true, so you’ll need to subject the “facts” you’re gathering against other sources of information.

3. Consider the article within its context.
Where is the article published? Who’s behind it? What are their stated values? If you can’t find this information, your skepticism may be in order.

4. Evaluate sources.
Does the author indicate the source of the information he or she is presenting? Are those sources primary? Does the author link back to those sources? In his article about his experiences at the Chevron protest, Matador author Ryan Van Lenning included publicly available source information about Chevron CEO David O’Reilly’s salary. You could check that information independently if you had any doubts about its accuracy.

5. Can the writer spell? Can he or she construct intelligible sentences? Is the article subjected to any editorial process?
Almost anyone can post writing online these days. And almost anyone can say anything. But a few simple questions will help you screen some of the vetted writing and help you distinguish it from the Internet equivalent of scribbled musings of a raving lunatic. Is the writing clear and intelligible? Has it been subjected to any editorial scrutiny before it reached your computer screen? If the answer is no, you’re right to have some doubts.

6. Assess the tone.
The articles Matador publishes tend to reflect a particular viewpoint. My own articles about big oil clearly convey my belief that big oil–Chevron, Shell, and others–are responsible for environmental and human rights abuses… a belief I hold because of my experiences interviewing industry experts and witnessing environmental and human destruction firsthand.

But these articles are also free of hyperdramatic polemics. If the article you’re reading is hysterical in its tone, then you’re right to raise your eyebrows and search for some confirmation of the author’s claims.

7. Check yourself.
No one is entirely objective. But if your reaction to an article is unusually strong, check yourself as much as the author and site whose work you’re reading. What may be causing you to react so viscerally? The answer may be more about your issues than those of the author.

Community Connection:

Talk with us! How do YOU evaluate what you read on Matador and other online magazines? Share your suggestions in the comments!