Reaction Paper #3

For this assignment, I will be evaluating four prompts using the SIFT method as laid out by Mike Caulfield and team in the “Check, Please! Starter Course”. The method goes as follows: when reading information online, Stop and ask yourself if you trust the source before sharing it around. Investigate the source you’re currently reading from, and/or, if you care more about checking the truth of the root claim than evaluating this one source, Find other coverage of the topic. The last piece is Tracing quotes, statistics, and other media back to its original source. There is no one right way to employ this method, and I will use multiple tactics when taking on the prompts below.

1. Child Poverty Rates Worldwide

For this first prompt, I had to find the source of the statistics cited in this tweet:

A tweet from the account @Public_Citizen posted on September 27, 2019. It lists the child poverty rate of 33 countries from lowest to highest. The last listed is the United States of America with a 21% child poverty rate. The tweet concludes with the text, "Good thing we recently passed *checks notes* tax breaks for billionaires."

My immediate reaction was to see if there was additional info in replies to the tweet. Lo and behold, the original poster replied to the tweet with a link to their source: a chart publicized by the OECD, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The default window of data provided is 2014 to 2018, so it is fairly up to date, and when I doubled-checked specific stats (like the numbers for the USA and France) between the chart and the tweet, they were accurate.

To make sure this data was coming from a reliable source, I went to the about page for the organization. The international group has apparently existed for just under 60 years and works with “governments, policy makers and citizens [for] establishing international norms and finding evidence-based solutions to a range of social, economic and environmental challenges”. As a final check, I looked up the organization on Wikipedia, and found some more detailed information. The group has 36 member countries, had a total budget of €374 million in 2017, and is an official United Nations observer. I find a group with such international support to be extremely credible.

2. Abraham Lincoln Quotes

Of the listed quotes, I first decided to check this one, predicting from first glance that it was true because of the list of sources above the quote:

A screenshot of a Facebook post from the account 'Inspiration and Motivational Instances, Quotes, etc.' posted on October 14, 2016. The post has an image with the following quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: "There's no honorable way to kill, no gentle way to destroy. There is nothing good in war. Except its ending." Above the image is a caption which lists multiple supposed sources for the quote, including "Abraham Lincoln, Facts for the People: A valuable campaign document" and "Lincoln's Springfield speech".

However, I realized quickly that many of these “sources” didn’t seem related to Lincoln at all, such as the phrases “Trumbull’s Chicago speech” and “the political record of Stephen A. Douglas”. When I tried searching, “lincoln’s springfield speech there is nothing good in war except its ending”, the first result was this goodreads page, which the Facebook quotes page seems to have copied word for word (or the other way around). The next result was an article from The Washington Times which said this quote was one of many incorrectly attributed to Lincoln, but it provided no further information on that particular one. The article cites a website run by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency that apparently lists this quote among others misattributed to Lincoln, but the link was broken.

I didn’t have full confidence in this source, so I tried just searching the full quote on Google. Again, the first result was the goodreads page, but the second was an article from the New York Daily News titled “Five things Lincoln didn’t say — but people think he did“. The quote I was researching was the last of the five listed, and this site gave an explanation for where it came from. Apparently in a season 3 Star Trek episode, the character of Abraham Lincoln appears and says this quote, but it was not based on anything the real-life Lincoln was recorded as having said. The article links to another article which provides a YouTube link to said episode; unfortunately, when I tried to open the video in another tab, it was unavailable, likely having been taken down for copyright reasons.

While I don’t have time to track down and watch the Star trek episode, and I didn’t do a full background check on any of the three news websites, they all seem to be in agreement. And with there being no evidence to support that the quote originally came from the actual Abraham Lincoln, I feel it’s safe to say that the quote is misattributed.

The second quote I decided to research was this one:

A tweet from the account @AmyMek, a blond white woman based on the profile picture. The tweet was posted on February 12, 2019, and reads as follows: "My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right." The tweet attributes the quote to Abraham Lincoln.

I had never heard Lincoln being referred to as particularly religious person, which made me wonder if this quote was falsely attributed to Lincoln as a way of saying, “You all know this intellectual, well respected, historically significant individual? Well guess what, he was also religious!”

Since this quote didn’t have any source mentioned, I started by just searching the whole thing in Google. Among the many generic quote sites that came up, I noticed that the third down had a date attached, so I checked that one first. This took me to a website titled “Prof. Boerner’s Explorations”, specifically a page on Lincoln’s 1858 Senatorial Speech. Many quotes were listed there attributed to Lincoln, including the one I was researching; however, it didn’t make it clear whether or not those quotes actually came from that speech, or if they were just there because Lincoln (supposedly) said them. At the bottom of the page, the quotes were cited as having come from the website BrainyQuote, but that website doesn’t provide sources for the individual quotes either.

Feeling I had hit a dead end, I went back to the first page of search results and scrolled down further. Soon I found an article from Politifact, which I’ve found to be a reliable source for fact-checking before. The article was reporting on something Sarah Palin said a few years ago, which included a paraphrasing of the Lincoln quote. Near the end of the article, the reporter tracked down the Lincoln quote to a book titled Six Months in the White House with Abraham Lincoln. The original quote, coming from page 282 of the book, is as follows:

“‘I am not at all concerned about [the Lord being on our side],’ replied Mr. Lincoln, ‘for I know that the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.”

– Francis B. Carpenter quoting Abraham Lincoln

In short, it seems the version of the quote in the original tweet is based on something Abraham Lincoln did actually say, but it has been reworded to be more positive and straightforward over the many repetitions of it in popular culture.

3. Arsonist Birds?!

For this prompt, I was asked to investigate the truthfulness of this article from the National Post. Right away, the wording of the headline made me suspicious. The phrase “Australian birds have weaponized fire” implies the birds are doing this intentionally, and the article’s subtitle seconds this.

Raptors, including the whistling kite, are intentionally spreading grass fires in northern Australia, a research paper argues. The reason: to flush out prey and feast.

One key difference, however, is that the second half of the headline (“because what we really need now is something else to make us afraid”) makes it sound like the birds are specifically targeting humans. It makes the subject matter sound more urgent and sensational than it actually is.

That being said, a brief look at the research paper cited makes me confident that the article’s main claim is true. The paper has multiple authors, was published just two years ago, and a quick glance at the Wikipedia page for the journal that posted the article, the Journal of Ethnobiology, gives just enough for me to see it as credible. It is peer-reviewed, has been running since 1981, and the editors-in-chief are university professors. In the paper’s abstract, not only does it talk about the specific species of bird which have been observed participating in this phenomenon, but the researchers say that aboriginal communities have been aware of the fire-spreading birds for some time, which the National Post article also brought up.

4. Bizarre Creature from Under the Ice

For the final prompt, I had to evaluate this article from Express, a news organization based in the UK. The article is reporting on a discovery supposedly made in a documentary titled “The Secrets of Antarctica” that was posted to YouTube on July 9 of this year by the channel TRACKS. The YouTube video description contains a link to the channel’s Facebook page with the caption “From Expedition Antarctica”, implying that they are the ones who ran the expedition. However, it is evident from the Facebook page that TRACKS is not a scientific organization, but rather a self-described “Media/News Company” & “Local & Travel Website”.

The Express article seems to just recap what is said in the documentary without factchecking it; it does not contain any conversations with the “scientists” involved with the expedition, other than quoting what one scientist said in the video itself, or any outside experts. So I tried searching “antarctica expedition sea cucumber 3,500 meters under ice” to see if there were other articles on this subject listed under Google News. The second result was an article with the same exact headline from a website called Unilad, another UK based publication. This article is basically just a slight rewording of the previous article, with some tweets from random people added on at the end. There were no other relevant results under Google News; a few more articles come up on general Google, but none of the websites had names I recognized. If this discovery were as ground-shaking a discovery as the two articles I found presented it as, I’m sure more reputable sites would have covered it by now.

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