Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

April 8, 2013

Tidbits: Using the SMELL Test

By Heather Mullinix
Assistant editor

CROSSVILLE — There's no doubt we live in the information age. Thanks to the Internet, information that was once tucked away in various little areas is now out there and available to the masses.

The World Wide Web is great for connecting people to information they need to make informed decisions about the world. It has the ability to open up a new level in transparency in our governments and can foster a dialogue between those with opposing views.

It can also cause a lot of misinformation to gain a foothold that will never go away. It used to be the saying that a lie is halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on. Thanks to the Internet, a lie can cover the globe before the truth even opens its eyes and realizes it needs to get its boots on.

Now more than ever, information consumers have to be wary of what they take for gospel truth. Not everything that's posted on the Internet is vetted. Some of it is trying to sell you something. Some of it is trying to convert you to the writer's point of view. Some of it is outright lies.

Take Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. John L. Seigenthaler Sr., a well-known retired journalist, learned in 2005 that an anonymous posting in the Wiki said he had been a suspect in the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. It also stated he'd lived in the Soviet Union for 13 years.

That was discovered in May of 2005. It wasn't corrected until September. In mid-December, the author came forward and said the fake biography was a prank and he didn't think anyone took the Wiki seriously.

Students, if you're mad your teacher won't let you use Wikipedia as a source in your reports and term papers, this is why. It's handy for leading you to reputable research sources, but the content isn't vetted. The incident did lead to some changes in Wikipedia's operations, requiring those creating pages to create an account, requiring references and placing editorial restrictions on living persons, but it's not a perfect solution.

John McManus, a former journalist, professor and now an author, has introduced the SMELL test to help sniff out fact from fiction in the online world.

First is knowing the source of the information. Knowing who is saying what can alert you to possible biases and self interest. Check the "about us" link on websites to help determine just how much reliability you should give a source, and if they don't identify who "they" are, don't believe it. Reputable sources will stand behind their work.

Motivation is the second part of the test. Is the information meant to inform or sway opinion? Is it selling something or someone?

What's the evidence? Are sources of information identified? Was there an attempt to verify information or controversial claims?

Next, is there enough evidence to logically support the claims being made?

Lastly, after you look at what's included, consider what has been left out. Check alternative sources for a piece of the puzzle that may be missing. Take the case of the "marine" in California that told school officials and a reporter for an area newspaper he was a sergeant in the Marine Reserve and had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Turns out he lied about his service. He never served overseas and was discharged in 2008 as a private, serving less than a year at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. A Facebook post quickly went viral with someone claiming Craig Paulsy would face five years in prison and a $10,000 fine for wearing his uniform outside the school. A Marine Corps order prohibits former Marines from wearing their uniform in public except for military funerals, memorial services, weddings, inaugurals and parades on national and state holidays, but the Marines were not investigating Pusley. More than 9,000 liked the post, with more than 8,500 sharing it without bothering to look anything up. Those who commented and tried to share what really happened were bombarded with accusations of lying, even when posting a link to a credible news source — that made no mention of such penalties.

Many were appalled this man would brazenly lie about his service, but many others were more concerned with the fact the school allowed him access to their grounds without confirming his background. Yet those concerned were shouted down, virtually, with people stating it was online and must therefore be true.

Well, I watched something on TV the other night about the Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot and ghosts. Frankly, that doesn't mean any of those things are actually real.

In order to make any sense of the hurricane of information out there, we have to seek out reliable information.

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Heather Mullinix is assistant editor of the Crossville Chronicle. Her column is published on Tuesdays. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.