Philosophy 29 - 2.4.2 The SIFT Method (Four Moves for Student Fact Checkers)

Information literacy scholar Michael Caulfield came to realize that the methods of research taught by librarians and information literacy educators often did not work well for students. Typically, students are encouraged to assess the quality of information using an acronym like CRAAP: currency, relevancy, authority, accuracy, and purpose. But these criteria are not always useful in spotting misinformation turned up through search engines. After all, many sources that provide misinformation appear current and relevant and are generated by organizations that appear to be authoritative while they conceal a hidden agenda.

To find out how students evaluate sources they find on Google, Caulfield relies on the empirical research of Sam Wineburg and Sarah Mcgrew (2016). The researchers compared the behavior of Stanford University students to trained fact-checkers at newspapers and magazines. Not surprisingly, the online fact-checkers used search engines more effectively. Based on this research, Caulfield developed his own protocol to make students better researchers.

The first thing to know about using a search engine like Google is that results are not ranked by authority, accuracy, or relevance. Internet companies are notoriously secretive about the algorithms (mathematical procedural rules) they use to generate search engine results, but we know that they prioritize paid advertisements, popularity, and web interconnectivity (the degree to which key words and links from a website are shared with other websites). Thus, websites interested in sharing misinformation can use the same search engine optimization tools that legitimate companies or media sources use to move up the ranks of search results. So you need to learn to use the search engine to your advantage. Caulfield recommends using the acronym SIFT, or the “four moves” of student fact checkers.

An infographic shows the capitalized letters, S, I, F, and T. Under the S is a stop sign and the word “stop.” Under the I is a magnifying glass and the words “Investigate the source.” Under the F is a check mark and the words “find better coverage.” Under the T is a flow chart with the words “trace claims, quotes, and media to the original context.
Figure 2.6 The four moves for student fact checkers: stop; investigate the source; find better coverage; and trace the claims to the original context. (credit: “SIFT (The Four Moves)” by Michael Caulfield/, CC BY 4.0)


The first move reiterates something we have already discussed: to become a better critical thinker, slow down the quick and efficient thinking that leads to errors and engage in critical reflection and metacognition. By stopping, slowing down, or taking your time to allow for critical reflection, you will be using rational and reflective thinking to assess claims. Additionally, after some searching, you will want stop, return to your original source, and check its claims again. When you circle back after going down a bit of a rabbit hole, you will have a new perspective from which to evaluate these claims.

Investigate the Source

Next, investigate the source of your information. Internet searches will often lead you through a series of links, in which you jump from one document to another. Strive to understand this electronic paper trail. Who wrote each document? What are their credentials? You can prioritize academic sources, such as web pages of philosophy faculty members, and you can discount sites that aggregate student papers or provide content without clear authorship. But investigating authorship does not mean that you should just read the “About” page on a website. Rather, Wineburg and Mcgrew (2016) found that fact-checkers used search tools to check the reputation of the sites they were investigating, a move they called “reading laterally.” You do not have to spend a lot of time on the site itself. Instead, search reviews or critiques of the website and the authors on the site. Find out what other authoritative sources say about the site. Is this a website that is approved by other people you trust? Or do people you trust indicate that the website or its information are questionable?

Find Better Coverage

Check the claims and information on the site you are reading. What do other sources say about the same information? Is there other coverage on the same topic? This move is particularly important for controversial claims you might find on social media, where the original source is frequently obscured. Is this information being covered elsewhere, and does the coverage agree with what you have read? This move can help in evaluating your original source or gaining familiarity with the claims being made. If the claims by one source do not match up with what you are reading elsewhere, be skeptical.

Trace Claims, Quotes, and Media to the Original Context

Frequently, claims made on the internet are divorced from their original context. It is important to trace those claims back to the original source. This advice holds for online research in philosophy. You may discover a claim or quote about a philosopher that lacks context. To evaluate the claim, you need its original context, which will reveal whether the claim or quote was mischaracterized or portrayed in a misleading way. Look for citations, and then follow those citations to the original publication. If the source you have found does not have citations, then you will need to search key terms or phrases in quotation marks to see if you can locate the claim or quote using another method. Good academic sources ought to provide citations so you can verify the original source of the claim. If it is hard to verify a claim or quote, that should be a red flag to not trust the source making those claims or providing those quotes.

Think Like a Philosopher

Here are three examples of claims made online. Use the four moves to assess whether these claims are true. You have been provided with a screen capture of a headline, so you do not have links back to a website. Therefore, use search tools on the web to verify the claims being made. In each case, find a source that either verifies or debunks the claim. The source you use to verify or debunk the claim should be reputable and authoritative.

Mexico’s Border Wall

This post claims to be picture of fencing from Mexico’s southern border. Is the photo accurate? Is this an image of Mexico’s southern border? Has the Mexican government constructed a wall to prevent the flow of migrants from across its southern border?

A long stretch of fence in a desert landscape with a caption beneath that reads: “This is the Border Fence Mexico built on their border with Guatemala to keep out freeloaders. Notice The Barbed Wire and Towers with Armed Guards. Shouldn’t the United States have the same right as Mexico to protect its border?”
Figure 2.7 This social media image claims to show a wall Mexico constructed on its southern border. (credit: “Mexico’s Border Wall?” by Michael Caulfield/, CC BY 4.0)

Smart Toilet?

This image was shared on the web. Is it a real product or satire?

A rectangular toilet next to a sink with a caption that reads “Alexa is everywhere: Kohler’s smart toilet brings voice assistant to bathroom.”
Figure 2.8 This web headline about Kohler’s smart toilet, under the heading “Smart Home,” suggests that Kohler’s has invented a smart toilet that uses Alexa. (credit: “Alexa Smart Toilet” by Michael Caulfield/, CC BY 4.0)

Drilling Stonehenge?

An online newspaper website called The Sun features a headline reading: “Groan Henge: Blundering road workers drill a hole into 6000-year-old site near Stonehenge in tests for controversial tunnel.” The small print below the headline reads: “A huge hole has been drilled through the archaeological site as part of controversial plans to build a tunnel under the tourist hot spot.”
Figure 2.9 This newspaper headline claims that engineers drilled a hole into Stonehenge as part of a controversial tunnel project. (credit: “Stonehenge damaged by blundering engineers?” by Michael Caulfield/, CC BY 4.0)
This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax