A question I see repeated a lot these days is, "how do you know what to believe?" I have to confess: this is a question I have no sympathy with.

When I was in high school, we were taught how to evaluate sources of information when we were writing theme papers. By the time I got to college, professors expected students to have this skill down. Never use encyclopedias. Check the background of your sources and the provenance of any articles, books, and so on that you use. Cross check to see if sources (that weren't related to one another) agreed. Be alert for biases and allow for them. Be aware of how language choice, tone, and style can be used to manipulate. Think critically about all of it. Apply your own analytical thinking, don't just summarize what the sources said. Go back to primary sources as much as possible.

I always pursued my own researches into various arcane interests, from an early age, so I was well accustomed to poring through The Readers Guide to Periodical Literature and requesting obscure books and journals from libraries, long before the Internet existed. Since 1994, I've been an Internet research wizard--in fact, my tongue-in-cheek motto is, "if I can't find it, it's not on the Internet."

I hope that high school students are still being taught these skills--I know they're warned against relying on Wikipedia. Even though I'm a Wikipedia editor, I approve of that.

I approve because one of the earliest lessons I learned about the Internet, back when it was a network of university and government portals, email groups and bulletin boards, and the "World Wide Web" didn't even exist, was this: Don't believe anything you see on the Internet.

That is, don't believe it instantly and at face-value. Check the facts first. Don't repeat (share, email, etc) anything on the Internet until you've checked it out and thought it through. Way before social media appeared, I saw plenty of dumpster fires and meltdowns on bulletin boards, email groups and forums that arose because people jumped on bandwagons without thinking about what they were hearing. I also learned first-hand how easy it is to create plausible hoaxes, and the perverse pleasure of watching gullible people running in circles (at least until things get out of hand).

As Facebook, YouTube, and other forms of social media and easy self-publishing became ascendant, they made it possible for millions, then billions, more people to be sucked into maelstroms of outrage, hysteria, mass trollings with fake material, and pure fantasy masquerading as "the real truth that they won't tell you."

Make no mistake: this was always a major factor on the 'Net. Nothing has changed except the ability of people to recognize when they're being conned (and that was never easy. Some of us specialized in it, but we had the same dilemma as every Cassandra: we couldn't convince everybody else to see the problem until the damage was done). Since many people now access social media with smartphones and don't even own computers, they're even less Internet-savvy than their grandparents getting online for the first time back in 1998. All they see is a non-stop flood of simplistic memes and manipulative short posts and videos on their phones, every waking moment.

What this has led to is the mantra of the Q Conspiracy True Believers: "do your research," they say. But they're not talking about real research. They mean by that, "Google the most offbeat, fringe, unauthorized information you can find until it validates your biases--because we know science and the mainstream media can't be trusted." And so we live in a world where the rules for evaluating knowledge and information have been turned on their heads, and people think that the only reliable "facts" are those that seem the most improbable, bizarre and startling. If you already believe it, and if the New York Times or Ph.Ds at Harvard and MIT say it's not true, then obviously, it must be true! Go with your gut! Don't believe "them"!

But facts haven't changed. The principles of critical thinking haven't changed. Logical reasoning and logical fallacies haven't changed. The rules of research and the methods of testing sources and claims haven't changed. I hope the way these skills are taught in schools haven't changed, although stories I hear from college instructors make me wonder. The question "how do we know what to believe" is no more obscure or confusing than it ever was.

Turn off the noise, get off social media, and use your head. It's a tall order, but it's a simple one.

Inanna Arthen