attempting to fact-check the front page of reddit

This week, we were asked to assess the truth claims of a particular text. I decided to try tackling my favorite timesink:

For those who don’t know, Reddit is a website that bills itself as the front page of the internet. Users can vote links up or down, and the top-ranked links at any given time are listed on the homepage in descending order. I wanted to look at reddit/r/all at a random time and explore how accurate the top links were. This task ended up being fairly difficult – I may have monstrously overestimated my ability to assess a diverse array of information — but it was a fun experiment.

To start, I created a new account and unsubscribed it from a few of the main groups that tend to glut the front page, but are difficult or impossible to verify as truth claims: /r/funny (jokes), /r/pics (pictures), /r/WTF (horrifying pictures), /r/AdviceAnimals (memes), /r/AskReddit (discussion threads), and /r/aww (cats). I logged in on a Tuesday afternoon and looked at the top links:

1. Costco Proves Republicans Wrong By Paying a Living Wage and Watching Profits Soar [link] [thread]
description: Politicus USA article linking Costco’s profits to its CEO’s endorsement of a higher minimum wage, and comparing it to Wal-mart
assessment: The article’s numbers seem to hold up, but it definitely cherry-picks its facts. [1] [2] [3] [4] The title also exemplifies Wendell Potter’s ‘Deadly Spin,’ most notably the use of glittering generalities to make a point. As one commenter puts it, As usual, PoliticusUSA is arguing against a point of view that doesn’t exist. They say: ‘Costco is proof that the Republican idea that labor must be stomped on in order for our economy to prosper is wrong.’ THIS IS NOT WHAT REPUBLICANS BELIEVE! Generally speaking, Republicans believe that a more free market will do better than a less free market. Finally, there’s no clear definition in the article of what constitutes a living wage; some argue that $11.50/hour is still too low.

2. TIL that North Korea has less firepower than Thailand, and only slightly more than Ethiopia. [link] [thread]
description: link to a website that ranks countries based on their “Power Index Score”
assessment: The site pulls data from numerous reputable sources, including the U.S. Library of Congress, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and the CIA Worldbook. However, the post ends up being tagged by the /r/TIL moderators as misleading, since the assessment is based on a narrow definition of “firepower” (no accounting for nuclear weapons or military training, as well as some estimations in place of hard data) and leans on a popular misunderstanding of the military power of Thailand and Ethiopia for shock value.

3. Why hasn’t this game resurfaced [link] [thread]
description: OP misses the 90s motorcycle-racing video game Road Rash.
assessment: EA last released a Road Rash game in 2003, when they adapted their 1999 Road Rash: Jailbreak installment for Game Boy. [1] Since then, 9.5 years have passed, which seems like a long time to wait for a new video game.

4. A Collection of Movie Matte Paintings [link] [thread]
description: an album of different background paintings used in famous films
assessment: Verifying this properly would include tracking down the origin of each picture, which I… did not do. Knock me off a couple of points for this one.

5. Not too proud of this… [link] [thread]
description: In a Confession Bear meme, OP admits that he assumes religious people are less intelligent
assessment: This is obviously an opinion post. However, I did dig up at least one study on OP’s side.

7. AMA Request: Neil Gaiman
discussion thread – skipped

8. Penguins Being Penguins
video – adorable, but skipped

9. Guy hacks into Florida State University’s network and redirects all webpage visitors to [link] [thread]
description: story in the News Herald about the arrest of Benjamin Blouin
assessment: Plenty of other news outlets in the area covered the story, although the Miami New Times gets a bonus point for going the extra mile and describing meatspin to its readers. [1] Most of these news outlets link back to the original News Herald piece, though. The best way to nail this one down would be to solicit the original arrest report from the campus police.

10. NASA Rover Finds Conditions Once Suited for Ancient Life on Mars [link] [thread]
description: scientists found signs of S, N, H, O, P, and C in a Curiosity rock sample
assessment: I’m not sure how one would go about fact-checking this one. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is the only one with access to such samples, so I can’t go to another source for corroboration. Thoughts?

11. Earl Sweatshirt – WHOA [link] [thread]
song – skipped

12. /u/anandam1de describes the negative effects of habitual Methamphetamine use in an clinical but terrifyingly easy to understand way, managing to scare redditors on /r/Drugs. [link] [thread]
The comment in question had been deleted by the time I got to this link.

13. bvman gives some touching advice to a man who is worried about his widow [link] [thread]
advice – skipped

14. TIL Because of its popularity as a midnight movie, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has the longest theatrical run in history (almost 38 years and counting). [link] [thread]
description: link to the Wikipedia page for ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’
assessment: This fact checks out. [1] [2] [3] ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ started showing in 1975, and can still be seen in theatres around the world. [4]

15. Clogged arteries are seen as the quintessential symptom of an unhealthy modern lifestyle. But the condition was common across the ancient world, even among active hunter-gatherers with no access to junk good, a study of mummies has found. [link] [thread]
description: Nature study finds signs of atherosclerosis in mummies
assessment: The study performed whole body CT scans on 137 mummies from different geographical regions and time periods, and found signs of atherosclerosis in 47 of them, or 34%. In modern day, atherosclerosis is found in well over 60% of people above age 50. The article is correct, although the headline (which fully lifts from the Nature article lede) is a little misleading in that it implies that the numbers are equivalent.


2 thoughts on “attempting to fact-check the front page of reddit

  1. Great provocation, given that Reddit bills itself as the front page of the internet. I’m sad that we missed an opportunity to factcheck cats and penguins. It’s very interesting that a Reddit moderator stepped in on the North Korea case, as it wasn’t factually incorrect but was, on the whole, misleading. That’s a very ‘human editor’ role to play.
    I’d like to see a little more factchecking on the Costco vs. WalMart debate. Republican policies (at the national level) are more hostile to fair wages than you let on here, but at the same time, Costco has clearly played this difference for good PR over the years.
    5. OK Cupid’s blog, OKTrends, used to have an entire post on the data behind religion and intelligence, but I can’t find it. This graph remains though:
    9. It’s interesting the degree to which original reporting is necessary for online conversations, as you note by the links to the Miami Herald article. I say this as an online conversations guy, not a journalist.
    10. All we need to do is infiltrate the sound studio where they’re filming this whole charade.
    12. How heavy-handed are moderators in the drugs forum? This sounds like a useful post was deleted.

    15. (and 2.) You do a nice job distinguishing between correct facts and misleading intents. The former is much easier for factcheckers to take on; they tend to draw criticism when they start playing referee of the latter. But the latter is important, to help us understand which speakers in the public sphere are speaking credibly and in good faith. I’m not sure what we do with that.

    Great post.

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