AMERICA’S POLITICAL divide very often is illustrated when big news stories get twisted into “teaching moments” by people with different opinions.

There’s nothing new about disputes and debates erupting between political foes. If anything the squabbles seem more widespread because there are so many ways to share opinions now. In addition to the 24-hour news cycle, there are countless ways for folks of every age and background to share their thoughts online instantly.

Freedom of speech is now on steroids.

Unfortunately, that often means the information that gets shared is not true, or at least it’s not fully true. If someone somewhere wants to share something instantly, well, they don’t always do the homework needed to check the facts or make an informed comment.

One of the best, and worst, examples of misinformation was evident last year when far too many people believed online conspiracy theories and said that COVID-19 wasn’t real. Now that 500,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus, those comments have dwindled. It’s hard to ignore the deaths of more people than there were American military casualties in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam combined.

But, there are still deniers out there.

More recently there has been a lot of wild speculation about how wind turbines that “froze up” were to blame for the failure of electric systems in Texas. For some people that is an indictment of alternative energy sources.

It’s also supported by some half truths.

According to the nonprofit electric grid operator in Texas, some wind turbines stopped working and were responsible for 13% of the power outage. Every other source of energy — coal, natural gas, nuclear and solar — also was affected by the extreme cold and was responsible for 87% of the state’s shortfall.

False narratives can come from a broad spectrum of sources. There are liberal, conservative, populist and nationalist memes that stretch the truth beyond the breaking point. Indeed, there are some false prophets who defy easy political labels.

Fortunately, there are some things that can serve as warning flags for the consumers of news and opinions.

Well researched news stories generally include comments from experts or people with first-hand knowledge that can be verified. When no official source of information can be found through a quick search of online sources, that’s a red flag.

Even if a particular story or post seems to have one or two authoritative sources, those same people probably should be available to a broad range of news sources. If it’s legitimately a big news story, there will be lots of people covering it.

There’s a difference between news and opinion. News relies on the expertise of those with an intimate knowledge of what’s happening. Opinions may be as varied as the millions of people who share their thoughts with the world.

Even when those opinions come from someone we respect, the information upon which an opinion is based may be false or incomplete.

It takes a bit of time and work to research what’s happening in the world. It’s time well spent if we want to avoid falling for a lie or half-truth.

Recommended for you