Misinformation on social media is unfortunately nothing new. But a recent set of unique circumstances — the global pandemic and a contentious presidential election — has created an environment that helps spawn even more of it.
“Misinformation flourishes most when people are fearful, angry and uncertain,” says Suzannah Gonzales, director of education and content with the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit that provides resources to help people be smart consumers of news and information.
During unprecedented events, people are driven to seek explanations, and they may even want to find someone, or something, to pin blame on, Gonzales explains.
From imposter news sites to heavily biased blogs to deceptive images and deepfake videos, misleading content can be packaged in a number of clever ways. New research from the University of Colorado Boulder sheds some light on who’s most likely to be pressing the share button to help propel all of this fake content.
For starters, Facebook tends to be a more fertile breeding ground for fake news than Twitter, according to the CU-Boulder study that was published in the journal of Human Communication Research in October 2020. Also, people on the far ends of the liberal-conservative spectrum, and those who lack trust in conventional media, are most likely to share misleading content, the study found.
1. Check Your Emotions
Are you angry, scared, curious, outraged or excited? Misinformation is more likely to hijack rational minds with emotional appeals, according to educators at NLP.
NLP also encourages people to “sanitize before you share” to help stop viral rumors from spreading, Gonzales says. Do this by first pausing and make sure your emotions aren’t taking over. Then, look at comments to see if anyone has fact-checked the information. Do a quick search on your browser: Turn the claim you’re checking into a question. Reply to the person who shared the information and ask for the original source or for evidence that supports the claim.
2. Determine The Purpose Of The Information
False information can be packaged in a number of formats. Gonzales recommends you “think like a journalist” and do some digging to learn more about the source of information. Some questions you can ask yourself:
- Is what I’m reading, watching or listening to a news report? An opinion column? An advertisement? A satirical piece?
- Does the source have an “About Us” or similar page?
- Can you find biographical information or contact information for its employees and contributors?
Glen Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Northern Georgia whose research focuses on partisan media influence on public opinion, also recommends being aware of replica and obscure news sources.
“One sneaky way to fake credibility is to attribute a source to a website that looks very similar to a reputable news source,” Smith says. “For example, instead of nbcnews, it might be ncbnews.”
3. Be Aware Of Your Own Biases
Before you consume content, are you assuming or hoping that the information you’ll be presented is true? Or false?
Confirmation bias — which is the tendency to search for information that reinforces your beliefs — can be at play, explains NLP. People are wired to uncritically accept new information when it supports what they want to believe, Smith says.
“So, if you read a headline that is shocking, but confirms your views, you should probably be extra critical,” he says.
Another thing to keep in mind: The Gallup/Knight Foundation reported that Americans commonly share news stories with others, but primarily do so with like-minded people.
4. Consider The Message
In the aftermath of NBA legend Kobe Bryant’s fatal helicopter crash in January 2020, a fake image went viral that showed a supposed tweet from Bryant claiming he had information that would lead to the arrest of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The image shows he sent the tweet at 9:30 a.m. on Jan. 26, 2020; the helicopter Bryant was in crashed just before 10 a.m. on the same day. (PolitiFact.com, a nonprofit fact-checking site run by the Poynter Institute, debunked the claim.)
The doctored viral image, Gonzales says, is a prime example of fake content being packaged “too perfectly.”
When considering a message, you should also consider if it’s overtly or aggressively partisan and look to see if it uses loaded language, excessive punctuation (!!!) or all caps for emphasis. Another red flag is if it claims to contain a secret or tells you something that “the media” doesn’t want you to know, according to NLP.
5. Search For More Information
Americans are increasingly getting their information from social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but false information can quickly turn from a snowball to an avalanche on those sites. As social media platforms grapple with limiting the spread of false and dangerous information while allowing free speech, Consumer Reports points out that the rules on misinformation across the platforms vary widely.
As you search for more information, NLP recommends taking note if reputable news outlets are reporting the same thing. Has the information been contested or debunked by independent fact-checkers such as Snopes, Politifact or FactCheck.org? Can you determine where the information first appeared?
While social media platforms are now flagging posts that contain false information or lack important context, you can’t rely on social media sites to do the fact-checking for you, Gonzales says.
Also, as the social media giants crackdown on misinformation, several people have started flocking to sites like Parler and MeWe that don’t have the same fact-checking regulations, according to Chrysalis Wright, a professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida and the founding director of the university’s Media and Migration Lab. (In the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, though, Amazon web hosting service suspended Parler because of violent posts and threats, and Apple and Google have removed Parler from its platforms. Though it’s technically back online now, it’s limping along at limited capacity.)
6. Go Deeper On The Source
Look around on the source website. Does the source have a policy to promptly correct errors and do so in a transparent manner? Also, look for disclaimers on the site to see if the content is labeled as satire.
Fake sites are also known to link to sources that don’t actually exist or actually say the opposite of what the article claims, Smith says.
7. Go Deeper On The Content Itself
The NLP gives these helpful prompts to determine the legitimacy of content:
- Search the byline. Is the content creator a real person?
- Is what being reported old or outdated information?
- Can you confirm key dates being shared, like the date, time and location?
- Search for quotes used to see if they are presented in context and accurate.
- Do a reverse image search on photos and graphics to see if they appear elsewhere online. Have the images been altered or shown in a different context?
The takeaway here? Fabricated news and content can be packaged in a variety of clever ways. But, keeping these steps in mind can help you filter out deceptive content and be a savvy consumer of information.
This article is part of the second annual National News Literacy Week, Jan. 25-29, a national public awareness campaign to promote news literacy and the role of a free press in American democracy. The week is part of an ongoing partnership between Simplemost’s parent company, The E.W. Scripps Company, and the News Literacy Project. Visit NewsLiteracyWeek.org to test your own news literacy and take the pledge to be news-literate.