Spot Fake News and Misinformation in Your Social Media Feed
Where do you get your news? There’s a good chance much of it comes from social media.
In 2019, Pew Research found that 55% of American adults said they get their news from social media either “often” or “sometimes,” which is an 8% rise over the previous year. We can visualize what that mix might look like. Some of their news on social media may come from information sources they’ve subscribed to and yet more news may appear via articles reposted or retweeted by friends.
So, as we scroll through our feeds and quickly find ourselves awash in a cascade of news and comments on the news, we also find ourselves wondering: what’s true and false here?
And that’s the right question to ask. With the advent of the internet, anyone can become a publisher. That’s one of the internet’s greatest strengths—we can all have a voice. Publishing is no longer limited to newspaper, TV, and radio ownership bodies. Yet it’s one of the internet’s greatest challenges as well—with millions of publishers out there, not everyone is posting the truth. And sometimes, people aren’t doing the posting at all.
For example, last May, researchers at Carnegie Melon University studied more than 200 million tweets about the current virus. Of the top 50 most influential retweeters, 82% of them were bots. Some 62% of the top 1,000 retweeters were bots as well. What were they retweeting? Researchers said the tweets revolved around more than 100 types of inaccurate stories that included unfounded conspiracy theories and phony cures. Researchers cited two reasons for this surge: “First, more individuals have time on their hands to create do-it-yourself bots. But the number of sophisticated groups that hire firms to run bot accounts also has increased.”
With the sheer volume of news and information we wade through each day, you can be assured that degrees of false and misleading information make their way into people’s social media mix. And that calls for all of us to build up our media literacy—which is our ability to critically analyze the media we consume for bias and accuracy.
What follows are a few basics of media literacy that can help you to discern what’s fact and what’s fiction as you scroll through your social media feed for news.
The difference between misinformation and disinformation
When talking about spotting truth from falsehood on social media, it helps to first define two types of falsehood: unintentional and the deliberate.
First off, there’s unintentional misinformation. We’re only human, and sometimes that means we get things wrong. We forget details, recall things incorrectly, or we pass along unverified accounts that we mistakenly take for fact. Thus, misinformation is wrong information that you don’t know is wrong. An innocent everyday example of this is when someone on your neighborhood Facebook group posts that the drug store closes at 8pm on weeknights when in fact it really closes at 7pm. They believe it closes at 8pm, but they’re simply mistaken.
That differs entirely from deliberate disinformation. This is intentionally misleading information or facts that have been manipulated to create a false narrative—typically with an ulterior motive in mind. The readiest example of this is propaganda, yet other examples also extend to deliberate untruths engineered to discredit a person, group, or institution. In other words, disinformation can take forms both large and small. It can apply to a person just as easily as it can to a major news story.
Now, let’s take a look at some habits and tactics designed to help you get a better grasp on the truth in your social media feed.
Consider the source
Some of the oldest advice is the best advice, and that holds true here: consider the source. Take time to examine the information you come across. Look at its source. Does that source have a track record of honesty and dealing plainly with the facts? Likewise, that source has sources too. Consider them in the same way as well.
Now, what’s the best way to go about that? For one, social media platforms are starting to embed information about publications into posts where their content is shared. For example, if a friend shares an article from The Economist, Facebook now includes a small link in the form of an “i” in a circle. Clicking on this presents information about the publication, which can give you a quick overview of its ownership, when it was founded, and so forth.
Another fact-finding trick comes by way of Michael Caufield, the Director of Blended and Networked Learning at Washington State University. He calls it: “Just Add Wikipedia.” It entails doing a search for a Wikipedia page by using the URL of an information source. For example, if you saw an article published on Vox.com, you’d simply search “Wikipedia www.vox.com.” The Wikipedia entry will give you an overview of the information source, its track record, its ownership, and if it has fired reporters or staff for false reporting. Of course, be aware that Wikipedia entries are written by public editors and contributors. These articles will only be as accurate as the source material that they are drawn from, so be sure to reference the footnotes that are cited in the entry. Reading those will let you know if the entry is informed by facts from reputable sources as well. They may open up other avenues of fact-finding as well!
Expand your media diet
A single information source or story won’t provide a complete picture. It may only cover a topic from a certain angle or narrow focus. Likewise, information sources are helmed by editors and stories are written by people—all of which have their biases, whether overt or subtle. It’s for this reason that expanding your media diet to include a broader range information sources is so important.
So, see what other information sources have to say on the same topic. Consuming news across a spectrum will expose you to thoughts and coverage you might not otherwise get if you keep your consumption to a handful of sources. The result is that you’re more broadly informed and have the ability to compare and contrast different sources and points of view. Using the tips above, you can find other reputable sources to round out your media diet.
Additionally, for a list of reputable information sources, along with the reasons why they’re reputable, check out “10 Journalism Brands Where You Find Real Facts Rather Than Alternative Facts” published by Forbes and authored by an associate professor at The King’s College in New York City. It certainly isn’t the end all, be all of lists, yet it should provide you with a good starting point.
Let your emotions be your guide
Has a news story you’ve read or watched ever made you shake your fist at the screen or want to clap and cheer? How about something that made you fearful or simply laugh? Bits of content that evoke strong emotional responses tend to spread quickly, whether they’re articles, a post, or even a tweet. That’s a ready sign that a quick fact check could be in order.
There’s a good reason for that. Bad actors who wish to foment unrest, unease, or simply spread disinformation use emotionally driven content to plant a seed. Whether or not their original story gets picked up and viewed firsthand doesn’t matter to these bad actors. Their aim is to actually get some manner of disinformation out into the ecosystem. They rely on others who will re-post, re-tweet, or otherwise pass it along on their behalf—to the point where the original source of the information is completely lost. This is one instance where people readily begin to accept certain information as fact, even if it’s not factual at all.
Certainly, some legitimate articles will generate a response as well, yet it’s a good habit to do a quick fact check and confirm what you’ve read. This leads us right back to our earlier points about considering the source and cross-checking against other sources of information as well.
Keep an eye out for “sponsored content”
You’ve probably seen headlines similar to this before: THIS FAT-BURNING TRICK HAS DOCTORS BAFFLED! You’ll usually spot them in big blocks laden with catchy photos and illustrations, almost to the point that they look like they’re links to other news stories. They’re not. They’re ads, which often strike a sensationalistic tone.
The next time you spot one of these, look around the area of the web page where they’re placed. You should find a little graphic or snippet of text that says “Advertisement,” “Paid Sponsor,” or something similar. And there you go. You spotted some sponsored content. These so-called articles aren’t intentionally developed to misinform you. They are likely trying to bait you into buying something.
However, in some less reputable corners of the web ads like these can take you to malicious sites that install malware or expose you to other threats. Always surf with web browser protection. Good browser protection will either identify such links as malicious right away or prevent your browser from proceeding to the malicious site if you click on such a link.
Be helpful, not right
So, let’s say you’ve been following these practices of media literacy for a while. What do you do when you see a friend posting what appears to be misinformation on their social media account? If you’re inclined to step in and comment, try to be helpful, not right.
We can only imagine how many spoiled relationships and “unfriendings” have occurred thanks to moments where one person comments on a post with the best intentions of “setting the record straight,” only to see tempers flare. We’ve all seen it happen. The original poster, instead of being open to the new information, digs in their heels and becomes that much more convinced of being right on the topic.
One way to keep your friendships and good feelings intact is this: instead of entering the conversation with the intention of being “right,” help people discover the facts for themselves. You can present your information as part of a discussion on the topic. So while you shouldn’t expect this to act like a magic wand that whisks away misinformation, what you can do is provide a path toward a reputable source of information that the original poster, and their friends, can follow if they wish.
Be safe out there
Wherever your online travels take you as you read and research the news, be sure to go out there with a complete security suite. In addition to providing virus protection, it will also help protect your identity and privacy as you do anything online. Also look for an option that will protect your mobile devices too, as we spend plenty of time scrolling through our social media feeds on our smartphones.
If you’re interested in learning more about savvy media consumption, pop open a tab and give these articles a read—they’ll give you a great start:
Bots in the Twittersphere: Pew Research
How to Spot Fake News: FactCheck.org
Likewise, keep an eye on your own habits. We forward news in our social media feeds too—so follow these same good habits when you feel like it’s time to post. Make sure that what you share is truthful too.
Be safe, be well-read, and be helpful!
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