Reality Check: How to Recognize and Avoid Misinformation Online

Written by Felipe Anaya, Associate Librarian & Coordinator of Service Design and Assessment
July 31, 2020

Increasingly people are relying on social media for their news. At the same time there is a growing pervasiveness of misinformation and disinformation across the internet, undermining national elections, public health, and social progress. As misinformation and disinformation spread, we have to take personal responsibility for what we read, share, and post. In this post we will examine the impact of misinformation and how to evaluate the information we encounter through social media.


Impacts of Misinformation

The internet has changed the way the public reads and interacts with the news. A report published by the Pew Research Center last year found that a majority of US adults (82%) get their news online at least sometimes. A separate study from the organization found that 55% of U.S. adults get news from social media often or sometimes.

At the same time, since the 2016 election there has been growing attention to the amount of misinformation and disinformation on the internet. While social media platforms and the government have made progress on curtailing misinformation, the upcoming election is expected to feature attempts to mislead the public and influence the results. With less than 100 days left until the election, American intelligence officials warned that Russia, China, and Iran are each involved in concentrated efforts to spread disinformation or influence the election. These actions, alongside other misinformation campaigns on social media, have the potential to undermine American democracy by putting into question whether we have free and fair elections.

The problem of misinformation and disinformation has extended beyond politics into the current health crises and social movements. The amount of false and misleading information concerning the Coronavirus pandemic has led the World Health Organization on a path of fighting not only the virus, but an “infodemic.” Despite recommendations from public health professionals, people are protesting the use of masks and spreading pandemic conspiracy theories. Seeking the truth has become a matter of public health.

An upclose photo of Facebook and Twitter's logosSimilar disinformation campaigns are impacting current social movements. The killing of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests and prompted calls for fixing the institutional racism that pervades our society. Shortly after the protests began, misinformation on social media emerged claiming that members of Antifa were to blame for the violence happening in various cities. This caused white supremacist groups to take up arms and has the potential for inciting violence towards demonstrators and detracting from their messaging.


Evaluating Online Information

Following the advent of the internet and social media there was a belief that it would bring an age of global democratization. However, in the last few years we have witnessed an erosion of public trust in the media, institutions, and government. While there are programs to increase media literacy and numerous fact-checking websites, people continue to have difficulty evaluating online information. To become more responsible consumers of information, there are a few practices that can assist us in identifying and stopping the spread of misinformation found on social media and the internet.

At the library we teach students how to evaluate the information they encounter while doing research through focusing on foundational core concepts, such as “authority is constructed and contextual” or easy to remember acronyms, such as the CRAAP Test (Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose).

For evaluating information online, such as social media, I often follow a set of practices that are easy to follow and don’t take much time. These are adapted from Mike Caulfield’s four moves and a habit and Stanford History Education Group’s Civic Online Reasoning curriculum.

First, check for previous work. With the prevalence of disinformation and misinformation, there is a growing number of fact-checking websites from Snopes to PolitiFact. These sites can provide a quick answer as to whether a claim is true or false. A few weeks ago, someone showed me a social media post with an image. A quick search online found that the image had been photoshopped to elicit a specific response.

Male Profile PictureIf an online search does not bring up a fact-checking website, try to find the original source. Finding out who is behind the information can help determine a source’s motivation or biases. If the source is known and reputable, stop there. If not, follow the next practice of reading laterally.

When asked to evaluate information, Stanford researchers found that students and even professors begin their evaluation by reviewing a source’s features—content, design of the website, ‘about us’ page, or the domain (.org, .gov, etc.). This reading vertically of the site often led to wrong conclusions and a waste of time. Professional fact checkers, on the other hand, take a completely different approach of reading laterally. They leave the site entirely and begin to search for what outside sources say about the unknown site. In their study the fact checkers visited an average of six pages and spent less than a minute checking outside sources. Only after they found their bearings and made a determination as to whether the source can be trusted did they return back to the original site and begin to evaluate the evidence. If you encounter an unknown source take a minute to orient yourself to what others say about its trustworthiness, political biases, or conflicts of interest.

These practices are a good starting point for evaluating online information and are best used when evaluating information for the purpose of becoming informed on a topic. When the information leads to taking an action, such as following medical advice, how to vote on an initiative, or resharing information with others, using advanced techniques for evaluating the accuracy of specific claims become more important.

The theme of this year’s Albers Ethics Week is “Ethics, Social Media, and Democracy.” During one of the events we will further examine our responsibility in the age of social media, how to use the above practices to evaluate claims, and learn about other tools and resources for evaluating online information.

Learn more about the upcoming Albers Ethics Week.

Share to Facebook and Twitter!