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How to Spot – and NOT Share – Fake News Online

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We’re fewer than five months away from a presidential election, three months into lockdown to limit the spread of coronavirus, and weeks into protesting the killing of George Floyd by a now-former police officer, which all adds up to a perfect storm for misinformation.

It’s easy to think you could identify misinformation from a mile away. It includes bogus, obviously skewed stories, like claims that the Earth is flat, that antifa are murderers, and that police unions are beneficial to society.

But misinformation includes more. It also includes any story or piece of shareable content that uses unfounded or cherry-picked statistics to push a narrative.

I’ve fallen for it myself.

In April, I shared information from a Facebook post about the effectiveness of wearing masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus. According to the image I found, if a COVID-19 carrier isn’t wearing a mask, there’s a 70 percent chance of giving the virus to someone who is wearing a mask. When a COVID-19 carrier and a non-carrier both wear masks, that risk drops to 1.5 percent.

A convincing, but ultimately made up infographic on wearing masking to prevent spreading coronavirus.

Perfect, I thought. This is the type of data I can share with morons who oppose wearing masks. But there was a problem: While masks do work at limiting the spread of coronavirus, the statistics in the image were dreamt up.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in responding to Reuters, said it “can’t confirm the accuracy of the numbers reflected in this image. Currently we are not finding any data that can quantify risk reduction from the use of masks”

To better understand how to spot misinformation and refrain from sharing it, here are four major tips to start using today.

Understand the Motivations

Misinformation does not exist in a vacuum. Instead, think of misinformation as a tool to push certain ideologies, from who should lead our country, to who deserves government assistance, to white supremacy itself.

Misinformation also responds to current events. It’s why you may have seen photoshopped photos of a vandalized Lincoln memorial in Washington DC, with claims that it was the work of Black Lives Matter protesters—because, right now, Black Lives Matter has a high level of support, and white supremacists fear that.

According to Snopes, the recent claims about BLM-inspired vandalism at the Lincoln memorial are false.

Misinformation can also be used to scam you out of money, which is what we see with fraudulent crowd-funding campaigns.

Recognize the Emotional Signs

One of the easiest signs of misinformation is that it produces an intense emotional reaction. The claim about a vandalized Lincoln memorial fits this description, as it can elicit anger at the alleged defacement of an American memorial site.

But that’s exactly what misinformation aims to do. The more emotionally invested its victims become, the better chance the misinformation has at being further shared and spread.

The next time you come across an infuriating piece of information online, particularly on social media, be careful.

Now, we know this isn’t a comprehensive approach to identifying misinformation because, truthfully, so much of our real world is deeply upsetting. We are appalled that a police officer killed George Floyd. We are made sick by how police killed Breonna Taylor. We are disgusted by police who hospitalized a 75-year-old man peacefully protesting in Buffalo, and by the subsequent resignation of 57 police officers who buckled at the first sign of accountability.

These stories hurt us. They make us want to share them to make sure other people see what we see.

So, how do we avoid mistaking awful-but-true information with misinformation?

We check credible sources.

Check Your Sources

There is no one-size-fits-all source to check every online claim, but one website comes close: Snopes. The rumor-busting website has significantly expanded its coverage and expertise in recent years, providing fact-based analyses of everything from whether the woman behind Aunt Jemima “died a millionaire” (Nope), to whether Merriam-Webster updated its definition of “racism” to apply only to white people (No, again), to whether the children’s TV show “Paw Patrol” was canceled due to its portrayal of police (With heavy regret, I say once again, no).

But Snopes can’t fight every piece of misinformation. For those moments when you can’t immediately find the answer, you should also think about where you’ve initially encountered the information.

If you’re reading a story on a reliable news source, which could be your local newspaper that you’ve come to trust after years of reading, then you’re in a safer position than if the information is coming from a friend or family member on social media. In fact, no matter what, you shouldn’t rely only on social media for your news, as more than half of Americans do today. Trusting only Facebook with your news is about as smart as trusting only one TV channel—and that’s not taking into account whether that TV channel’s CEOs is totally cool withallowing disinformation for profit.

Finally, be wary of information sent to you from a friend or family member that comes in an email or a text without any news source to back it up.

In March, I was texted about a supposed study in Vienna that showed that taking Advil worsened coronavirus symptoms. I hadn’t heard about it, so I looked it up on Google.

The same information shared with me in a text could be found on Twitter earlier.

Lo and behold, it was false.

Think Before Sharing

This might seem obvious, but it works. Before you share an infographic with no source, a quote with no context, or statistics with no linking study, try and answer a few questions. Where did the information come from? Is there a reputable source that contains and explains the claims? Have you searched on Google or Snopes to see if there’s more information about the claims?

If you can’t find the answers, that’s okay. Just remember not to share something you can’t verify from an online search. Misinformation can be like a brushfire, spreading rapidly, nearly impossible to contain. But you can do your part to stop that spread.

Simply put, don’t share what you don’t know, and stay smart out there.

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