In the midst of a pandemic and climate catastrophe, with less than three months to go before the U.S. presidential election, it is essential to know fact from fiction online. The truth is high stakes. This is more easily said than done however, with social media swirling with misinformation and conspiracy theories. As a result, many people in the U.S. believe in inaccurate information, which they often learn about and share online. While misinformation is not new, addressing it continues to be important. The strategies below will help you stop or avoid consuming fake news, give you the opportunity to learn how to fact check and will equip you with the tools to keep your friends and family informed.
1. Consider The Point Of View Of The Person Behind The Account
As a reporter, I’m always thinking about the point of view of my sources. I recommend that you do the same when you read posts on social media. Check the account behind the post, read their bio and examine their content. Understanding the point of view of the person behind an account means trying to understand who they are, why they would post something and how they would know it is true. The questions below can help you get started.
Do you know them in real life? If not, do they list their name or can you identify them elsewhere online? Is their account brand new and do they only post or comment about a few topics? Even if you do trust that the poster is who they say they are, do they have a history of being accurate? Are they informed about the facts they are sharing? Is it clear where and how they found the information they shared? All of these questions can help you identify whether or not a post you see is coming from a reliable source, which is a good way to see whether you should trust the post or fact-check further.
2. Be Mindful Of Your Emotions — Consider Fact-Checking
If a post or article makes you really angry, and you want answers now, take a step back and breathe for a moment. Often, you may be correct. There are plenty of injustices, cruelties and corruption scandals to make us all angry. However, because trolls know you are likely to share content that makes you experience strong emotions, they will sometimes engineer lies to make you upset. The greatest tool of those spreading conspiracy theories is using our strong emotions and our dislike for uncertainty. We want simple, clear explanations for complicated, hard situations. Try to be wary of this instinct — it is the easiest way to dive down a rabbit hole.
If you find social media content making you feel intense emotions, especially anger, and the content in question seems to explain many problems at once, consider doing some fact-checking before you share. Fact-checking websites can help you verify whether the explanations for the world’s problems that someone just posted on Facebook are true or not. These include Snopes for U.S. readers, Full Fact for UK readers and RMIT ABC Fact Check for Australia.
You can fact-check yourself. One strategy includes doing some research on any experts cited, to make sure they have the qualifications they say they have and have been trusted by reputable sources before. You can enter a photo into reverse lookup to find websites that contain the image, which can help you determine whether it is actually from the event posters claim it is. Check out whatever links are included in the post itself. If the links are all to clickbait websites, reconsider believing the post.
I know these strategies all feel like a lot of work. Checking experts, sources, photos and what others have said about something certainly takes time. However, the work will be well worth it. If you can avoid spreading lies online, you will have done a public service.
3. Before You Retweet Research, Ask Some Questions
Many of the greatest crises of our times, including COVID-19 and climate change, are also being investigated every day by scientists. When many scientists study the same thing and find similar results, they reach a consensus. For example, vaccines are safe and climate change is real. However, individual studies are sometimes replicable by other scientists, and sometimes not — you can (and should) ask questions about individual studies.
When you see a post about a study that seems to say something shocking and new, take a step back and ask how the researchers did their job. How many people, animals or other test subjects did they study before they decided that something was true? Who were the test subjects, where did this study occur and what was done? Who funded the study? In the case that a study focuses on a marginalized group, did scientists consider context and history?
If the post describing the study of the moment doesn’t answer these questions for you, consider getting those questions answered somewhere else before you share or fully believe information about the study. Until you know where information is coming from, how it was found and why it was investigated, it can be easy to mistake a preliminary study for the definitive truth.
If you have identified something as inaccurate, do not share it on social media, even if you are trying to debunk it. Instead, consider reaching out to the people in your life who may believe the incorrect information. Try asking them how they came to believe this information and understand how they feel. Once you understand where their opinions are coming from, introduce them to facts about the situation in a non-judgmental way. We all have a role to play in slowing down the spread of misinformation and helping better inform those already mistaken about something.