Misinformation, or incorrect/misleading information, has become a persistent problem in our increasingly digital society.
With a desire to find quick answers, many people get stuck in so-called echo chambers. They never stop to check if what they are repeating, sharing, or forwarding is accurate. It occurs in all political parties and can have disastrous consequences.
Misinformation campaigns have sparked conflict between and within parties, resulting in an increasingly hostile and bipartisan political environment.
This issue becomes harder to prevent as billions of users continue to carelessly propagate biased sources, and the sensationalist media continues to feed misinformation. Here are 7 ways to spot misinformation.
Most people learn the difference between facts and opinions in school, but this misunderstanding still frequently occurs. By definition, a fact states reality and can be verified. Meanwhile, an opinion interprets reality. It is a personally held belief, judgment, or outlook. As a result, opinions can often be identified by phrases such as “I think/believe.” However, opinions can also be designed to appear like facts or be represented as such in an attempt to mislead the reader.
When determining reliability, it is important to ask yourself; Is the information from a single person posting on social media? Does that person have a reputable background (i.e. an environmental scientist, as compared to a pop artist who is talking about global warming)? Does that individual have a reputation for spreading misinformation? Is the information from a news source; moreover, is it a trusted news source?
News and professional media often hold themselves to a higher standard and fact check thoroughly before reporting, however not all news organizations proceed with the same amount of caution. Ad Fontes Media Bias Chart and Media Bias Fact Check organize major news and media outlets by their political bias and reliability. Checking them is a good method for examining how trustworthy a source is.
People leaning towards one side of the political spectrum will oftentimes take information from biased news sources like MSNBC or OAN to support their arguments, without realizing the inherent problems that occur as a result. To curb this, readers should look at articles from unbiased sources. AllSides is a good resource for looking at recent news from different political viewpoints. You can use the links from the reliable media section above and the AllSides media bias chart to check for bias from major news and media outlets.
Look it up! Search online or on a fact-checking website like Politifact and Snopes. For example, since the 2016 elections, social media posts have been circulating claiming that restaurants like IHOP and Taco Bell have supported President Donald Trump, and thus, people who do not want him reelected should not support those businesses. When you do a simple google search, you will find multiple credible articles rebuking these posts, however, misinformation continues to circulate. Misrepresentation of proposed bills or resolutions in Congress is also commonplace online. You can use this website to find copies of bills from Congress; alternatively, you could use GovTrack. Some fact-checking websites can be vulnerable to political manipulation and bias, so it is important to use multiple fact-checking websites.
Beware of Statistics! A post or article citing statistics is usually a good thing and can lend to its credibility. However, whether from an old debunked study or pulled out of thin air, incorrect statistics run rampant on social media platforms. When considering statistics, it is also important to note the dataset. Studies with large datasets and repeated testing are inherently more reliable compared to studies with smaller datasets. This article elaborates on the topic and discusses finding flaws in statistics.
Washington Post Fact Checker (requires a paid subscription)
The available information and science can change rapidly, and, depending on the subject, articles from as little as days prior can have old data or facts. For example, during the beginning of the Covid-19 Pandemic, what we knew about the virus was rapidly changing, so new information was constantly being released. Old articles were contributing to the spread of misinformation about safety precautions, death rates, and more. Check when the article was published or when the comment was posted, evaluate its validity accordingly.
Circular reporting, a vicious cycle in which publication X reprints misinformation published by publication Y and then publication Y cites information from publication X. Another form of circular reporting is when multiple publications cite the same initial piece of false information, thus seeming like multiple sources have already approved that information. Satirical articles in the form of actual formatted reports and other user-generated content have all contributed to circular reporting. Circular reporting can often have severely damaging consequences; for instance, the 1998 pseudoscientific paper publication arguing against vaccination due to it causing autism influenced parents to resist vaccinating their children, who then become vulnerable to contagious diseases. This publication has been long discredited by the scientific community, yet this does not deter the anti-vaccination movement.
Often, in articles and even social media posts, people will tell you the source of their information or statistics. However, they will often neglect to include hyperlinks. You can use whatever information about the source you have to try to find it. Check that source for bias, misinformation, and false facts.
Be on the lookout for fallacies in arguments - these will often have errors in logic and reasoning. This article explains fifteen fallacies in detail. It is crucial to learn about them so we can stop the circulation of flawed and misleading arguments.
Whether the information has been misrepresented, warped, or completely manufactured, people spread it far and wide on social media. People of all ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds fall victim to both benign and harmful misinformation spread throughout social media. Slowly but surely, we can combat this epidemic of misinformation.
It is essential to understand the techniques employed to intentionally misinform and to question the information we see. We must step out of our echo chambers, get our news from reliable sources, and wait to share anything online until we are sure it’s true.