Trick or Tweet: Identifying Bogus Information on Social Media
With Halloween coming up, you’re sure to see lots of pretenders around. But can you identify pretenders on social media? False information and imposter accounts can be viral on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media sites, and sometimes they can be hard to spot. Facebook removed almost 1.3 billion illegitimate accounts worldwide between October 2017 and March 2018. This past July, Twitter began removing tens of millions of accounts suspected of being fake, and in August, Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s parent company Alphabet removed hundreds of accounts and websites linked to fraudulent or inauthentic political messaging targeted at users in the United States, Britain, Latin America, and elsewhere.
False information on social media is especially concerning around the period of elections, such as the American midterm elections coming up in the next few weeks. Many of us will turn to social media for at least some news and other information: 73% of American adults use more than one of the top eight social media platforms, and 68% of American adults report getting at least some news from social media. Social media platforms have pledged efforts to remove false content from their sites, but users still must be diligent about information they get from social media and the web.
By identifying false information and accounts on social media especially, you’re not only helping yourself, you’re helping others. The inherent nature of social media means that we share information among our friends, family, and associates, who are more likely to trust that information when it’s coming from someone they know. Threat actors know and take advantage of this trust by hacking legitimate accounts and creating imposter accounts to share false information, and by using multiple accounts to share information and make it look more popular. If you like or share false information or fake accounts, your network is more likely to also like and share that information—which is how this false information spreads.
How You Can Identify False Information
There are a couple of tricks you can use to identify bad information on social media and across the web. One of the first things to do is look at the website or account’s “About” section. Do they provide enough information to identify who they really are? Are they affiliated with a company or organization? If so, does Googling that company or organization provide similar or matching information to the “About” section? Impersonating accounts may provide questionable or unclear information or not enough information in the “About” section.
Another trick across web and social is to look for typos, grammatical errors, or unusual formatting. Imposters and hackers may be operating from a foreign country and thus may not know the native language very well, leading to easily identifiable typos. Hasty efforts to set up accounts or websites may lead to them looking unprofessional or sloppy. Legitimate organizations will want their online presence to look good and free of typos!
If you’re reading the news, watch out for sensational or outrageous titles. False news relies on catchy titles that pack in a lot of detail to grab readers, possibly for nefarious reasons. Check out other articles on the same topic – do they say the same things?
False Information on Social Media
Social media presents a whole host of additional ways to spread bad information—but also additional ways you can identify it. Many social media sites allow well-known public figures and organizations to “verify” their accounts, which puts what is usually a blue or gray check on their account. When looking for accounts of popular figures or groups, look for indications the account is verified based on the particular social media site.
You can use unique characteristics of social media to identify suspicious accounts. Look at when the social media account was created. Was it created recently, or close to the time of a particular event that it’s involved with? Check out their followers. Do they look random? Are they from other countries that you wouldn’t expect?
Bot networks are a particular problem with false information on social media. Social bots are accounts that may seem real but don’t have a real person behind them. They perform similar functions in an automated or semi-automated fashion and are frequently connected to each other as part of a “bot network.” Some signs of a bot account: Does the account only post about one topic? Do they post hundreds of times a day, especially without stop? (A normal human user eventually has to sleep!) Do they post in multiple languages? What other accounts are they connected with? For Twitter accounts, you can also use Botcheck.me, which uses and algorithm to predict if an account is a bot.
Photos, Videos, and Links
Threat actors use photos, videos, and links to spread false information in specific ways. For instance, after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, fake photos of a shark swimming along the freeway in Houston made the rounds on social media. In the case of photos, one trick you can use on your desktop computer is right clicking on the photo and click “Search Google for image.” This, along with other reverse image searches through other engines, searches the web to see when and where else the photo appears. Did it show up a few years ago in a different context? It might be fake. You can do this with video screenshots as well.
For links, tricks you can use include hovering over the link before you click it to see where it goes. Does it go where the post says it goes? Look for small changes, too, in links supposedly going to well-known sites, which could indicate it’s an impersonating domain. You can look up information about the website through WHOIS domain lookup tools, which will tell you who owns and registered the domain. Finally, you can use a variety of phishing check websites to see if the link is possibly a phishing link.
Social media is an important and useful part of our lives, but we have to be careful about what information we get from social media and across the web. With elections coming up, the possibility of false information going viral across social media is increasingly a problem and one to look out for. Use these tricks to make your social experience a treat!