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How to Spot Misinformation and Disinformation

6 minute read

Misinformation, disinformation, and “fake news” have become part of our contemporary lexicon. While scrolling through social media, we are constantly bombarded with dubious posts that masquerade as fact. Whether it is a post about COVID-19, a politician or celebrity, businesses or products, or even the conflict in Ukraine, no topic is sacred when it comes to duping audiences. 

While the internet is home to plenty of reliable information, misinformation and disinformation can spread just as easily, if not easier, than facts. Because of the ease of sharing content, social media, in particular, is a hotspot for misinformation Further compounding social media’s role in the false information dissemination, platform algorithms prioritize posts that elicit strong emotional reactions, often exploiting knee-jerk fear and anger responses. 

What is the Difference between Misinformation and Disinformation?

We’ve all heard about misinformation and disinformation, but what is the difference between them? It starts with intent. 

Disinformation is more insidious than misinformation as it is expressly created with an aim towards promoting known inaccuracies. The ultimate goal of disinformation is to spread deceptive information to sow discord or undermine factual information. Disinformation could include spreading state-sponsored and factually incorrect propaganda in an attempt to incite uncertainty or confusion. 

Misinformation involves the dissemination of inaccurate information but without the express intent to deceive others. Misinformation could include someone sharing a post on social media with outdated information that affirms their belief, without their knowledge that the information has been disproven.

Regardless of the type, both misinformation and disinformation can result in negative consequences, including making people more skeptical towards the information they come across. It is imperative that both organizations and individuals alike understand the signs of misinformation so they can proactively work to combat it.

Four Ways to Arm Yourself Against False Misinformation

There are practical ways to spot misinformation and help you identify the true intentions of the content you consume. While it is always prudent to do your research and speak with experts about any claims you come across, there may be occasions when that isn’t possible. 

If a claim seems outlandish, too good to be true, or raises more questions than answers, it is time to critically examine what you’re consuming. Here are four ways that can help you determine if what’s in front of you is trustworthy or if it’s false information: 

Check your emotions, and headlines, at the door

Content that creates an emotional response resonates with audiences. Misinformation often takes advantage of your feelings and biases, even attempting to affirm unconscious beliefs. The reason this occurs is people are less likely to take time to carefully consider a source and its potential motivations when emotions get involved. 

With this in mind, it is imperative that you don’t rely solely on headlines. Headlines are crafted to increase clicks or shares with an understanding that some audience members won’t read the entire article. Be sure to read an article in its entirety to get the complete story before reacting, liking, or sharing. If a headline seems outrageous, there is a strong possibility that it is exploiting your emotions in an attempt to get you to share the content, with little –if any – concern  if you spread misinformation or not. 

This isn’t to say that all content that elicits an emotional response is misinformation; rather, this is merely a reminder to tread carefully when it comes to content that gives you an emotional swing.

Weight, y are their soo many misteaks?

Reputable sources take great care to edit their published content. While typos alone aren’t a guaranteed identifier of misinformation – let’s face it, they happen to all of us – they are a red flag that what you’re reading may not have been adequately reviewed. On the surface, typos and other grammar or spelling mistakes may indicate the content’s original creator rushed to disseminate the information without checking the facts. Additionally, many English-content farms operate in countries where English is not natively spoken.

Ask: Is this from a credible source? Who is the author? What is the motivation?

Claims made in articles should be supported by credible, authoritative sources. This is where doing your research, and not giving into reactive emotions, is key. Does scientific data come from peer-reviewed, official sources? Is that foreign policy “expert” actually an expert? If they are cited in other known and relevant news articles or publications, then there is a good chance that they are credible. Additionally, is the content you’re reading from a reputable source? Remember that anyone can create a website that peddles seemingly official looking information.

Reviewing the “about” page to learn more about online sources can help to point you in the right direction. If the content includes no verifiable sources, this could indicate the information is unreliable. However, some sources request anonymity. Reputable reporters and outlets will release the guidelines they use to verify the information is legitimate, like the Associated Press (AP) has done here.

Pro Tip: There are numerous fact-checking websites, like FactCheck.org, the News Literacy Project, and NewsGuard, that can help you to determine if you are consuming trustworthy, accurate content.

Get in on the Joke

When you come across material that seems funny or sarcastic, there is a good chance it is meant to be a joke or satire, rather than factual information. There are multiple websites that publish satire that, at a glance, may appear to be legitimate. With satire’s popularity, there are also new outlets that have not yet established their identity as a farcical site, leading some to confuse them for news media. This is another reason why it’s critical to look past headlines and consider the story in its entirety and the outlet publishing it; this may tip you off to the piece’s reliability and intention. 

Memes have also become an increasingly-popular medium, and one that has been exploited to share unattributed misinformation, propaganda, and conspiracy theories. Before clicking “share” on a meme, make sure you fully understand both the message and the context that may be behind its creation. Memetic warfare is a real thing, spreading real propaganda, causing real damage, on and off social media.

Protect Yourself and Your Organization from Threats

Misinformation and disinformation are not new tactics. Today however, false information spreads faster and more easily, with social media acting as the primary accelerant; both are also more difficult to recognize across the board. Whether intentionally misleading or not, identifying and protecting yourself from inaccurate information is a skill that requires practice and a bit of muscle memory. There are resources and tools that can help, but they alone cannot prevent the spread of false information. The risks for harm are tangible. Now more than ever, both individuals and organizations must work proactively to adopt responsible information consumption practices so that they are prepared to effectively disrupt the spread of bad information that threat actors could exploit. 

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