5 Ways to Protect Yourself Against Misinformation

September 28, 2020

With the rise of the Internet and social media as primary news sources, we’ve seen a steady uptick in the spread of both misinformation and disinformation.

Disinformation is the intentional sharing of false information as a hostile act. This deliberate spreading of false information is often divisive and difficult to spot. Misinformation, on the other hand, is false information that is spread regardless of intent, usually when someone shares something they think is important for others to see and doesn’t check the item’s accuracy.

Both have always been present on the Internet, but with COVID-19 and the 2020 election approaching, the risks may be greater than before. Here are five ways to spot misinformation and protect yourself through fact-checking:

Step 1: Evaluate the source.

If you learn something surprising from your neighbor, you can do some simple online research to see if it’s true. Use your favorite search engine (most people trust Google, Bing, and Yahoo, but there are many others) to check a variety of news sources. Pay attention to the URL of the sites you find. If a site ends in “.com.co” or something similar, that’s a red flag. For example, here is a list of fake news sites that were designed to be deceptive.

Step 2: Learn to spot misinformation themes.

Major current events can elicit various forms of misinformation – viral rumors, memes, or videos – that follow specific themes. You can often spot a theme when you see different visually compelling, easy-to-share graphics delivering the same message. These messages often lack sourcing of any kind.

Currently there is a lot of misinformation regarding COVID-19, and a common theme is to doubt accepted medical research/science. Messages in this theme:

  • Discourage wearing a mask by claiming it will cause infection
  • State specific types of people are immune to the virus
  • Claim a drug or treatment is available now that will prevent the virus

Elections (like the one we’re gearing up for in November) always come with misinformation themes. Watch out for any posts that:

  • Discourage voting by describing long lines or closed polling locations
  • Cast doubt on the election process
  • Promote voting in unacceptable ways, such as in an online forum or via text message

Step 3: Check your emotions.

Are you so outraged by the piece of information you are hearing that you feel the urge to share it immediately? Credible information is not often so staggering.

If the headline is written with divisive or provocative language, that’s a good sign to proceed with caution. If it seems like something a real journalist would never write, it probably isn’t. According to Fair.org, if a headline or article contains loaded language, double standards, a lack of context, or stereotypes, it’s a sign that the article might be overtly biased.

Step 4: Use fact-checking to get to the truth.

A good rule of thumb is to fact-check information by seeing if you can find the same information told by three additional, credible sources. If you have trouble doing so, it’s a sign that what you’re reading is not 100% true.

Is there something you keep hearing about that seems questionable? Recently, information has been spread that paper ballots are less secure than electronic voting. However, experts say the opposite is true. While paper ballots may at first seem like a return to an old system, when you look into the facts, you’ll find that experts agree paper voting systems are the safest method for voting, as they are far less vulnerable to hacking, interference, and manipulation.

Step 5: Don’t ‘like’ or share anything you haven’t read fully.

Finally, it’s always important to read the story fully and take all of these steps before you share anything. Even well-intentioned people can fall victim to fake news and share it unknowingly. Be wary of what’s delivered to you in your social media news feeds – as those spreading disinformation often base their algorithms on our online behavior – and think twice before you ‘like’ or share something.

By taking these precautions you can become a rational and trusted voice among your online circle of influence, avoiding and preventing the spread of false information.

“Knowledge Is Power Quotation,” Monticello; “How to Avoid Misinformation and Protect Your Vote in 2020,” Mic; “The Telephone Game,” Ice Breaker Ideas; “‘Misinformation’ vs. ‘Disinformation’: Get Informed on the Difference,” Dictionary.com; “How to Fight the Spread of COVID-19 Misinformation on Social Media,” Healthline; “Why Paper Is Considered State-of-the-Art Technology,” Bookings Institution; “How to Self-Check the News and Get the Facts,” NPR; “List of Fake News Websites,” Wikipedia; “Types, Sources, and Claims of COVID-19 Misinformation,” Reuters; “How to Detect Bias In News Media,” Fair.org; “How to Spot Fake News,” FactCheck.org; “I Fell for Facebook Fake News. Here’s Why Millions of You Did, Too,” Washington Post; “4 Steps to Stop the Spread of Disinformation Online,” Brookings Institution.

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