According to a joint 2017 study from Stanford and NYU, nearly a quarter of voting-age adults visited a website spreading disinformation about the candidates in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election. In 2020, there is little reason to believe the situation will get any better.
This misinformation is a serious threat. A survey of 3000 college students published in November found that two-thirds of us couldn’t tell the difference between advertisements and content on Slate’s homepage, not to mention that 52 percent of those studied thought that a video claiming to show ballot stuffing in the 2016 Democratic primaries constituted “strong evidence” of fraud. The video was, in fact, shot in Russia.
As such a widespread threat, we all have a responsibility to be on the lookout. Luckily, misinformation online often bares telltale signs of its nefarious nature. For one, the content is usually emotionally provocative in some way. If an article’s headline immediately makes you angry, sad, overjoyed or fearful, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true, but it does suggest you might want to look further. If you have the urge to spread it or spend money immediately because of it, that’s another sign you might want to look further.
Once you’re suspicious of a story, the hardest part of the journey is already behind you. From here, the best way to figure out whether or not the information is true is to approach it the same way a professional fact-checker does—by reading laterally, rather than vertically. This means opening up a couple new tabs and searching for other news outlets reporting on the same story. The instinct of many people is to check out the page the information came from, investigating things like the “About Us” page or the URL (.org vs .com, etc.). Because these things are on the site the information is from, they can all be manipulated to deceive you. Reading laterally, however, allows you to see multiple perspectives on a story that either corroborate or dispute it, and can give you a much more accurate picture of what is actually going on. As you read, follow the links to sources to check that they say what the article claims they did and to check their veracity via the same lateral method.
Don’t forget to consider your own bias in the situation. Confirmation bias is a very real thing, and it’s important to be aware that you are much more likely to buy into a fake story that confirms your existing political beliefs. Put another way, trusting your instinct about what does and doesn’t seem plausible to you will probably lead you astray when it comes to politics.
Thanks to the same wonders of the internet that created this problem, this whole process shouldn’t take more than a few minutes and you should have a pretty good idea of whether or not the story is true. If you’re on the fence, try to err on the side of not sharing the story any further—the consequences of propagating false information are usually worse than those of letting it go unnoticed.
Photo Credit: Christoph Scholz (Licensed Attribution 2.0)