The Spread of Misinformation
The ability to discern fact from fiction is critical in everyday life, and even more so during a crisis. To protect our families and each other, we need accurate information free from bias and spin. Credible information can make a critical difference in our health, especially when misinformation may run rampant.
As a public health scholar, I value solid scientific evidence and accurate translation of that evidence to the public. It bothers me when I see people twisting information (and misinformation) to serve their agendas. As a son, I worry about what my parents read online or hear on the news and how it shapes their beliefs, and more importantly, the actions they do — or don’t — take to keep themselves safe. There’s no shortage of pundits offering subtly or not-so-subtly biased information that could have real impacts on their health and well-being. As the brother of a service member who goes on active duty during crises, I’m concerned about his safety. Is he receiving accurate, evidence-based information that will allow him to protect the public while preserving his health?
Recent media trends, like “clickbait,” sometimes blur the lines between the truth, opinion, or an outright lie. Worse yet, some individuals purposefully create content designed to fuel division in society. This type of content is widely shared on social media and frequently sparks ugly conversations between friends and families.
Each day we are bombarded with countless articles, advertisements, images, figures, memes, and videos. You can scroll through a Facebook or Twitter timeline forever and see new content. More and more people use social media as their primary source of news. As a result, families must learn how to use social media wisely because we tend to refer to it so much during times of crisis for the latest information.
So, how are we supposed to know what’s real and what’s fake in this vast sea of content?
Telling Fact from Fiction
Factcheck.org from the University of Pennsylvania and Common Sense Media offer some helpful tips and questions to ask yourself as you’re reading any news story. Here are some key points to remember drawn from these sources:
- Read beyond the headline. Headlines are not the full story! They exist to summarize the story and spark interest. In some cases, the story’s author does not write the headline. Instead, a copy editor writes it in one of the final steps before publication.
- Check the website URL. The URLs for most legitimate websites end in .com, .net, .edu .gov, or .org. Phony websites may try to pass themselves off as real ones. They have URLs like abcnews.com.co. This simple “.co” added to the end of the URL is a hint that the website is fake.
- How does the website look? Is it poorly designed? Hard to navigate? Are there many spelling and grammatical errors? Does it use ALL CAPS lettering frequently? Is it littered with ads or provocative images? These can all be signs that the website is not credible.
- Who is the author? Most credible news outlets put the story’s author upfront and link it to their other pieces. This allows you to gauge their level of expertise on a particular topic. No author listed? Proceed with caution.
- Check the sources the author cites. Named sources allow you to establish credibility. Unnamed sources are not ideal but sometimes necessary in journalism. This is because some people wouldn’t be willing to disclose information that is important for the public to know but may otherwise be withheld for fear of retribution.
- Check hyperlinks. Links in the story provide supporting details. Click on them and ask yourself, “Does this linked story support the notion in the original story?”
- Check the date. Is it an old story that someone is trying to pass off as new? Sometimes people will take an article from years ago and slap a new, more provocative headline on it to try to trick readers.
- Is it satire or a joke? The internet is full of layers upon layers of irony and inside jokes, particularly on social media. There are quite a few websites that write parodies of the news. If the story sounds too good (or too ridiculous) to be true, it probably is.
- Check biases. Is the author trying to sell you something? Are they working for a company that is trying to sell you something? Ethical journalists, content creators, and even scientists are supposed to disclose when they have a conflict of interest that could bias their thinking. Being paid to promote an idea or product isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but people need to be honest about it.
- Beware of “experts” on social media. Social media can act as an echo chamber for misinformation. False or inaccurate statements on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube might show up in your newsfeed because they generate a lot of likes and comments from the “expert’s” friends and followers. People like it because it confirms their beliefs, which is a well-known psychological phenomenon known as confirmation bias. Instead, attempt to verify the information this person is sharing and check other sources to see if they have the facts straight.
Who Can You Trust?
Information moves quickly, and even more so when there is a crisis unfolding. During these times, it can be challenging to turn away from the news and eye-catching headlines. For the sake of ourselves and our families, we must pivot to more reliable and credible sources for the best information. Consider these different sources:
- Local leaders: they are likely best informed about the situation affecting your block, neighborhood, or city. Follow your local Department of Public Health, Police Department, and Fire Department on social media for the latest information.
- Scientific agencies, universities, and medical centers: scientists and doctors make a career out of searching for the truth and accurately communicating it to others. Agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) are staffed with folks like this who are doing their best to relay the most scientifically sound information. Universities and medical centers in your area serve a similar role.
- Websites devoted to fact-checking and dispelling myths: in addition to Factcheck.org and Common Sense Media, Snopes.com is a reliable site for verifying news stories.
Inquire, Listen, and Unplug
Try not to condemn friends or family members who are misinformed and spreading false information. Use this as an opportunity to inquire and learn. It’ll give you insight into where they find their information, and then you can try to direct them to more useful outlets. For parents and teens, it offers a chance to learn about recognizing fact from fiction. It can stimulate a healthy debate about what information to believe and what to disregard.
It’s also important to unplug and focus attention elsewhere, especially in times of crisis. No one needs to consume the news 24/7 — trust me, my partner is a very web-savvy journalist, and she even finds time to unplug and bake incredible sourdough bread. Read a book, watch a movie, play a video game, meditate, exercise, cook, draw, or some other activity that will help you disengage from the news a bit. These activities may also help you feel less stressed. The effects are even more powerful if you do them as a family.