Op-Ed: Don’t Be Fooled By Misinformation on Social Media

We live in a time where information is shared more easily than at any other point in history.  Unfortunately, not all of it is true or factual. Yet, society has seemingly become less skeptical of the information they consume or the source of that information, leading to beliefs, positions, and movements that were once thought unfathomable.  Right now, there are thousands of people who belong to online communities that insist the earth is flat or that the Holocaust never happened.  We should be alarmed at this phenomenon, but also understand that we are all responsible to help stop it. 

The value of quality, verifiable, and unbiased information in the COVID-19 era cannot be overstated. The alternatives – misinformation, rumors, opinions presented as fact, incomplete information, and blatant lies – not only erode public trust in the media, government institutions, and even our neighbors, but they can also spark unnecessary panic, confusion, and anger in a time when we can least afford it.

For example, a rumor last month that Governor Wolf intended to move several counties from the green phase back to the red phase spread like wildfire on social media, and panic ensued. The origin of the rumor was a single post from a Facebook account that appears on the surface to be a legitimate news source; however, some light digging reveals that the account is overseen by an individual with no media credentials and who admits the page is more of a blog for political commentary than an actual source for news. Shortly after the article gained traction, a spokesperson for the Department of Health issued a statement dispelling the rumor, and to this day, no counties have reverted to the red phase – the article was blatantly false.

There are several reasons why someone is driven to spread misinformation, and not all of them are nefarious. But while some fake news begins as an innocent misunderstanding, oftentimes there are dark motives behind the pithy memes, slick videos, and seemingly harmless click bait articles. Sometimes the creators of this content stand to profit off duping the public, so giving their content undeserved attention only elevates the account’s status, lines the creator’s pockets, and perpetuates the spread of misinformation and the chaos that typically accompanies it.

But there are also national security implications for spreading misinformation.  Just last week the top counterintelligence official at the National Counterintelligence and Security Center warned of foreign countries attempting to influence public opinion in the U.S. for their own benefit, using social media as a tool to sow dissention, fear, and distrust.

Now, perhaps more than ever before, it is imperative that we all arm ourselves with the knowledge to recognize false claims and stop their spread.

The first step in factchecking is to know your source.  Is it a trustworthy website with a reliable track record and credentials? If you’ve never heard of the person or organization making an outrageous claim, do a quick background check to see their past statements and positions, funding sources, or partners and affiliate organizations. Read the “about” section of a web source you’re unfamiliar with, and if something seems off, it probably is. If there is no background information on the source, the omission is likely intentional, and you should proceed with skepticism before sharing their content.

Another great way to ensure you aren’t spreading misinformation and perpetuating fake news is to verify claims you’re unsure about by using multiple sources. If you can’t find a single reliable source to back up a questionable claim, then that should be a red flag indicating that the claim is likely bogus. Conversely, if multiple websites and news outlets are reporting the same facts, it’s probably safe to assume that the claims are legitimate.

Probably most frustrating is the realization that we cannot always believe what we see. We should all be aware of the power of photoshop and “deepfakes,” or the use of artificial intelligence to manipulate videos or audio to change what a person appears to have said or done. It’s easy to use photoshop to doctor false tweets, Facebook posts, or even official documents, and these changes are difficult to detect with the naked eye. For this reason, critical thinking is necessary whenever you see a video or hear a recording that pushes some shocking or preposterous information that seems unbelievable. You should be immediately skeptical and attempt to verify the validity of the media clip using other reliable sources before you accept it as fact.

We all ought to demand proof of the information we read, see, and share.  Posts that lack any quality source do not deserve the luxury of earning your trust or mine. Even if it seems true, we should assume that an uncited claim isn’t valid until we can verify the information using other credible sources.

Seeking the truth in a sea of misinformation is a noble pursuit, and a necessary one. Rather than finding news sources that simply reaffirm our own preexisting beliefs, we ought to place higher value in finding the truth. Anything less only serves as a barrier to civil discourse and healthy debate.

Let’s hold ourselves to a higher standard by ensuring that the content we circulate is verifiable, reliable, and accurate. A quick Google search that takes but a few minutes will typically clear up any ambiguity or confusion – do one before you repost or retweet.

Let’s all be part of the solution, not the problem – don’t share claims that you aren’t sure to be true, and more importantly, don’t believe them either. We all have a part to play in the fight against misinformation and fake news. Do your part by fact checking before you hit “share.”

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