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Find the Truth on the Internet
Misinformation: You may have heard this term thrown around on the news and on social media … but what is it, really? Let’s take a look into what it means, how to spot it and some tips you can follow right now for verifying news sources.
The term “misinformation” is used to refer to a wide range of inaccurate or misleading information, including hoaxes and scams. Misinformation isn’t always spread maliciously, but regardless of the reason behind why it is shared, the result is generally the same: people on the receiving end believe that something wrong is actually right, or that something happened that never did. This leads to misunderstandings that may snowball. If one person shares a piece of misinformation with 10 of their friends, and they each share it with 10 of their friends, it’s already reached well over 100 people in just a few simple clicks.
At worst, the effects can vary from inaccurate health information that makes people sick, to false political information that puts people in danger.
Misinformation refers to false or misleading information that is spread online. The term “misinformation” is used in favor of saying “fake news”.
Why not just say “fake news”?
“Fake news” is a term popularly used by the powerful to discredit legitimate information, science, and journalism, and the people who speak up about it. The term “fake news” is also not a helpful description… is that news really “fake”? Or is it genuine, but inconvenient or uncomfortable?
Did you know? In addition to the terms misinformation and fake news, you may also hear other terms like disinformation and malinformation. You can read more about them (here).
In some cases, misinformation can also act as a form of propaganda, and it can occasionally find its way to mainstream media outlets.
Maybe you think you’ve never fallen for misinformation, or that you’re an expert at identifying it. You might be surprised how convincing it can be.
Can you spot the false information?
In 2011, reports of an intact, fossilised, 110-million year old dinosaur found in Canada went viral. Was this story true or false?
The quote “A winner is a dreamer who never gives up,” was famously said by Marie Curie in 1932. Are these details real or false?
An image that circulated in 2011 attributed to the damage caused by Hurricane Irene shows a shark swimming in a flooded road. Was the photo real or false?
The Malabar is a giant, rainbow-coloured squirrel found in India. Is this true or another case of an altered photo?
That moment former president of the US, Barack Obama, kicked in a door after a speech, caught on video. Was the video real or false?
If you found yourself struggling to find the right answer on any of those, you are not alone. Misinformation is usually constructed and spread in clever ways, making it difficult to tell if it is real or false. That’s why we all need to become investigators, which we’ll talk about more later.
As you’ll have noticed, those examples were pretty harmless. Wrongfully believing Obama kicked down that door may change your perspective of the former president, but it’s unlikely to result in further damage. There are many times where, especially in the past couple of years, misinformation has caused irreparable damage. Below, you can find examples of when misinformation crossed the line.
Rumours that went too far
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In 2018, an article called “Like. Share. Kill” brought to light a specific case of when false reports of religious violence spread through Facebook, resulting in violence and murder in Nigeria.
Hate speech turning to action
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Misinformation on Facebook made the news again in 2018, when fake accounts were used to spread hate speech about the Rohingya population in Myanmar, causing an international humanitarian crisis and genocide.
These are just a couple of many examples of how misinformation on the internet has hurt people and societies in real life.
Did you know there are 10 types of misleading news? You can learn more about them here.
Moving forward, here are some steps you can follow to see through misinformation.
Become an Investigator
Make it a habit to ask the following critical questions of any news you consume, especially if it seems surprising, outrageous or too good to be true. In the end, you’ll want to verify which news is genuine or misleading – especially if you plan to share it with family or friends.
- What website is this from?
- Does this website have a reputation for focusing on facts or spreading gossip?
- Who funds it?
- What is their mission?
- Are they a satire website?
- Do they have a political or religious leaning, or another bias? (for example, a website focused on homeopathic healing is likely to stand against medical interventions)
- What is the actual URL on this article? (There is a chance it might be a copycat website, which mimics a trustworthy website, but alters the URL somehow.)
- Who wrote it (and when)?
- Check the author – are they an expert in the field? What is their experience in?
- Does this piece show up in the “Opinion” section of the website? (“Opinion” pieces have a different standard of fact-checking than standard news pieces.)
- What does the whole article say, beyond the headline?
- Does the article reference personal experiences? Or bigger studies?
- What kinds of wording is selected? Are there words that are judgment-based (terms like “outrageous”, “absurd”, “unbelievable”) or are the descriptions fact-based (if they refer to an event, they describe the event happened at this place and that time)?
- If it’s an image or video, does it look grainy, uncanny or waxy? It might be a sign it was tampered with or otherwise digitally altered.
- Which sources are they referring to?
- If they reference a study, click on the reference and read the study yourself. If it links to other news sources, make sure those are trustworthy.
- Primary sources: can you find more information or the original interview? (Words may have been taken out of context or maybe the claim has already been proven false)
- Is this claim supported anywhere else? Who else backs it up?
Play the Online News Verification Game and Bad News to practice your investigative skills.
For more advanced investigation steps, check out Exposing the Invisible: The Kit’s How to See What’s Behind a Website.
Tools to Support You
In addition to asking the verification questions above, there are tools out there to help you on your search for truth.
- PolitiFact and Snopes fight misinformation by employing writers, editors and others to fact check rumors and gossip.
- Plug-ins like NewsGuard, TrustedNews and the Official Media Bias Fact Check Icon will display grades, rankings and reports about each news website you visit. You can then use that information to decide for yourself.
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