3 simple ways to spot and stop false information

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Disinformation is harmful. It can mislead people and lead them to subscribe to dangerous beliefs. It can also sow resentment, anger, and division in a society. Disinformation can even cost lives, as we’ve seen during this pandemic. This is why the ability to separate real from fake (or manipulative) information is more important than ever.

Separating fact from fake can be hard. We deal with so much online information everyday. Many of us don’t have time to stop and assess everything we consume. Also, manipulating information has become easier with new technology. Fake news can be designed and formatted to look real. There are also new tools that help proliferate dubious information. For example, social media algorithm can be made to collect and deliver the type of information that we tend to like and agree with. Data is classified based on engagement, regardless of veracity. Consequently, this can strengthen our confirmation bias, which is a way of processing information in an illogical manner. To combat this, we need to strengthen our critical thinking skills. It’s our first line of defense against disinformation.

Misinformation, disinformation and malinformation

The three main forms of informational activity that can cause harm are misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation (MDM).

These terms are sometimes used interchangeably but they not synonymous to each other. Misinformation is untrue information that is shared intentionally or unintentionally to deceive. Disinformation and malinformation, on the other hand, are deliberately created and spread to harm, mislead and manipulate. The only difference between the two is that malinformation is based on fact that is taken out of context, while disinformation is purely a lie.

graphic defining misinformation, disinformation and malinforation

How to spot fake news and stop them from spreading:

  1. Don’t get carried away

    Having an immediate emotional reaction to a post is the first sign that it could be disinformation. A sensational headline, attention-grabbing photo, or a controversial topic that garners immediate anger, sadness or fear makes you more likely to engage with it. People who create disinformation hope that readers will share the post without thinking first. This is how misinformation or disinformation spreads quickly.

    The next time something you read online alarms you or tugs at your emotion, don’t share it right away. Take time to verify if it’s real and check if the information is correct. On social media, don’t like, comment or share right away since any type of engagement can boost a post and allow it to be seen by more people.

  2. Ask 3 questions

    • Who’s telling me this?
    • How do they know it?
    • What do they have to gain from it?

    Asking these questions will help you determine if the source is legitimate or not. Legitimate sources are free from bias. They also back up their claims with evidence. They usually cite their sources, and the sources are trustworthy and hold a degree of expertise.

  3. Fact-check

    Sometimes a simple Google search does the trick. However, some posts need a more in-depth study. For these, you can use fact-checking sites like AFP Canada, Factcheck.org or snopes.com.

    How to fact-check online sources, Authentication 101, Reality Check (Media Smarts)

Report fake news

Take it one step further and report sources, personal accounts or media outlets that publish false information. If you found it on social media, you can report it to the specific social media company where it is posted (the “report” function is usually one of the choices on the menu when you click on the three dots beside the poster’s name). If it’s information that can lead to a scam or fraud, you can report it to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. Reporting not only stops fake news from spreading, you can also prevent someone else from being harmed.

Explore these great resources on media literacy:

Spot Fake News.ca
Media Smarts (Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy)
Break the Fake
CIVIX (Fact verification materials)

Sources: 5 ways to spot disinformation on your social media feeds, Erin Calabrese, ABC News; Spot the bot: How to navigate fake news about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Rachel Gilmore, Global News; How to spot fake news: Identifying propaganda, satire, and false information, Simon Fraser University Library; and Algorithm reveals how Twitter hurts the quality of news, Chance Townsend, Mashable. Accessed July 11, 2022.

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