Published: May 29, 2021
Sifting through what’s real and what’s fake online is becoming a heroic feat.
For years, many of us were used to unreliable sources looking unreliable.
“We have a perception of what legitimate looks like,” said Kathryn Hill, executive director of MediaSmarts, a media and digital literacy organization.
“We think it looks professional and it looks really polished, because historically that was the case,” she said.
But that has changed dramatically.
According to Hill, hoax sites, satire publications, and false information have become incredibly sophisticated-looking, sometimes even trumping legitimate sources.
“What we know as credible sources, like universities, or non-profit research organizations, they may not have the funding to invest in their online presence.”
Many say it can be hard to wrestle with misinformation when it’s been engineered to deceive you.
A 2018 study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that false information spread six times faster than legitimate info.
In fact, the falsehoods spread “significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.”
Something even more surprising? Humans — not bots — were more likely to spread misinformation.
According to Hill, misinformation is packaged in sophisticated and eye-catching ways, plays on emotions, and is designed to target vulnerable audiences that are most susceptible to confirmation bias. Anyone can fall for it.
“It’s everywhere now, it’s inundating us,” said Celia Du, a science communication specialist, who urges the public to look for misinformation in TV, radio, print — not just online and on social media.
“Misinformation and disinformation contain a grain of truth in them, so it makes it feel like the rest of it makes sense,” said Du.
Even though the odds may seem stacked against you, Du says resources to fight misinformation are actually within reach. Fact-checkers have come up with numerous handy strategies for the average consumer to spot and debunk falsehoods.
Pioneered by award-winning writer Michael Caulfield and based on research by Stanford University professor Sam Wineburg, one such tool is called “SIFT.”
Whenever you come across material you’re skeptical about:
S: Stop, take a deep breath, and regroup. What kind of reaction does this info produce? Hill and Du say the high speed at which we reshare posts facilitates lots of the spread of misinformation.
I: Investigate the source. This doesn’t have to be a “Pulitzer prize-winning investigation” — a quick google search will do. Who is putting out this information? Do they have the expertise to talk about this, or do they have an ulterior motive? Are they selling a product or magical fix-all? Are they being sponsored by somebody else?
F: Find better coverage. Who else is talking about this? Are reputable organizations or trusted reports sharing the same info? Can you find more in-depth information about the same claim?
T: Trace claims, quotes, and media back to the original source. What do you find when you Google them? Is there a longer version of the video that puts things into context? Can you find that media at all? If it’s difficult to trace, Du says that is an immediate red flag.
Not all of these boxes have to be ticked for you to identify misinformation. Some pointers, like finding better coverage, can stand alone.
If you don’t want to go through all that trouble, though, the good news is others have probably already done the work for you.