How to spot (and do something) about real fake news

Think you can spot fake news when you see it? You might be surprised even the most digitally savvy folks can (at times) be fooled into believing a headline or resharing a photo that looks real, but is actually not.

Don’t believe us? See if you can spot the fake between these two tweets. No peeking at the comments!

We’ve all seen headlines that are clearly sensational and meant to incite some sort of reaction. It’s easy to get emotional and not think about the credibility of the source before sharing, and that’s exactly how misinformation spreads. Many people might be able to tell when a headline is misleading, but sometimes it can be difficult to parse out the truth. Other times it’s just easier to give in to blind acceptance when you’re busy and scrolling through your newsfeed in between class or meetings and you see something you want to reshare. The lines get even blurrier when we see photos or even videos that are so seemingly real, yet have either been Photoshopped, shot from an angle or perspective that makes the visual intentionally misleading or digitally altered via AI as in the case of deep fakes.

Remember our tweet challenge from above? If you guessed that BOTH tweets were fake, you’re right! However, those examples are exactly the types of misleading content that is all too easily passed along because it is deliberately designed to be both interesting and authentic.  Now apply that same logic to fake news, and you can see how it can become a recipe for disaster.

Renée DiResta, technical research manager at Stanford Internet Observatory and former Mozilla fellow, spends a lot of time focused on misinformation and how to curb it.

“We’re at this point now where we’re all operating in these bespoke realities, where the things we see are the things that somebody somewhere, or some algorithm somewhere has decided we’re going to be receptive to,” DiResta said. “I think the fragmentation among these realities, the fact that if I trust The New York Times as a source and someone else trusts The Daily Wire as a source, we’re going to see two totally different stories about the exact same series of events. I think that’s deeply destructive for society. Something has to be done to reduce that polarization.”

Your social network is likely built with people you know (directly or indirectly) or brands and publishers you like and follow – recommended or not. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it can make it easier to fall into a filter bubble that can be self-perpetuating and helps further the reality of polarization DiResta is worried about. That’s not an easy thing to solve, but social networks can’t be overlooked for the role they play in the spread of misinformation – either through their direct methods (like an algorithm) or the way they design user sharing options.

“We have finite attention and finite time. The feed is constantly ranking information for you, deciding what you are going to see.”

Renee DiResta

For all of the good they do in terms of helping create opportunities and places for communities to thrive, they also create opportunities and places for misinformation to spread like wildfire. The only way to curb misinformation is to stop sharing it and that means all of us have to play our part in spotting it.

So what can we do? There are a few things you can do and ask yourself before you hit share on that next article or photo.

Questions to ask yourself:

Check dates

  • Is the article recent? Months or years old articles have a way of resurfacing and may not contain the most up-to-date information. This can be especially true with health related content, such as Covid-19, so consider both the topic and dated date.

Verify the source

  • Do you recognize the publisher or author? A quick web search might help you decide if the source is trustworthy or not.
  • Does the data or information in the article cite trusted sources? A quick search online can help you determine if any data being reported on is verified by official sources.
  • How can you tell if a source is trustworthy? There are many educational resources available, including this article from The New York Times.

Check for more coverage

  • Is the information in the article being reported by multiple trusted sources? Search for the topic and see if it shows up across a variety of trusted sources.

Check in with your feelings

  • Are you having a strong emotional reaction to what you’re reading? Anger, sadness and even joy can prompt us to reshare news or visuals without taking a moment to verify accuracy. Take a beat before you retweet.

Verify images

  • If it’s a photo, you can use reverse image search to see other instances where that image has appeared which may reveal it’s authenticity.

Read the article 

  • This one seems obvious, but some people share an article based solely on the headline instead of reading the entire piece. Take a few minutes to read what you’re about to share to make sure the content matches the headline.

Being able to parse out what’s real from what’s designed to get a reaction is just the first step. We all need to step back from passive engagement and take an active role in stopping the spread of misinformation. Here’s a few things you can do:

What to do if you spot fake news

If you see it on social media and you’re certain it’s fake or misleading, post a comment with a credible source. This may help stop the cycle of people resharing it.

You can take it a step further by reporting the social post. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and others make it easy to report or flag posts for removal for a variety of reasons.

Help friends and family become savvy at spotting problematic articles by having conversations with them and sharing trusted resources like Mozilla’s Misinfo Monday series which helps with how to spot misinformation, talk to others about it and more.

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