As news circulates of Russia’s intentions for interference in the 2020 election, Americans would be wise to become more skeptical of information circulated through social media networks. Though Russia relies on troll factories and armies of bots, much of this disinformation we see circulating is actually generated and circulated by Americans at home.
To improve your ability to determine whether the information you’re about to like or share is real, it’s best to approach with a healthy degree of skepticism. Below is a guide with some pointers on how to avoid becoming a weapon in the growing disinformation war.
Where did the information come from?
Ask yourself, what is the source? How/where did that source acquire its information?
Have you heard of the website the information is posted on? Is there any information about who owns it? Try googling the name of the website to see if there is any information on its legitimacy. What is its reputation?
Is it a Facebook group? Who owns it? The people running Facebook groups may not actually be who they say they are. For instance, military veterans are often targeted by fake veterans groups on Facebook, as indicated in a recent report by the real Vietnam Veterans of America organization. Russian trolls often masquerade as official American organizations on social media, so exercise caution.
Photos can also be presented out of context. Google reverse image search can be a useful tool for determining the original source of a photo, including when it was first posted. Just click the camera icon to do it.
Websites from either political extreme are not trustworthy. RT and Sputnik are Russian propaganda websites. Avoid health news and science news from sites that are not well-established, credible sites backed by a trustworthy organization. Use only medical/scientific information from well-known scientific or medical health sites.
For pandemic related info, especially as the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads, check the Center for Disease Control. Do not trust information circulating about the coronavirus without confirming it has come from the original medical source it claims to come from.
Use a fact checker
Use an established, well-known fact checker to quickly determine whether information is real. Fact checkers cut the major work out for you, documenting the reasoning that leads them to confirm whether something is real or fake. Good fact checking websites present sources and evidence that lead them to their conclusions. Checking them first will often save you some trouble. Some examples include Snopes, FactCheck.org, the Washington Post Fact Checker, and Politifact. Media Bias Fact Check can be useful for determining the potential bias or legitimacy of a news source.
Check to see if others are also sharing this information. Are those sources trustworthy? The more information is corroborated by traditional trustworthy sources, the more legitimate the information may be. Anyone can post information on the internet, saying almost anything. If there aren’t any mainstream established entities sharing the information, it is probably not credible because it can’t be substantiated with evidence. If only one source is reporting this, it is less likely to be legitimate. Just because a trusted friend shares it does not mean it is legitimate. Modern disinformation tactics through social media rely precisely on your friends sharing the content.
Is it alarmist or sensational?
“Sky is falling” alarmism may be exciting, and it may be sensational, and that often means it’s not true. Pause, wait to see what more mainstream sources say (corroborate!)—don’t get caught spreading a false alarm. If it’s a sensationalist story about a politician, exercise caution. Sensational attacks against politicians are often used to stir hatred and animosity. While politicians often do unsavory things, they should be held to account for those actual acts, but not the made-up ones.
Is it a meme?
Memes are one of the most popular methods of spreading disinformation online. Designed to be striking in impact and cause an emotional reaction, memes are pictures or photos, usually containing text, that are simple in message. They encourage users to like or share in order to rapidly spread. Don’t do it unless you have confirmed that the information is accurate.
Is there a quote from a famous personality?
Do not trust “memes” that include a quote next to a famous person’s face. These are often wrong in terms of context, attribution, or even in their entirety. Do the research to confirm the original source of the quote. Websites that are repositories for quotes from famous people are frequently wrong and contain misattributions. Try searching for the quote you’ve found against a fact checking website.
Does the information agree with you?
Are you having an emotional reaction that affirms your inner feelings? Disinformation is often designed to create feelings of self-affirmation, making you less receptive to information you disagree with but which may actually be important or more correct. Russia’s online troll factory has focused heavily on growing divisions in American society, often with material designed to make people feel good about their own preconceptions or beliefs, but become more closed off to others. Challenge yourself and think outside your own bubble. Don’t necessarily delete “friends” you might disagree with.
Is it hateful?
If the information negatively generalizes a population on account of religion, ethnicity, culture, sex or gender, it’s probably false. Don’t fall into this trap. There is a great deal of work remaining to be done on race relations and equity in the US, so be careful about information that belittles minorities. This also applies to vilification of political parties. Name calling and dehumanization is commonly used by those seeking to sew disinformation. Diversity is a strength.
Check the URL
URLs are the web addresses that allow users to access a website. While this doesn’t apply to memes, it certainly applies to website. Fake websites that look like trustworthy news sources are often created with the intention of tricking the user. For instance, someone may attempt to deceive a Washiton Post reader viewer by creating a website called f.oxnews.com instead of foxnews.com. Notice the misplaced dot at the beginning? Make sure the URL is legitimate by double checking the spelling. Being sure may help save you from malware like viruses or ransomware as well.
Ground yourself in reality.
Vaccines work. Climate change is real. The earth is round. 9/11 was a terrorist act committed by Al Qaeda. There are such things as objective facts. Russian disinformation strategy is aimed at getting you to “question more,” and questioning the things that are objectively true falls into their goal of clouding any sense of reality. Russian strategy aims to destroy the concept of truth. This is different than exercising a healthy skepticism. The successful functioning of a democracy is absolutely dependent upon the ability to agree on a common set of facts. Don’t lose that grounding. Your ability to make the decisions that will affect your lives and others depends on it.
As the amount of disinformation on the web grows, we are likely to see more impressive efforts to deceive the American public. The sophistication and realism of disinformation is likely to increase, particularly as things like “deep fakes” become more easily accessible. To avoid becoming an unwilling soldier on the wrong side of the disinformation war, click with caution. It’ll take a bit of work on your part, but it’s worth it to protect our democracy.