The rise of internet and social media has brought a surge in misinformation that can travel at the speed of a finger click on the “share” button.
And there’s no time like an election season to hone your critical thinking skills and ensure you don’t get duped.
The Arizona Republic spoke with two experts on misinformation, Julie Smith of Webster University in St. Louis and Scott Ruston of Arizona State University, to build a 5-step guide on how you can quickly fact check information.
Step 1: Start with a gut check on emotions
It isn’t practical to fact check your entire social media feed, so before you can debunk, you need to figure out what’s worth the effort.
Start with a gut check on your emotions. If you feel extremely angry, confused or upset after reading or watching something, it could be because that article, video or photo was designed to make in-the-moment critical thinking harder.
“That message was probably designed specifically to create that extreme emotion,” Smith said. “So, that is the first check that you should check it for authenticity, is if it really makes you worked up about something.”
From there, pay attention to what evidence the author, creator or poster offers to assert their claim. A lack of evidence or a poster asserting evidence exists but not offering a clear citation or link is a red flag that means you should do some digging, Ruston said.
Smith said you also should also keep an eye out for strange URLs, misspelled words and messages written entirely in capital letters. BE SKEPTICAL WHEN A POST USES ALL CAPS TO GRAB ATTENTION.
Step 2: Gather some evidence
To begin debunking, you’ll want to start collecting evidence.
To do it, you don’t want to rely on the source of the information, Ruston said. Instead, he and Smith recommend that you use a search engine to see if you can find other sources.
“You want to do something called lateral reading,” Smith said. “If you see something that seems really weird, check other websites to see if anyone else is talking about it.”
If multiple trustworthy media outlets are reporting the information or you see peer-reviewed research that backs it up, the information is probably true. If you can’t find more than a handful of social media posts parroting the information, that likely means it isn’t accurate.
“Can you follow that evidence trail, not by the trail that the original article or tweet or Facebook post provided for you, but can you do it independently?” Ruston asked. “If you can get to the same evidence that the person sharing the information has gotten to but through a different means, that increases the legitimacy of what you’re reading.”
If you’re examining an image, you can use a reverse image search to ensure the photo hasn’t been reused or taken out of context, Smith said. There also are online tools that will extract the EXIF data from the file. That data, captured when an image is taken, can tell you when and where when the photo was snapped, what type of camera was used and other useful information.
Step 3: Where is the post coming from?
Smith and Ruston say it’s important to think strategically and critically about information that you see in your social media feed.
“Understand what the potential motivation or agenda of a particular purveyor of information might be,” Ruston said.
To examine the source:
- Look at the name of the poster on social media and compare it to their actual username.
- Look at the date the account was created, any linked websites and the account bio or description.
If you run across misinformation from a friend or family member, Smith says you should speak with them privately about it. You don’t want the conversation to be accusatory, she said. Instead, focus on asking questions to ease into the discussion, like asking where they got the information.
“Most people are convinced that they are correct and anyone who confronts them with a different fact, they’re just going to double down,” Smith said.
Step 4: Is it a trusted source?
The best way to debunk misinformation is to read widely and avoid falling into it in the first place, Ruston said.
You can do that by finding a variety of news sources that you trust. Reliable media outlets will name their sources, Smith said. If a source if offered anonymity, a trustworthy media organization will disclose that in a story and explain why. Solid news outlets will disclose when an article or video is news, analysis or opinion.
Trusted news organizations will also include bylines on their articles and offer ways for readers, viewers or listeners to get in touch with their journalists. They’ll follow a set of publicly posted ethical principles and guidelines to ensure their reporting is fair and accurate.
Once you’ve cultivated a wide variety of sources, it’s important that you read beyond the headline, Smith said.
Step 5: Context and honesty matter
Ruston and Smith both acknowledged that information is not always entirely true or entirely false.
Sometimes it comes in shades of gray, and there’s no exact checklist for determining truth, Ruston said.
“It’s not like if three characteristics line up, it’s therefore disinformation and if only two, or one, or zero of these characteristics are present, it’s therefore truth,” he said. “That’s not the way it works.”
Often, information is factually correct, but is simply presented without good context. Smith said it’s a byproduct of a fast-paced world.
“Our attention spans are such that we are not interested in context,” Smith said. “We want the turn and burn. So, encouraging people to look for the context is a great step.”
If you run across and accidentally share misinformation, the experts say you shouldn’t feel ashamed.
“We’re living in a time of information glut where it’s impossible to tell what’s real, meaningful, valid or true because there’s so much of it,” Smith said. “So, we need to forgive ourselves when that happens.”
She and Ruston recommend removing the information from your profile as soon as possible and being honest and upfront about why you deleted it.
“The whole idea is for us to try to clean up the trash together as a community,” Smith said.
Sasha Hupka covers Maricopa County and regional issues for The Arizona Republic with a focus on voting and democracy. Do you have a tip about election misinformation or questions about voting? Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @SashaHupka.