Misleading Information on Social Media: How to identify fake news
The spread of misinformation online has influenced elections and hyped our fears during the pandemic, so let’s get smart about what we see on the web
We’ve all heard the term ‘fake news’, but how attuned are we to it? While wild statements made by a president on his way out of office about a rigged election are easy to spot, posts shared by friends on Facebook or forwarded WhatsApp messages can be harder to identify.
In recent years, misinformation spread online has become particularly dangerous. It has impacted how we voted for Brexit, for example, with both sides of the campaign having to backtrack from bold statements made without hard facts.
At the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, too, false rumours relating to everything from inaccurate medical advice to wild conspiracy theories about Bill Gates planning to use the vaccine as a way to control people were flying around the internet in huge volumes.
We are now spending more time online than ever. According to data from Ofcom, the amount of time UK residents are spending online in January has increased across all age groups when compared to this time last year. This makes it all the more important that we evaluate the information we see online, and ask ourselves whether it is true or false.
The easiest way to avoid fake news is to check your source – is it published by a trusted website or organisation? As we battle against misinformation online, many people are choosing to visit trusted sources on the internet, and as such online readership for all the major news outlets has increased year on year, according to Ofcom. The same study shows that the number of visitors to official British government websites – which you can authenticate by looking for the gov.uk address – hit a peak of 29.2 million in 2020. At the start of last year, before Coronavirus hit, visitor numbers were 19.9 million.
If you see a story published or shared by a source you don’t know, and you are unsure whether it is true, try looking for it on a reputable news source. If it is a serious story, then it will have been picked up and reported by an outlet like the BBC or the Guardian or The Financial Times. These are organisations that would not publish a story without checking out all the facts and verifying them, or flagging up parts of the story that might be in question, by using words such as ‘unsubstantiated’, ‘rumours’ or ‘suggested’. These stories will also tell you whether claims have been confirmed by a source by providing a quote from them, or highlighting that a company or a person has ‘declined to comment’ or ‘was unavailable for comment’.
On social media, misinformation gets murkier. Accounts will often share exaggerated or false stories or claims to build their following or drive traffic to websites – this practice is known as ‘click bait’. When a juicy story pops up in your feed, it can be hard to ignore. The temptation is to click on it, even if you feel it is fake, or even to share it. A study by researchers Andrew Chadwick and Cristian Vaccari claims that 24.8% of Brits have shared a story online even though they knew or suspected it to be fake news.
If you are still unsure about a piece of information you have found online, the best thing to do is slow down and ask yourself some questions: who is sharing this, why are they sharing this, does this seem reasonable? Social media platforms are starting to implement strategies to block fake news – such as Twitter’s flagging up of Donald Trump’s questionable content before it eventually blocked him – but for now, the best defence against misinformation online is you. So, the next time you see something questionable, stop, think and ask yourself, do I really believe this?