June 24, 2020 — 6:30 p.m. EST
Back when Facebook began, it was mostly a fun way for friends to share pictures, post status updates about their lives, and interact directly on each other’s “walls.” These days, with so much going on in the world, these personal posts have turned into sharing articles about political views, the novel coronavirus, and protests. The timeline can look like just another news source. But it’s important to realize that not all articles and news is reliable just because it’s posted on someone’s timeline.
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There is one key difference between going straight to trusted news websites (at least the good ones) and whatever’s on your timeline: fact checking. Popular news sources have a team checking the validity of what they broadcast to the public. Your second cousin’s best friend from college probably does not. In fact, Facebook has recently deleted hundreds of thousands of posts containing misinformation and has labeled 40 million posts with warnings that the content may be false. Facebook is specifically mentioned because according to a recent study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, Nature Human Behavior, it spreads more fake news than Google, Twitter, and AOL. This study showed that Facebook was the referrer site for untrustworthy news sources over 15% of the time, compared to 3.3% for Google and 1% for Twitter.
This spread of misinformation has become such an issue during the COVID-19 pandemic that Facebook has taken some unprecedented steps to quell it. Facebook will now show people who engaged with false content messages that debunk those claims based on fact-checking efforts by the WHO. To identify these false content messages, Facebook is using both technology and human review to remove fake accounts and are working with certified third party fact checkers. Facebook will also show false news stories lower in the news feed to reduce the number of people who see it — and take action against repeat offenders by reducing their distribution and ability to advertise if they continue spreading misinformation.
How You Can Spot Fake Articles
Still, it is very difficult to fully scrub a social media site clean from false facts and misleading articles, therefore, there may likely never be a point where you can completely trust everything you see posted online. Campaign group Avaaz recently discovered that over 40% of the coronavirus-related misinformation it found on Facebook (that had already been debunked by fact-checking organizations) was still on the site, despite Facebook knowing that these posts were fake. Therefore, it falls on us — the readers and information consumers — to practice what experts are calling “information hygiene.” Information hygiene refers to the act of filtering and selectively sharing information in an effort to stop the spread of misinformation. There are various ways to practice information hygiene, and the BBC recently shared some great tips to help recognize and stop the spread of bad information online. Here are more ways you can be your own fake news detective.
Don’t Panic Post
If something makes you emotional or upset, don’t panic-post and then immediately forget you ever saw it. If there’s an article discussing shocking things about COVID-19, make sure to check for factual credits, like the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A reputable site will never list a fact without also citing the correct source.
Check The Sources
Does this post come from a website you’re familiar with? Does it seem more emotionally charged rather than fact-based? News sources like CNN, MSNBC, and NBC will always label an article that is the writer’s opinion and credit an expert when reporting a fact. If the article you see online comes from a website you’ve never heard of, click in to explore the rest of the site and take a close look at the "about" page. If something seems off, it likely is.
Look Closely at Logos & Images
These days, it's easy to photoshop a CNN heading on aunt Karen’s midnight Facebook post and call it news. It is also easy to impersonate official accounts with a closely worded Twitter handle or website. Always check known and verified accounts and websites. If the article is hard to find on Google, it’s most likely a fake.
Check Your Fear Factor
These are the posts that tend to go viral, and tend to be engineered that way. If you feel like you left an article feeling afraid or fearful without being presented with any facts, you may have just read a piece that was produced to incite fear and do little else. It’s important to also understand the potential intent behind producing fear-based content. FBI officials have repeatedly confirmed that there is strong evidence that Russia produces fake news on social media platforms to confuse Americans and incite anger and fear.
Fact-Check More Than One Point In An Article
Sometimes inaccurate advice is hidden amongst helpful and accurate tips. This makes the reader believe that all the information in the post is truthful, and may lead us down the path of misinformation. Checking each piece of advice is a good way to weed out these types of posts.
Finally, if you don’t know if something is true, don’t share it. Sharing has an exponential affect; if you share a post, two of your friends may share it, and two of their friends may share it, and before you know it, the post has hundreds of shares. If this post contains misinformation, this is hundreds of people who may be misled. The same goes for the opposite; if you avoid sharing a post that you have investigated and deemed possibly false, you may have protected people from the same fate.
Misinformation can spread just like a virus. We know the importance of practicing hand hygiene to stop the spread of COVID-19. Similarly, it is important to practice information hygiene to stop the spread of misinformation.