Being online has pretty much become part of everyday life for many people around the world. Whether it’s to remain connected to loved ones (no matter how far apart), share our adventures and experiences or access and exchange significant information/news events; the internet and social media have the power to quickly amplify and influence many people.
Unfortunately, this includes vast amounts of false, inaccurate and parody content (misinformation); which can turn into something more insidious (disinformation) when deliberately created and distributed to mislead, spread fear and fuel suspicion. However, regardless whether something is shared erroneously or not; both forms successfully disseminate unreliable, deceptive and/or inflammatory information.
As a communication mechanism, messaging of this kind doesn’t require those distributing it to be adequately informed to succeed; it’s built on engagement (likes, comments, shares) which is the exact same premise of social media — both give energy to each other. Online platforms have the power to shape personal beliefs, behaviours and attitudes; this is why misinformation and disinformation represent such a valuable resource to those looking to sustain or leverage influence (most notably within politics).
The blossoming of false and unreliable news on the internet is a cultural, political, and technological phenomenon that’s hard to get your head around, let alone tackle. Conspiracy theories, misinformation, and disinformation run rampant on the internet, and it’s often difficult for people to tell what is true and what’s not. | America’s Growing Fake News Problem – Vox
Distributing incorrect material through online networks (knowingly or not) is considerably easier to do once you realize how pervasive it is. Accessing and sharing falsehoods can happen through almost any medium, including:
- Factually misleading or inaccurate memes.
- Social media posts that share unsubstantiated rumours and hoaxes.
- Stories from satire or parody sites and accounts that get mistakenly distributed as fact.
- Video, image and audio manipulation via artificial-intelligence (commonly known as deepfakes).
- Sites that mimic legitimate news sources to scam/push fabricated information.
- Highly partisan sites, journalists and influencers that typically fail to provide balanced, factual reporting (you can check for credibility and media bias here).
- Any entity, official or individual that advances and promotes repeatedly debunked research, data and/or news articles.
Why Do People Share Misinformation and Disinformation?
We all want to be involved in key social and cultural information; interacting with topics of interest or things that impact our daily lives. We foster communities based on these connections and discover meaning/purpose through them; often guiding or shaping our viewpoints, actions and experiences. We’re ripe for seeking out or being targeted by marketing and messaging that either unites or divides us through common goals and philosophies. Some individuals sadly lean towards being motivated or persuaded by who or what they hate rather than what they can build.
We have to accept that disinformation, in particular — because of its conscious effort to mislead and incite a specific response, but also misinformation (even when it’s an honest mistake) can be propagated by anyone using their online presence; including individuals you may know or respect, governments and state-backed entities or even extremist/hate groups. Simply put, if we can be convinced that others accept something as fact or represents a balanced viewpoint/argument; we’re more willing to believe and replicate it as accurate ourselves. Reasons for sharing misinformation and disinformation can include:
- Incorrectly believing we don’t possess the time (or capacity) to evaluate source credibility.
- Expecting others to have established authenticity and accuracy before they presented something online.
- Relying on plausibility; because something sounds right it gets distributed without fact-checking it first.
- Allowing something that plays into our own biases or confirms a preferred narrative (even though we’re aware it’s unreliable).
What Are The Possible Dangers Of Circulating Inaccurate Or False Information?
There are some very real consequences that cannot be ignored, especially when individuals, communities or social systems are put at risk. Misinformation and disinformation are used to modify people’s beliefs and attitudes so that they might change their behaviours, which can be a positive thing — but in some instances it leads to harassment or even violence.
With the vast numbers of people who exist on/use the internet; a simple rumour or joke about someone can lead to a mass pile on of humiliation or abuse — leading to levels of cyberbullying, for example, that goes far beyond what anyone should be expected to process. Disinformation can also lead to:
- Targetted campaigns of hate and/or discrimination focused on specific people or groups. A recent example of this is the deliberately distorted story that schools in the U.S. are providing cat litter boxes for children who identify as feline/furries — a not so subtle anti-LGBTQ+ attack on self-identification, pronouns and bathroom use based on gender identity (not sex assigned at birth). A small number of schools occasionally provide classrooms with buckets of cat litter, but not for the completely fabricated reason outlined above — these buckets are for students to use when they’re in lockdown because of an active shooter in their school and they can’t access restrooms (a truly gut-wrenching, awful aspect of American life).
- Manufacturing conspiracy theories that encourage harassment and intimidation of individuals or community members — often for personal gain that either boosts prominence/notoriety or political/monetary power. A strategy, for example, utilized by Alex Jones who manipulated his significant online presence to spread lies about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. He created, repeated and sustained a conspiracy theory that the twenty children and six adults who died were actors in a hoax. As a result, the families of the victims were tormented, stalked and threatened for years by Jones’ alt-right/fake news followers — which hasn’t stopped despite a lawsuit proving he lied.
- Inciting violence to advance personal, political or social control (a tactic often used to weaken democracy). Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the repeated lie pushed by outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump in 2020 that the election was stolen from him via widespread voter fraud. This calculated and persistent falsehood ultimately lead to Trump’s supporters attacking the Capitol on January 6th, 2021, to keep him in power; an attempt to subvert the formalization of then President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
Misinformation destroys trust. When you destroy trust, you destroy the bonds that hold society together. | The One Idea That Saves The World: A Message of Hope in a Time of Crisis – Laurence Overmire
The impacts of malicious or misrepresented information don’t stop with the aforementioned examples either; it filters through many issues. From fueling various levels and types of misogyny, prejudice and discrimination to spreading potentially harmful, inaccurate or false health and science guidance; things like this shouldn’t go unchecked.
So, How Do You Identify Misinformation And Disinformation?
There’s no guarantee we’ll be effective at catching every distorted or spurious article, social media post or hot take; some things are bound to occasionally slip through. However, we can improve our odds of sharing genuine news and knowledge with others if we become more adept at recognizing deception.
Here are five ways to spot misinformation and disinformation on the internet:
- Only share what you’ve actually read; headlines can be misleading or designed to trigger an emotional response — they may not even cover what the caption or header describes.
- Check author/poster credibility; they may be funded or paid to amplify certain viewpoints or be part of groups that deliberately spread harmful rhetoric.
- Consider the source; find out if it’s trustworthy, balanced and evidence-based or satire/fake news. Click away from the story to investigate by searching for it on a fact-checking website.
- Determine if supporting links or quotes are taken out of context/edited to falsely back up key points. For photos, do a reverse image search to see if it has been manipulated or misrepresented.
- Check your biases: consider whether or not your own beliefs are impairing your judgment.
This may seem time consuming at first, but after a while we can become extremely proficient at developing an instinct for when we’re being misled; certain things will raise questions, and it’s always worth following our gut. Reviewing disinformation is a muscle we need to exercise as often as we can; safeguarding the truth should be a priority for everyone who values it.
Have you ever been caught out by misinformation? How do you combat disinformation?