10 Ways to Spot Disinformation on the Internet

Mike Ellison:

With smartphone technology and social media, people have a wealth of information right at their fingertips.

But as we spend more time online, we’re exposed to more conspiracies, scams, and misinformation. And it can be hard to know what’s true and what isn’t.

Today, we’ll discuss some tips and resources for determining fact from fiction online. That’s coming up next.

Hi, I’m Mike Ellison, with An AARP Take on Today

Mike Ellison:

Raise your hand if you’re spending at least a little more time on social media these days.

Alex Mahadevan:

With coronavirus and the election, false information online — and being able to identify it — is a matter of life, death and democracy, right now.

Mike Ellison:

Americans are online more than ever before nowadays — especially older Americans. According to an AARP survey, over 75% of adults ages 50 and older use social media on a regular basis.

Alex Mahadevan:

We realized there’s going to be a lot of misinformation that could be a matter of life and death, for an extremely vulnerable population.

Mike Ellison:

Alex Mahadevan is a senior reporter for MediaWise, which is a non-profit, non-partisan initiative created by The Poynter Institute to help people of all ages spot fact from fiction online.

While MediaWise has primarily focused on teenagers, they have now launched a program called “MediaWise for Seniors” to equip people 50 and older with the skills to navigate misinformation about politics, health and other critical topics.

Misinformation often comes in the form of widely-shared social media posts. You might’ve come across one and didn’t even notice — or maybe it made your blood boil a bit.

Alex Mahadevan:

If you see a post that makes you anxious, or disgusted, surprised, even something that really just makes you laugh out loud, and you feel that deep emotional ping, that’s a red flag that you might want to stop and check it out.

Mike Ellison:

To give you a sense of what he’s talking about, here’s a clip from a MediaWise and AARP webinar called Sorting Fact From Fiction. It’s a free, 30-minute course that Mahadevan co-hosted that’ll help you stay one step ahead of misinformation like “Tom Hanks hates cake.” You’ll see what I mean in a minute. You can find the course at AARP dot org slash Fact Tracker.

Commercial:

Ever wonder how misleading information spreads on the internet? Hanks hates cakes! Let’s boycott his movies. Let’s boycott cake! Hank hates cakes? It’s silly and not true — that we know — but misinformation is not always quite so harmless.

Alex Mahadevan:

And unfortunately, because we are humans, we’re also less likely to actually check it out because we feel that emotion and then boom, I want to share it. And-.

Mike Ellison:

Yeah.

Alex Mahadevan:

I’m plenty guilty of sharing before checking it out. So, that’s the red flags. One really specific one that I actually see a lot of older Americans fall for, from time to time, are social media posts that are screenshotted and shared across different platforms. That’s another red flag, because-

Mike Ellison:

Right.

Alex Mahadevan:

… tweet and post it on Facebook, and vice versa. So those are the big red flags.

Mike Ellison:

So how does misinformation typically circulate among adults who are 50 and older?

Alex Mahadevan:

So there are lots of ways. And I think that’s been one of the challenges is really trying to identify the main sources of misinformation. And really what you’re seeing is not just chain emails, I think a lot of people had thought about these chain emails that older Americans are getting. That’s part of it. That’s definitely a part of it. I’ve seen voicemails and text messages that contain false information, but really the bulk of it now is you’re seeing a generation that was used to getting news from the newspaper in the morning and the evening broadcast, and now they’re all on social media. There’s way more older Americans on Facebook and on social media and than I thought before starting this project. And so really that’s where I think they’re seeing the bulk of this misinformation because one, things can spread so fast on social media, and two, because of the way the algorithms surface posts that make us feel surprised, disgusted, anxious. So you see a lot of this content spread a lot faster on social media.

Mike Ellison:

Beyond recognizing that a post makes you emotional, what can people do to find out if something they’re reading is false?

Alex Mahadevan:

When we started out with the whole project, we had partnered with a Stanford history education group and they basically studied fact checkers and found out why fact checkers are so good at identifying false information, a hundred percent of the time. They’re better than PhD students. They’re better than Stanford professors. It really just comes down to answering three questions. One, who’s behind the information? Think about which profile posted it. Think about what group posted it, who sits on the board of directors of this group. Is it trustworthy. Two, what is the evidence? Does the post actually cite any evidence? Are there any links to any sources? That’s also a red flag, if you see a post with no sources cited, or evidence, or anything, that really should make you stop for a second.

Alex Mahadevan:

And finally, and I think most importantly, is what are other sources saying? I think we’re spending a lot of time online, and I think humans have a tendency to, when they read something, read it and then just move on, accept what it is and move on. You’re spending all this time online anyways, you might as well open a new window and search for more information about what you just read.

Mike Ellison:

Why do people create misinformation in the first place? What’s the intention?

Alex Mahadevan: Why it’s created? There are a lot of reasons. One, it might be a politician, whether domestic or a foreign government, trying to create false information to influence the way someone feels about an issue.

Mike Ellison:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Alex Mahadevan:

The same people might be creating disination to cause chaos, to push us towards being more polarized, unable to have civil discussions. We saw that during the 2016 election, there’s plenty of evidence that Russia was creating these Facebook pages that were basically designed to stoke our anger. And they were both sides. They were creating two different sides. They actually, at one point, got a protest to happen, in real life, based on a fake Facebook page. So to sow discord and create chaos, but then, really anything, I think nowadays, is money, it can come down to money.

Alex Mahadevan:

So there are people who create fake videos on YouTube. There was a funny YouTube video that came out that I’m sure you probably remember, pizza rat. It was a rat that was filmed carrying a slice of pizza in New York, and it was actually, it was a fake video, but it racked up millions and millions of views, which means it sold lots and lots of advertisements. So the person who- [crosstalk].

Mike Ellison:

I see.

Alex Mahadevan:

… made a lot of money. So there’s that. There are people who have created false local news websites, that they just literally just put false news on, and it makes you hit click it. The things circulate on Facebook really quick and generate a lot of quick clicks that are generating more money for advertisers. So those are really the main reasons people create miss or disinformation-

Mike Ellison:

What is considered a reputable source?

Alex Mahadevan:

For example, when it comes to coronavirus information. Whenever we do a fact check or something, whenever we identify a false claim going around, the first thing we do is telling people to go to the world health organization’s website on coronavirus. Go to the CDC’s dashboard on coronavirus. Ultimately, you want to go straight to the source, but also traditional media outlets, the Washington post, New York times, your local paper, I think people don’t really understand the plight of local papers right now. I’m sure you do. They are disappearing like crazy, but your local newspaper. So here in St. Petersburg, our local paper is the Tampa Bay times, that’s what I would say is a really reputable source. The key though is reading across sources. So when I want to catch up on the latest coronavirus data, that’s out there, I’ll go to the Tampa Bay times first. I’ll go to the Washington post. I’ll go to the New York times. I might go to NBC news, see what’s going on there. The trick is reading a variety of sources.

Mike Ellison:

Where can we find media literacy training online?

Alex Mahadevan:

In term of where to find media literacy training online, honestly the best place is poynter.org/mediawise-for-seniors. And if you go there you’ll find a really cool course that will help you fact check everything you see on the internet. It’ll take you about an hour or so and it’s totally free thanks to funding from Facebook. Now, we also when we originally launched MediaWise partnered with Stanford History Education Group to launch the civic online reasoning curriculuum. So if you just head to cor.stanford.edu you can check out the civic online reasoning ciricuulum.

Mike Ellison:

What do you do if you have friends or family members who were sharing misinformation on social media? Because as you said in most cases we’re not doing knowing that we’re spreading this information.

Alex Mahadevan:

Yeah. And that’s actually a big piece of this too, because I think really, I think the sharing of misinformation and the polarization right now has really made it some family gatherings tense. I know we’re not going to be at the Thanksgiving dinner table, physically for most people this year, but remotely there are some great ways to talk to people when you know they’re sharing misinformation. One, don’t do it in public, do it in private. You want to think about whether or not it’s worth it, is the misinformation they’re sharing harmful, or it is totally harmless and whatever.

Mike Ellison:

Right.

Alex Mahadevan:

You want- [crosstalk 00:00:27:51].

Mike Ellison:

You don’t want to call them out in the comment section.

Alex Mahadevan:

Yeah. Definitely not. You want to approach it with humility and assume best intentions, because the big thing that I want to get across today too, is that, if someone shares misinformation they’re not a bad person. Many times they’re sharing… 99% of the times they’re sharing misinformation is because they are good people, they want to help, they’re sharing something that they think is true and will be helpful. So going in with assuming good intentions, and then doing some of the things that we talked about today, and just telling them, Hey, you just shared this meme about coronavirus, here’s what I did. I went ahead and I did a Google search and I found this article from the CDC that says that’s actually incorrect. Walking them through the fact checking process. And cutting your losses, being prepared to let go and say, someone’s going to believe what they’re going to believe, and you can only do your best.

Mike Ellison:

Thank you for your efforts in what you’re doing and working to empower all of us, really appreciate it.

Alex Mahadevan:

Well, thanks for having me. And I hope everyone listening learned some great fact checking tools.

Mike Ellison:

Alex Mahadevan is a senior multimedia report for the Poynter Institute’s MediaWise project. You can find more information and free online courses at Poynter dot org slash MediaWise and AARP dot org slash fact tracker.

If you liked this episode, please comment on our podcast page at AARP dot Org slash Podcasts, or email us at NewsPodcast at AARP dot Org.

Thanks to our news team, Producers Colby Nelson and Danny Alarcon.

Production Assistant, Brigid Lowney.

Engineer, Julio Gonzalez.

Executive Producer, Jason Young.

And of course my Co-Hosts, Bob Edwards and Wilma Consul.

For an AARP Take on Today, I’m Mike Ellison. Thanks for listening. Stay safe, and be encouraged.

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