Welp, you called it. From the moment you started typing “Facebook.com” you knew this would happen. A friend on your timeline passionately shared a news story that is definitely false. Oh boy.
But hey! At least you spotted it. You talked to them about it and realized that they didn’t mean to share something misleading — they were simply fooled by a crafty headline and a picture that, they thought, told them everything they needed to know. You won’t be able to spot every friend in your feed sharing misleading info, so for them there’s this: our short guide of things to keep in mind before accidentally contributing to the spread of misinformation.
The first thing to keep in mind when you’re on social media and scroll past a piece of news is that misinformation likes to prey on our emotions. Have you ever shared an article before reading the whole thing? It’s because your emotions about the article led you astray. “It’s important to take a beat,” says Ebonee Rice, VP of the News Literacy Project’s educator network. “When you see a piece of news that causes you to have an emotional reaction, such as laughter, anger or sorrow, take a minute. If something causes a visceral reaction, pause before your emotions take over and you share something immediately.” We’ve seen organizations like the United Nations tout similar strategies with its Share Verified campaign, encouraging people to take a pause before sharing something they’re passionate about.
(Did you share this story without reading it first? We’re afraid to find out.)
Say you took a breather before sharing a story. Maybe you even did something as unhinged as read the entire article (gasp). So what should you do next? Scroll through the comments.
Sometimes — not every time, but sometimes — other readers have done some of the fact-checking work for you. “People usually say, ‘whatever you do, don’t look at the comments,’ but in reality, it can be a great fact-checking resource,” says Rice. You should always look into a story for yourself but sometimes, Rice argues, the people in the comments have done some of that work for you. “There are times where I’ve read stories that say, ‘people aren’t social distancing,’ for example, and show photo evidence. But in the comments, someone mentions how the photo is actually from a concert many years ago — that it has nothing to do with the covid-19 pandemic.” There are many ways to fool a reader. If it isn’t the resurfacing of old photos, it’s the use of perspective tricks: BuzzFeed News and the photo site PetaPixel provide examples showing just how easy it is to make a socially-distanced situation look not very distanced at all.
After browsing through the comments, it’s time to do a few searches yourself. “Be suspicious of everything,” says Kaitlyn Jakola, Gizmodo managing editor and instructor of copyediting/fact-checking at NYU. “Even if something fits in with your world view and it seems like it makes sense, don’t take it at face value.” According to Jakola, doing your own research is a must before you can share it for the next person to read.
How do you make sure what you’re reading is trustworthy? That part depends on what the story is about. “Look for or ask for the source, use reverse image search to determine where a photo is from, do a quick search about the story,” says Rice. (For the uninitiated, reverse image search is the opposite of an image search — instead of looking for a photo, you have the photo and are looking for the sites that feature it. Tools like Google and TinEye offer this.) “Doing these will help you avoid the risk of sharing information that isn’t true. All of this takes less than a minute.”
Even before doing your own research, there are things to look out for that should start to make you skeptical. “Look for broad generalizations,” says Jakola. She notes that most political issues can’t be distilled into a single picture or paragraph. “Keep an eye out for numbers and quotes presented without context and overly simplistic explanations that lack nuance.”
If “do your own research” becomes a recurring theme in this series, it’s because you should! Rice notes, like many others, that it will always be on readers to put in a little effort to look into a story before blindly liking, commenting, or sharing. But Rice’s biggest tip is to know what you’re getting yourself into when you come across an article on your newsfeed. “A lot of sites really know how to write clickbait,” says Rice. “Titles of articles are very clever. Readers are getting smarter when it comes to knowing that a publication will choose a juicy title that speaks to a certain type of audience who will share without reading, even if the contents of that article don’t match its headline.”
So how can you make sure you don’t share something that’s misleading or even flat out wrong? “Whenever you’re emotional about something, just don’t share it in the moment,” says Rice. “If you see an article that looks really interesting to you, bookmark it until you have the time to read through it. It’s not going anywhere!”