Misinfo Monday: How to Spot Misinformation Like The Pros

Xavier Harding

By Xavier Harding | Aug. 3, 2020 | Advocacy

Misinfo Monday

— Misinfo Monday is a weekly series by Mozilla where we give you the tools, tips and tricks needed to cut the crap and find the truth. For more, check back weekly on our blog or on our Instagram. —

It's always important to cut the crap, but first you must spot the crap. Misleading news content, or misinformation as the experts call it, is all around us — in our phones and on our feeds; in our timelines and on our screens. News meant to mislead us has an annoying habit of quickly making its way from social media to the minds and mouths of our racist uncles. The easiest way you can limit the spread of fake news is to stop sharing it yourself, but how can you tell what’s true from what’s trash?

We’re dealing with journalism, so we spoke with a journalist. We asked Kaitlyn Jakola, managing editor of Gizmodo, about how she vets the stories that come across her desk. Why trust her? Before Gizmodo, she was one of the managing editors at Business Insider and before that led Mic’s copy team. At NYU, she teaches a course on copy-editing and fact-checking news stories.

Jakola knows her stuff. Here’s her advice.

⚠️ First off, follow the money

When reading the news, keep in mind who’s paying for the story and who’s funding the organization. Figure out who wrote this story and why. This doesn’t always tell the entire story of why a certain site is telling a certain story but it’s always worth keeping in mind, Jakola says.

⚠️ Check for sources, then vet the sources

This story cites experts. Great! None are worth trusting. Yikes!

Just because a story has sources (the story does have sources, right?) doesn’t always mean those sources are trustworthy. Do the professors cited actually teach at the universities they say they do? Have the scientists cited actually written the papers they claim to have written? Make sure!

It’ll help to figure out who else has trusted this source in the past. “See where else these experts have been quoted before,” Jakola says. “Though keep in mind this can go both ways. There are some people who make their whole career out of making media appearances and not doing any of the work. On the other hand, you have folks like Dr. Anthony Fauci who does the work and has been trusted by journalists for decades.”

Make sure a story’s sources are trustworthy. If the story doesn’t have sources at all, well then that’s a whole other problem.

⚠️ Run the numbers

As a fact checker, Jakola notes one area where writers often tend to slip up. “I double check every single number,” Jakola says. “Even if you’re trying to get them right, it’s the easiest thing a writer can get wrong. I also take into the account the nuances of estimating and how a writer rounds-up or rounds-down a number. ”

Open, source

Ultimately, choosing whether to trust a news story or not comes down to transparency. Jakola sums this up in her number one tip she tells her students: “If someone has information they got from a reliable source and they tested it to be true, they should be candid about where they got their information.” Misleading news tells readers that they should trust their stories. Trustworthy news shows readers why they should trust their stories, with credible sources to back them up. “The best journalism shows its work because, at the end of the day, it’s a judgement call for the reader to make,” Jakola says. “Nobody can tell you who you should trust, they can only tell you who they would trust.


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