Misinformation is one of the hot topics of the last decade. While the term ‘fake news’ has become a bit of a joke phrase and even a point of misinformation itself, it is a term appearing again and again in the modern discourse. From HIV-infected bananas to an all-out fake news war in the US presidential elections, the last decade was full of misleading information, clickbait titles and propaganda articles.
All of this, of course, is nothing new. Roman politician Mark Anthony killed himself in 30 BC because he believed a wrongful rumor that Egyptian queen Cleopatra has committed suicide. In 19th century, a news article about lunar animals discovered on moon – surprisingly – turned out to be a hoax.
Today it is easier than ever to publish stories which may or may not be true – anyone can switch on a computer and write an unverifiable claim which is later shared by thousands of other people if it fits their beliefs. The reasons why people invent, publish and share fake news can be diverse. It is mostly done for money and publicity, as clicks on these sensational articles bring people to their author’s website and that, in turn, means that the author can earn money from advertisements posted on the site.
Many websites, social networks, governments and NGOs have started to fight against fake news. The most effective way to combat the spread of misinformation is for every reader to apply critical thinking. Check whether the text or photo presents the facts in truthful light, and recognize when you should not share the information.
Here are some steps which might help you to notice and hopefully fight against the spread of misinformation. They are published by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions.
- Consider the source of the news. Check the page where it is published – have you heard about it before? Is it a reputable news source? What is shown in the website’s “About us” section?
- Read the whole article. Lower quality publications often use click-bait or sensationalized titles but the information included in article is actually much tamer. If you read the whole article, you can get the whole picture – or at least a bigger part of it.
- Check the content of the article. News articles will usually provide either factual information or factual information and opinions from people involved in the events. It is important the article shows various views and the event is looked at from all sides. If there are no quotes or lack of diverse information, it might be a fake news article. Look out for oversimplifications. If a complex issue is presented in a simplified or overly emotional way, it is very likely the authors are trying to manipulate with you.
- Check the date of publication. This is especially important in “missing people” and similar posts.
- Review your own biases. If you strongly and emotionally agree with absolutely everything or absolutely nothing written in the article, be three times as careful when checking its contents. Maybe your opinions are affecting your judgement.
- Check the facts. The best way to check whether an article is misleading is to put in the work and check the facts given. Of course, it is not always practical to do so, so it is best to side with caution.
If in doubt, don’t share. Honestly, nobody is going to miss an article you don’t share, but you won’t risk funding some click-bait-generating entrepreneur’s next articles.
Keep these suggestions in mind. Even more importantly, share them with your family members – research shows that age is the best predictor of how social media users (Facebook was monitored in this research) interact with fake news. It is a more significant predictor than sex, race, income, education or political position. Users over 65 shared about 2.3 times more misleading articles than people in the second-oldest age group (45 to 65 years old). So, it is even more vital to inform your parents and grandparents about the pitfalls of fake news and sensational stories.
We hope that 2020 will be a year of sensible and healthy use of internet, so we are starting it with a series of articles on how to recognize the spread of wrongful and harmful information online. In our view, it is important for the internet to be a platform of sharing thoughts and not dividing people.