Stopping online disinformation: six ways you can help
Disinformation is no joke. We all need to work together to help stop it from spreading. Here are some practical tips to help you identify it online.
One of the biggest challenges we face today is countering online disinformation, making it all the more important to be able to spot it and not spread it any further.
Disinformation is any verifiably false or misleading information created, presented and disseminated for economic gain, or to intentionally deceive the public. But this does not mean disinformation is always “false” or untrue. Spreading half-truths, mixing facts with fiction or reusing content out of context are common practices that aim to confuse the readers.
Disinformation can have far-reaching consequences for our society and democracy. It can influence our political decision-making processes and even put the protection of our environment, health, personal security and so much more at risk.
Those who spread disinformation use many tricks to accomplish their goals. Here are six ways to help you spot disinformation and stop its spread online:
1. Check the source
Are you familiar with the news outlet sharing the information? Does the look or feel of the outlet resemble a well-known website but is not quite the same? This could mean the source is unreliable or deceptive.
2. Check the author
If an author or journalist is credible, you should be able to track their previous work and find which organisations they have worked for. You should also be able to find other articles or publications they have written.
Keep in mind that sometimes an “online expert” may not really be an expert in the subject. There is a difference between a specialist and someone obsessed with conspiracy theories.
If you see a social media account posting hundreds of times a day, especially on Twitter, and frequently at suspicious times like at 4 AM, it is likely to be a bot. Other red flags include language or syntax errors and little or no engagement in real conversations.
3. Check the content
Is the story you want to share being covered by traditional media, like newspapers or broadcasters? Does the story match the information put out by public authorities and institutions or NGOs? Remember, credible media outlets have clearly defined reporting standards and the news that they present is balanced, with attributed sources, and has context.
4. Check the pictures and videos
“Seeing is believing” is no longer a given. Sometimes old images are used in different contexts or are completely fake. To verify whether an image is real, you can always try to track back to its original source or use various “online reverse image tools.”
Keep in mind that disinformation technology is constantly evolving as exemplified by the emergence of manipulated videos such as deepfakes.
5. See how the story makes you feel
If an article stirs a lot of (negative) emotions inside you, pause for a moment and ask yourself: did someone deliberately wish to elicit such a response from me? Am I falling into that trap? Disinformation is often designed to trigger negative emotions and erode trust in public authorities and professional media. If that happens, it is always a good idea to check the story with another source — a different media outlet — and see how it compares.
If you think that an account is spreading disinformation, report them or the post to the social media platform. They all offer such tools.
Fighting disinformation has to be a coordinated effort involving all relevant actors — from institutions to social platforms, news media and also you. We are all in it together to protect our values and democratic systems in the EU.
What do the experts say?
Hear more from Professor Stephan Lewandowsky and Dominik Swiecicki who study this phenomenon:
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