In today’s media landscape, news consumers are bombarded with information. With so many stories, videos, memes and random Facebook posts it can be extremely difficult to determine what information is reliable and what is not. In addition, there are many people using social media platforms and websites to purposefully spread misinformation. Domestic political campaigns and foreign adversaries routinely engage in shadow campaigns to spread false information to achieve a particular political goal. Other groups do so to make money, cashing in on advertising linked to widely spread salacious stories. Others still spread false information simply to feel powerful, watching as their lies traverse the internet, viewed by huge numbers of people.
Here are a few tips for weeding out bad information as we move toward the election:
- Look for a byline. Those spreading misinformation often seek to remain anonymous to avoid scrutiny. But don’t stop searching just because an author is listed. Misinformation campaigns are known to use fake bylines to lend credibility to the lies they are spreading. Try to look up the author. Can they be identified as a journalist or expert? If not, you should look at the information with a high degree of skepticism.
- Consider the source. Misinformation campaigns have set up entire websites to mimic legitimate news sources. Just because something looks like a legitimate news site doesn’t mean that it is. If you have never heard of the news outlet try to find an “About” page on their site. Look for a physical address or a Masthead – a list of the people who put the publication out like publishers and editors. Then use that information to look up the address or people associated with the site to try to determine if it’s trustworthy.
- Don’t trust anything simply because it is posted to a social media platform. Misinformation campaigns can post a photo with a made up story in minutes. Even more insidious are posts that take the facts of a legitimate news story and manipulate, exaggerate or fabricate context around them. Anything that appears as a simple post from someone you don’t know ALWAYS requires further investigation.This includes posts shared by people you do know, but created by people you don’t know.
- Cross reference. If you see something that sounds like it may be real, but you don’t recognize or trust the source, check it against other sources. Are any news sources you know to be real reporting on the story? Are you able to locate the information anywhere other than random Facebook posts from strangers? If the information is not available on a recognizable, trustworthy news outlet it should be viewed with a high degree of skepticism.
- Email the source. If you see a story from a source you trust that has something that seems misleading, email the reporter and, civilly, ask where they got the information. If you see something of interest from a source you don’t know, message them to ask questions about where they got the information. Many reporters are very busy, especially around elections, and may not email back. But there is a chance that they will get back to you and give you an inside look at where they got their information.
During these final weeks leading up to the election, the misinformation campaigns are sure to intensify. Use these tips to separate reliable information from misinformation. Then, most importantly, go vote!
Contributed by Justin Sondel. Justin Sondel is the Digital Media Lab supervisor and an adjunct instructor of journalism at Hilbert College. Sondel is a freelance reporter with more than a decade of experience writing for magazines and newspapers including the Washington Post, City & State Magazine and the Niagara Gazette.