While social media can foster connectivity and creativity, it can also be a powerful vector for the spread of false information. In a 2005 survey by the Pew Research Group, only 5% of adults reported using at least one social media platform. By 2021, that number had grown to 72%. A Pew survey from 2022 reported that half of the respondents said they ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’ got their news from social media. While many platforms have policies in place to curb the spread of misinformation, there’s no unified standard. This means that individual social-media users need to carefully assess the information they consume.
Fake news is a real problem
The spread of mis- or disinformation is more than just a nuisance. A declassified assessment from the US National Intelligence Council showed how malign actors sought to influence the outcome of the 2020 election by spreading false information. Meanwhile, research highlighted by the World Health Organization found that “people feel mental, social, political and/or economic distress due to misleading and false health-related content on social media during pandemics, health emergencies and humanitarian crises.” And NewsGuard has documented how TikTok’s algorithm can feed users a steady diet of falsehoods. This isn’t just a ‘big picture’ problem, either. Companies and individuals can easily be sucked in by false information, causing damage to their reputations.
The good news is that there are ways to fight back. First Draft,* a non-profit project to fight mis- and disinformation under the aegis of Google News Lab, produced a helpful guide to verifying information online that suggests five questions that every savvy user of social media should ask themselves when they encounter something that seems too good to be true.
*First Draft shut down in 2022, but the Information Futures Lab at Brown’s School of Public Health will continue their mission.
Is it original?
The first thing you should ask yourself is, “what is the original piece of content?” It’s easy for digital content to be repurposed or reused, but in the process vital information can get ‘lost in translation.’ For example, something that started out as a joke can seem like a fact if it’s repeated enough. A reverse-image search can be a useful tool for investigating visual content, and specialized search tools like TinEye and 4chansearch.com can also be helpful. The latter can be especially powerful since controversial content often gets its start on sites that offer a degree of anonymity.
Where did it come from?
Verifying the source can help you gauge the veracity of a piece of content. If someone is, say, making a claim about something in the USA yet you discover that they’re actually located on the opposite side of the world, that might be a red flag. Even simple steps like looking at other pieces of content they’ve posted or searching the web to see if other accounts are uploading the same material can be illuminating. A LinkedIn search can also be helpful, as it can help you determine if the source’s background lends them credibility.
Some social media platforms allow certain accounts to be verified, and it can be tempting to assume that verified accounts are trustworthy. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Twitter serves as a cautionary tale. Their blue check badge was once seen as a hallmark of quality since it was only conferred on certain notable accounts. But as of January 2023, badges can be obtained by anyone willing to pay a monthly fee.
How old is it?
Social media timestamps can be misleading since they only reveal the date the content was created, and different platforms display timestamps in different ways. Sometimes a time stamp will be displayed using the viewer’s time zone rather than the uploader’s. Luckily, metadata can provide more accurate information. For example, a photo taken with a digital camera will include EXIF (exchangeable image file format) data documenting the date on which it was taken. While there are free tools that let you see EXIF data, this will only work if you have an original image since many social media platforms strip that data away when an image is uploaded on their sites. Metadata can be faked, but that’s not something many people would bother to do. Double checking things like the weather in a photo can also be useful.
What’s the location?
It’s also a good idea to verify the location of a post. Many platforms include some form of geotagging, but this information can be faked. Metadata can also be helpful (a photo’s EXIF data can include specific coordinates if the camera had GPS enabled). Satellite imagery can be a useful tool for geolocation, but you’ll need a keen eye for details.
What’s the motivation behind it?
This is one of the hardest things to verify. Even if you can ask the creator why they posted something, it’s going to be difficult to know if they’re telling the truth. But following the other pillars can provide you with helpful contextual clues. For example, if you discover that someone who is posting about the health consequences of vaping works for a lobbying firm that works with e-cigarette manufacturers, you might want to question their credibility. Their other posts can also give you some insights into why they might have uploaded something.
Fake news is a fact of life on social media. Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok, we’re buffeted by a steady stream of false or misleading information. The prospect of double-checking the things we see on social media may seem daunting, but it’s a vital activity for anyone who creates authoritative content. Incorporating inaccurate information in your posts is a surefire way to lose credibility with professional audiences, so be sure to think carefully before relying on something you see online. Ask yourself the five questions outlined in this post. Is it original? Where did it come from? How old is it? What’s the location? What’s the motivation behind it? Multibrain has also published some good advice that can help you fact-check. The bottom line is that taking time to think before sharing will help make the Internet a little bit better for all of us.