Unpacking Misinformation

You’ve likely heard about fake news or misinformation, but what is it and how does it happen? More importantly, how can we recognize it? Misinformation is the spread of false information with or without the intent to mislead. This means that the sender may be unknowingly spreading inaccurate photos, articles, or tweets, making it difficult to spot. Moreover, algorithms powering social media and overwhelming amounts of information increase our exposure to less credible and more sensational content. However, there are measures that we can take as individuals to ensure that what we believe and pass on is indeed accurate. A good starting point is to check your personal bias, gain context on the source, and find alternative perspectives.

What exactly is Misinformation?

First, let’s break down information, misinformation, and disinformation. Information can take many forms, but it’s generally understood as knowledge gained through study, research, or communication. In other words, factual data. Misinformation, or fake news, refers to the spread of false information. This contrasts with disinformation which is the deliberate spread or creation of false, biased, or manipulated information meant to deceive. An important distinction is that people can send misinformation without malicious intent. As a result, you, me, and everyone else may unknowingly spread and receive false information.

How and why does Misinformation happen?

Misinformation cannot be pinpointed to one source. Instead, it is complex and constantly in flux, as society and the means of spreading information changes. So, of course, now you’re thinking, “well, if there’s no specific cause, then how can we spot it or even know it’s around us?” Good question. While there are no “5 Simple Causes of Fake News,” there are contributing factors.

Contributing Factors to Misinformation

Information overload

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information? You’re not alone. The massive volume of posts on social media or emails in your inbox can make it challenging to navigate. As a result, you’re likely only to view what’s on the top. This means that each piece of information is more and more likely to be viewed by fewer eyes and only briefly. Subsequently, studies have shown that increasing amounts of information tend to cause a decrease in quality. This observation makes sense: less viewership leads to less attention, scrutiny, and fact-checking. What are we left with then? Vast volumes of information, frequented by false narratives that slip through the cracks.

Social media business models

If you’ve seen #thesocialdilemma, then you’ve probably come to realize that in social media, the user is the product. Indeed, companies like Facebook or Twitter finance themselves by selling user data to advertisers and businesses. Their entire business models rest on us scrolling and producing more data, and making sponsored purchases. These tech companies employ complex algorithms that curate a sensational and self-affirming feed to keep up user engagement. This model quickly becomes a cycle: scrolling leads to data, which leads to tailored algorithms, which leads to attention-grabbing feeds, which leads to more scrolling. In this way, provocative posts or those that confirm our own biases flood our feed even if they’re not factually true.

Outdated information literacy guides

You may have been taught in grade school to use the “CRAAP” test for assessing credibility. It stands for currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose. This method sounds great, so what’s the problem? This one-stop method was created for evaluating hard-copy, print sources and hasn’t adapted well to online information. These metrics are good in theory, but they focus on the features of the single source without diving deeper. However, the modern flow of information is complex and doesn’t just come in the form of published books. To generate a robust analysis, we must step away from the mechanical look-over that merely skims the surface. Instead, we need more context, alternative perspectives, and to take an overall skeptic approach.

How can I identify Misinformation?

Misinformation is all around us, often fleeting past without detection.  Still, we can take certain measures to ensure that we’re critically thinking about the information we receive. 

Review personal bias: Clickbait titles and sensational content are often meant to elicit an emotional response. It’s important to recognize how this type of content deliberately manipulates your emotions. Ask yourself, “how does this make me feel?” Then, especially if you’re getting riled up, take a step back and gain more context.

Run a source background check: This is a strategy of evaluating the source of information rather than the information itself. For instance, read about the account, website, news site, or company to determine their reputability, potential conflicts of interest, biases, etc. Then, search up that source directly to see what others have to say about them.

Follow evidence: If a piece of information is making factual claims, look for a citation or link.  Follow the trail and see if that source supports the author’s claim. You’d be surprised by how many “citations” lead you to unrelated websites or even sources in opposition to the author’s point!

Triangulate and synthesize: Triangulate by looking for other reports on the same topic to gain a comprehensive understanding rather than a one-sided view. Think: I’m in one corner, but what’s the view like from over there or from that angle? Next, synthesize by combining your acquired perspectives to form well-rounded conclusions. You don’t want to make judgments without hearing the whole story.

What’s the big deal?

You may be thinking that misinformation is inevitable, or what’s the harm in letting a few things go uncorrected? Information shapes our perception of our community, our country, and the world. It influences our opinions, and subsequently, how we interact with others and what decisions we make. Therefore, we must form our beliefs on the facts.

Environmental Misinformation

#climatechangehoax, #globalcooling, and #globalwarmingisahoax are all frequent hashtags on Instagram that post information refuting climate change and global warming. What are the consequences? Division around the course of the Earth. Let’s use our new set of tools to evaluate this example:

climate hoax
Environmental Misinformation

Check emotions. This post may cause you to think, “Hey! Elon lied to us! Electric cars aren’t better for the environment.” Let’s step back and read laterally. This post was posted by freedomfirstee, and one can see on their feed that they’re right-leaning and in support of fossil fuels. This may tell you that this source is biased and may have an ulterior motive. Now, let’s try and follow the evidence. Well, no sources were linked or cited, so how do we know that this “accurate picture” is indeed accurate? Move to triangulation. By googling if electric cars are better for the environment, you’ll find a peer-reviewed scientific article from the widely-respected journal, nature. The article looked at 59 world regions and found that electric vehicles are less emissions-intensive even considering the current and future life-cycle of the vehicle’s carbon emissions. It also found this to be true in comparison to new highly-efficient petrol cars. Bringing your thoughts together, you can conclude that while electric cars still require energy, they reduce emissions overall.

Again, misinformation is complex, and while we cannot hold all the answers, you can use this article as just one tool in your toolbox. Most importantly, remember to stay skeptical and seek out context. 

Adapted from Grollman, M., Lopez, C., Peterson, A., Sieverling, T., & Solodkaya, A. (2021) Misinformation Lesson Plan 


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