Whether it is about the presidential election, climate change, or Covid-19 vaccines and the delta variant, misinformation continues to spread rampantly across social media. According to a Pew Research Service study from January, more than eight-in-ten U.S. adults (86 percent) said they get their news from a smartphone. It is easy to see why misinformation continues to spread.
While we may expect, even demand that the social platforms crack down on misinformation, there is little likelihood that Facebook, Twitter or YouTube will ever stamp out it. One reason is that it would take full-time policing of virtually all content, but then there is also the fact that these platforms depend on continued use.
Simply put, misinformation gets clicks.
We see so much misinformation because the platforms have no real interest in deterring it,” explained technology and telecommunications analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics.
“It is really easy and free to join the platform, there is no profit in deleting the misinformation and preventing provocateurs to post it,” Entner warned.
“Actually, the platforms profit from it because the more outrageous the content the more people interact with it – this type of ‘engagement’ is what the platforms are looking for; people reacting to things. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or false as long as they engage,” Entner added. “There is also no downside in the anonymous multimedia world, but even when high profile people spread lies, there are no repercussions. Everything gets sacrificed on the altar of monetization through engagement.”
Spotting Not Stopping The Misinformation
Since it can’t – and likely won’t– be stopped, then the best course of action is spotting it. This may not be as easy as it sounds, because misinformation is often presented as news and/or fact. In some cases, it can be wrong by misunderstanding, whilst in other cases it is misleading by design
“Bad information comes in two flavors, unintentional and intentional. The latter, intentional disinformation, is far more dangerous,” said William V. Pelfrey, Jr., Ph.D., professor in the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“There are many persons who purposefully distribute inaccurate information in an attempt to influence outcomes, such as an election,” said Pelfrey. “Undermining social confidence during a time of Covid can disrupt the economy, influence employment, and negatively impact public health. Some countries, including Russia and China, have sophisticated disinformation organizations, which work hard to undermine the United States, thereby elevating other countries.”
ho to believe becomes a problem, too, when there is rampant contradictory information. This has been made worse as the nation is so deeply divided, and trust of the “other side” is at an all-time low.
“Human nature is to simply turn away when things get confusing,” added Pelfrey.
If the government is telling you to get vaccinated, and social media is telling you that vaccines and Covid are a hoax, the easiest thing to do is ignore all of it. That leads to tremendous public health risk,” he warned. “The smart thing to do is assess the source. What data support the assertion? Is this fact – based on published, peer-reviewed research – or opinion? Opinion is often hard to differentiate from fact as many portray opinion as fact; especially those soliciting attention, or votes, or your money.”
Tips For Spotting Disinformation
There are now ways to quickly spot disinformation, including how credible the source is – not just on this topic, but past events and stories as well. In other words, if the source on social media was wrong in the past that doesn’t make them an expert this time around.
“There are three things that I rely on as my ‘go-tos’ as quick checks for patients,” said Dr. Donna Gregory, senior lecturer within the School of Nursing at Regis College. “Who is posting it? What information are they sharing? What is their intent? In terms of who is posting it, you want to look at the qualifications and potential for bias. This is true for both individuals and organizations. For the information to be credible, the individual or organization should have credentials that are related to the field. For example, an infectious disease provider or a healthcare organization that specializes in infections disease would be credible sources.”
The second is what information are they sharing, Gregory added.
Is the information data based on recent studies or information from science? Or is it a post about one specific case or anecdotal story,” she pondered. “Finally, what is the intent of the person or group posting? Is the intent to share information based on current research and science? Are they trying to sell you something? Does the post generate fear or distrust? Disinformation is more likely to want to push you in one direction or another, instead of just sharing information. While it isn’t fool proof, considering these questions together can help you determine if the information is meant to spread disinformation.”
A common misconception today is that fact checking is often opinion-based, yet as the very term suggests, it is about checking the facts. However, fact checking doesn’t mean disagreeing with all the data that counters your argument and only supporting the ones that agree.
n social media, it is all too common for someone to use a single source to make or back up an argument while disregarding all the other facts. That in turn leads to such a spread of misinformation.
If the information comes from a single person, it is opinion—not fact,” said Pelfrey. “My wife saw a friend’s post which sounded scientific, and was written by someone claiming to be an expert, who turned out to be a part-time pharmacy employee. Not a scientist.”
The problem is made worse as it is makes rounds via social media.
In the John Hughes’ film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off there is the joke, “He’s sick. My best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with a girl who saw Ferris pass-out at 31 Flavors last night. I guess it’s pretty serious.”
That sort of “source” almost flies on social media!
The trappings of expertise are easily fabricated—be skeptical when reading anything and consider the author’s motivation,” added Pelfrey. “Is the author relaying the findings of scientists or are they trying to push you towards an ideological position?”
And as noted, don’t trust one source, especially those that may seem controversial.
“The main way to check accuracy is to review multiple sources for the same information,” said Gregory. “If you find information about the delta variant on a news site, can you find this same information on the CDC website? What about other health care organizations such as the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease? If your friend shares information about the vaccines, can you find the same information on the FDA website or other organizations such as the World Health Organization? If the information is consistent across multiple, credible sources than it is likely reliable information based on evidence.”