The problem of misinformation isn’t going away. Internet platforms like FB and Twitter have taken steps to curb its spread. But no method yet introduced has been completely successful at removing all misleading content from social media. The best defense, then, is self-defense
H. Colleen Sinclair
Misleading or outright false information – broadly called “misinformation” – can come from websites pretending to be news outlets, political propaganda or “pseudo-profound” reports that seem meaningful but are not. Disinformation is a type of misinformation that is deliberately generated to maliciously mislead people. Disinformation is intentionally shared, knowing it is false, but misinformation can be shared by people who don’t know it’s not true, especially because people often share links online without thinking.
Emerging psychology research has revealed some tactics that can help protect our society from misinformation. Here are 7 strategies you can use to avoid being misled, and to prevent yourself – and others – from spreading inaccuracies.
1. Educate yourself
The best inoculation against what the WHO is calling the “infodemic” is to understand the tricks that agents of disinformation are using to try to manipulate you.
One strategy is called “prebunking” .– a type of debunking that happens before you hear myths and lies. Research has shown that familiarizing yourself with the tricks of the disinformation trade can help you recognize false stories when you encounter them, making you less susceptible to those tricks.
2. Recognize your vulnerabilities
The prebunking approach works for people across the political spectrum, but it turns out that people who underestimate their biases are actually more vulnerable to being misled than people who acknowledge their biases.
Research has found people are more susceptible to misinformation that aligns with their preexisting views. This is called “confirmation bias,” because a person is biased toward believing information that confirms what they already believe.
The lesson is to be particularly critical of information from groups or people with whom you agree or find yourself aligned – whether politically, religiously, or by ethnicity or nationality. Remind yourself to look for other points of view, and other sources with information on the same topic.
It is especially important to be honest with yourself about what your biases are. Many people assume others are biased, but believe they themselves are not – and imagine that others are more likely to share misinformation than they themselves are.
3. Consider the source
Media outlets have a range of biases. When consuming news, make sure you know how trustworthy the source is – or whether it’s not trustworthy at all. Double-check stories from other sources with low biases and high fact ratings to find out who – and what – you can actually trust, rather than just what your gut tells you.
Also, be aware that some disinformation agents make fake sites that look like real news sources – so make sure you’re conscious of which site you are actually visiting. Engaging in this level of thinking about your own thinking has been shown to improve your ability to tell fact from fiction.
4. Take a pause
When most people go online, especially on social media, they’re there for entertainment, connection or even distraction. Accuracy isn’t always high on the priority list. Yet few want to be a liar, and the costs of sharing misinformation can be high – to individuals, their relationships and society as a whole. Before you decide to share something, take a moment to remind yourself of the value you place on truth and accuracy.
Thinking “is what I am sharing true?” can help you stop the spread of misinformation and will encourage you to look beyond the headline and potentially fact-check before sharing.
Research shows that most misinformation is shared quickly and without much thought. The impulse to share without thinking can even be more powerful than partisan sharing tendencies. Take your time. There is no hurry. You are not a breaking-news organization upon whom thousands depend for immediate information.
5. Be aware of your emotions
People often share things because of their gut reactions, rather than the conclusions of critical thinking. In a recent study, researchers found that people who viewed their social media feed while in an emotional mindset were significantly more likely to share misinformation than those who went in with a more rational state of mind.
Anger and anxiety, in particular, make people more vulnerable to falling for misinformation.
6. If you see something, say something
Stand up to misinformation publicly. It may feel uncomfortable to challenge your friends online, especially if you fear conflict. But evidence shows that explicitly critiquing the specific reasoning in the post and providing counterevidence like a link about how it is fake is an effective technique.
People trust other humans more than algorithms and bots, especially those in our own social circles. That’s particularly true if you have expertise in the subject or are a close connection with the person who shared it.
7. If you see someone stand up, stand with them
If you see someone else has posted that a story is false, don’t say “well, they beat me to it so I don’t need to.” When more people chime in on a post as being false, it signals that sharing misinformation is frowned upon by the group more generally.
Stand with those who stand up. Allowing misinformation to spread also makes it more likely that even more people will start to believe it – because people come to believe things they hear repeatedly, even if they know at first they’re not true.