How to win at debunking online misinformation

“Bad information ruins lives. It promotes hate, damages people’s health, and hurts democracy” — fullfact.org.

Whaaat?
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Introduction

Everyday we all access a glut of information via the Internet. We are confronted with half-truths, exaggeration and sometimes down-right deception. Many of us don’t have the time, necessary skills or even the will to do the type of deep dive research necessary to uncover the “truth” of online information. Sounds dire? Read on, there is hope.

A few weeks ago, New Zealand joined the rest of the world with a total lockdown, the stay at home, stay in your bubble kind. I too sought the comfort of my couch, phone in hand. One day, scrolling through my Facebook feed, a post about the pandemic containing a poem caught my eye. The poem “And the people stayed home” went viral — maybe you saw it too?

The writer of this particular Facebook post (see pic) drew a comparison between the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak and the current Covid-19 pandemic, aiming to “prove” that history repeats itself by using this poem in the post. The poem was said to be written by Irish writer Kathleen O’ Mara in 1869.There was also a photo of ladies wearing masks, taken during the 1918 flu epidemic. (More about the photo later).

In all honesty, I had no idea who Kathleen O’ Mara was, but the informality of the language piqued my interest. It seemed very “now”, very modern for a poem dating back to 1869!

I used some of the methods described below to find the facts behind the Facebook post. Online fact-checker PolitiFact rated the Facebook post false. The poem was written in March 2020 by a retired American teacher, Kitty O’ Meara.

This online misinformation spread via social media, led to this blog post. Many argue that the internet self-corrects eventually as readers flood the comments sections to point out errors. But this is not always the case and besides… can we trust the commenters?

So what is the issue here?

Hoaxes, sensationalism and deception existed long before the Internet. There are a few big differences between now and pre-Internet. Anyone can write and publish information on the Internet nowadays and online information is more accessible than ever before. Furthermore, we are now able to amplify these stories by re-publishing them on social media with great ease and speed.

As stated by Luke O’Neil in The Year We Broke the Internet:

“…just another thoughtlessly processed and soon-forgotten item that represented our now-instinctual response to the unrelenting stream of information we’re subjected to every waking hour: Share first, ask questions later. Better yet: Let someone else ask the questions. Better still: What was the question again?”

Yet the Internet itself is not to blame for all our woes around misinformation. One might ask… What about fact-checking? Does that not happen anymore? Reputable media outlets worldwide recognize the importance of publishing factual information and have strenuous measures in place to ensure this. Unfortunately, due to the pace of informal publication online and the high cost of fact-checking, there isn’t time or money to check every drop of information floating about.

The truth or facts?

What is the difference between truth and fact, anyway? According to their dictionary entries, these two terms seem very similar. So the question is — are we looking for the truth or the facts ?

In the words of Brooke Borel, writer of The Chicago Guide to Fact-checking:

“A fact is something you can’t argue your way out of, like the dimensions of a page you are reading or the fact that a sentence started with the words “ a fact” Truth is a fact or set of facts in context. While facts are indisputable, the truth a writer builds from them is a matter of interpretation.”

While the fact-checking process is rarely cut and dried, it has tremendous value, as shown in this post. By the way, using a hashtag plus “fact-check” on Twitter does not mean a thing.

Tools you can use to stop being duped

This is an excellent starting point when considering the facts of what you are reading. Feel free to keep this pinned to your heart for future reference.

With heartfelt thanks to Michelle Nijhuis for the original words, illustrated by Tricia Nieuwoudt

When the information is from an article published by a reputable mainstream publication, the answers to questions 1, 2 and 3 will be easy to come by. When considering something which came to you via social media or other informal channels, it becomes less clear.

Point number 4 is loud and clear, but finding other, unrelated sources can be a little tricky.

Our first instinct is to Google the information, but neither Google, nor Wikipedia or any other open source online resource should be considered the final confirmation for any fact. It is best to use these as a starting point, a gateway to more reliable information. For example, Google Reverse Image Search, this a useful tool to find the original source of an image, which can help in your quest for the facts.

There are a number of fact-checking websites that you can use to sort fact from fiction. But, still check multiple sites as and when needed to arrive at point 5 on the list above.

First-off, Snopes.com, the grand-daddy of them all. Snopes is highly-regarded for this type work and arguably the best-known in the field. The site is easy to use and well organised into user-friendly categories. The Hot 50 contains a list of the latest stories being checked on the site.

Let’s use the photo in the Facebook post as an example of how a search works. When I put the search term “flu mask 1918” into the search box right at the top of the Snopes homepage, I found this. The search result confirmed that the photo was genuine, but it was a fashion photo taken in 1913 (not 1918) and miscaptioned for the purposes of the Facebook post. Wondering where the photo came from? A reverse image search on TinEye, located the original photo with a caption.

Interested in American Politics, but wary of online political information? FactCheck.org aims to “reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.” They monitor “the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases.” The site offers an “Ask FactCheck” feature and includes a page called the Viral Spiral, which is dedicated to the most popular online myths that the site has debunked.

For a deeper dive into political literacy, visit Flackcheck.org, the political literacy companion site to FactCheck. Watch this short video on how to sort fact from fiction when considering political email and viral social-media claims.

Another prominent fact-checking site focusing on American politics is the non-profit project Politifact.com. They run a fact-checking scorecard of stories examined, ranging from “true” to the amusingly named “pants on fire” at the other end of the spectrum.

Want to access multilingual fact-checking sites for a wider focus and reach? Here is a list of signatories of the Code of Principles of the International Fact-Checking Network.

And finally…

Now, more than ever, being able to trust and learn from online information often spread via social media, is paramount. A lengthy discussion on the measures taken by Facebook and other social media companies to combat the spread of misinformation falls outside of the scope of this article. Initiatives have been taken. Here are a few.

Twitter and Facebook verify accounts of famous/prominent people and organizations by placing a blue tick mark on the profile page. When getting information via Twitter, follow tweets from a publication geographically closest to the story.

Facebook and five US news and fact-checking organizations created a partnership to combat misinformation shortly after the 2016 US presidential election.

To prevent some of the misinformation around Covid-19, Facebook put some new measures in place.

Here is an interesting post on Facebook’s oversight committee by former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger.

WhatsApp announced in April that its 2 billion users will only be allowed to forward messages to one user at a time. The previous five at-a-time policy has fallen away. Academics say it has the potential to drastically slow the spread of misinformation.

These initiatives are very welcome in the on-going quest to limit the spread of online misinformation. Despite this, we should always take responsibility for what we write online, what we read and believe and what we share on the internet. If in doubt…check first and then share (if you must) in a responsible fashion.

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