By Felipe De La Hoz
Today we thought we’d do something a little different, more of a short and hopefully practical guide to help readers avoid a scourge that has multiplied over the last several years. We’re not talking about Covid, but misinformation, which is everywhere these days. I recently wrote in City & State about the particular vulnerability of Latino voters, but the truth is that false information is spreading to all populations and not just potentially harming their health but warping their understanding of a shared reality.
As the November elections draw near, we thought we would offer some very concrete and actionable tips for how to evaluate information you might find on social media, with a view toward helping you hit the brakes a little and do some due diligence before you fall victim to falsehoods. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it contains some tried and true pointers that everyone can use to help parse information in an era where a post can spread instantly from one person’s computer all around the country and the world.
Trace the information back to an original source
Remember that the final point at which you’re seeing this information, e.g. WhatsApp or Facebook or another social media site, is likely not the originator of it unless it’s a news site or primary source like an official government communication. If you see someone sharing a controversial bit of information, ask yourself: where did this start? What is the first source for this particular piece of data or this assertion? See if you can backtrace it, including by googling some of the key terms.
For example, if you search for “Joe Biden warns to stop taking vaccines,” you’ll come across multiple credible sources that will show you the opposite is happening — the president has urged everyone to get vaccinated and boosted against Covid-19. If you’re able to find where a certain theory or supposed fact originally came from, think about how credible you find it, and if you believe that the originator has a certain ulterior motive beyond impartially presenting information. For example, if the site you’ve found has some clear affiliation to a party or candidate, or has other articles that you recognize to be misleading, then it’s probably not that trustworthy.
Facts, figures, statements, and other tidbits often lack context
Anytime you see a statistic like “38% of vaccinated people had an allergic reaction,” that’s a very specific figure that must have come from somewhere. Often, the number itself might be correct, but placed in a misleading context. For example, if you pull up the study that the poster is referencing, it might say that 38% of people in an early trial of a vaccine that never made it to market had a mild allergic reaction. The poster might claim that they’re not lying because the figure is real and has a legitimate source, but it’s not just a raw fact in isolation that matters. It’s only truly interpretable in the proper context.
The same thing might happen with quotes. If a certain politician is painted as pro-defunding the police because they are quoted as saying that they “support Black Lives Matter,” that might be an excerpt of something they said verbatim, but lacking the totality of their sentiment. Perhaps in the full quote, they said “I support Black Lives Matter’s goal to improve how our police treat communities of color, and we should invest in training to bring our cops in line with this vision.” Just because something is technically true doesn’t mean that the way it’s being presented to you is accurate.
Beware confirmation bias
A lot of misinformation lands because its writers know that you are inclined to believe it. If there’s a political party you already don’t like, or you already see yourself as anti-establishment or a proud skeptic of, say, the pharmaceutical industry, these are pressure points that can be used to get you to believe certain things that might otherwise get caught up in your natural information filters. It’s not wrong to have political allegiances or a healthy skepticism, and we certainly all like to be right, but you should be aware of the ways in which it affects your treatment of information.
If, for example, a particular post is denigrating a political opponent in a way that seems outlandish, think to yourself: would this be believable to me if it were about a hypothetical political figure in another country that I knew nothing about? What standard of evidence would I need to believe this story about that neutral politician, and am I believing this story now just because I don’t like this particular target? Is this piece of information attempting to use my own biases against me? It’s very difficult to try to have the same standard of skepticism across the board, for causes you like and causes you don’t, but it’s important to try to do so.
Who stands to gain?
When seeing a particular story, think about whether the disseminator will benefit at all from you believing it. This one is tricky, because political figures will often accuse journalists of secretly working for their opponents if they publish a damning story, and in most cases that’s a dodge and a baseless attack. However, if you are being sent a piece of information that doesn’t seem to have a clear source, think not only about the content itself, but what it is trying to get you to do or not do, and who will stand to gain from that.
If, for example, you see a post promoting vaccine skepticism and then peddling a separate and unproven treatment for Covid-19, it stands to reason that the people disseminating that information are doing so to try to get you to purchase the products, often because they have some financial stake in them. The same is true with political news. If a seemingly incredible claim is going viral at a given moment, ask yourself whether the originator seems to have a stake in damaging the target of the story. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the information isn’t true, but it should factor into your evaluation of it.