How to Avoid Misinformation Online

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Anyone with an internet connection can watch breaking news unfold in real time, or at least a version of it. On social media, posts can fly faster than most fact-checkers and moderators can, and they’re often an unpredictable mix of true, false, out-of-context, and even propaganda.

This type of misinformation is skyrocketing before, during and after the election, including this week’s midterms. Watch out for confusing stories about everything from how to vote to who actually won specific races.

How do you know what to trust, what not to share, and what to report to tech companies? Here are some basic tools everyone should use when consuming breaking news online.

Election days are rife with misinformation. Here’s what to watch out for.

Know what to watch out for

Consider who would benefit from the dissemination of confusing information during a news event and revise the specific narratives circulating. During midterm elections, for example, experts say to watch out for conflicting reports and baseless accusations about election observers and officials and unfounded concerns about voter fraud. After election night, be on the lookout for premature declarations of victory and misinformation about the vote count. Learn more about expected election misinformation in our Technology 202 newsletter.

Don’t press that share button. Social media is designed for things to go viral, so users can quickly retweet before they’ve even finished reading the words they’re amplifying. No matter how devastating, illuminating, or rabid a TikTok, tweet, or YouTube video is, you should wait before forwarding it to your own network. Assume everything is suspicious until you confirm its authenticity.

Look who is sharing the information. If they are friends or family members, do not trust the messages unless they are personally in the field or are a proven expert. If it’s a stranger or an organization, remember that a verified checkmark or being well-known doesn’t make an account trustworthy. There are plenty of high-profile political pundits and internet figures posting inaccurate information right now, and it’s up to you to approach each post with skepticism.

If the account post is not the source of the words or images, find out where it came from by digging to find the original Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter account that first shared it. If you can’t determine the origin of something, that’s a red flag. Beware of screenshots, which can be even harder to trace, or anything that elicits a particularly strong emotional reaction. Misinformation can exploit this type of response to spread.

You are probably spreading false information. Here’s how to stop.

When selecting individual accounts, look at the date it was created, which should be listed in the profile. Beware of anything that is extremely new (say, it started within the last few months) or with very few followers. For a website, you can see what year it was launched on Google. Find the site name, then click the three vertical dots next to the URL in the results to see when it was first indexed by the search engine. Again, avoid anything too new. And don’t skip the basics: do a Google search on the name of the person or organization.

Make a collection of reliable sources

Doing mini-background checks on every random Twitter account takes an awful lot of time, especially with new content coming in from so many places simultaneously. Trust the professionals instead. Legitimate mainstream news outlets are designed to verify these things for you, and often reports on the same videos or photos taken by real people after confirming their origin.

Use a dedicated news tool such as Apple News, Google News, or Yahoo News, which choose established sources and have built-in moderation. On social media, create or find lists of selected experts and outlets to follow specifically for information on the topic you follow. If you consume breaking news on Twitter, be especially careful to follow senior reporters from trusted outlets who are on the ground. New changes to Twitter’s verification system could make this more difficult.

Many news events will include information from the field, such as smartphone videos and first-person accounts. Even if you only see real messages, it can still be confusing or misleading. Try adding unique clips or stories with broader context about what’s going on. They may be the most compelling pieces of a puzzle, but they’re not the whole picture. Mix information from recognized experts on the subject, be it foreign policy, cyber warfare, history or politics. You can also turn to online or TV outlets that add that context for most stories.

If you want to dig deeper into unverified reports, start with this comprehensive guide on how to filter videos. Find several odd edits and cuts, listen carefully to the audio and run it through a third-party tool like InVid, which helps verify the authenticity of the videos. This can be more difficult on livestreamed videos, like what’s happening on Twitch or any other live social media option.

To verify images, place them in Google’s image search by grabbing a screenshot and dragging it into the search field. If it’s an old image that’s been around before, you may see some telling results.

Use fact-checking sites and tools

Social media sites have some of their own fact-checking tools and warning labels, and many have added special sections to promote official election results. However, given the sheer volume of posts they face, a problematic video or post can still be seen by millions of people before being reported.

Keep an eye out for content warnings on social media sites for individual posts, which may appear as labels under links or as a warning before posting something that might be misleading. Look for individual stories or images on fact-checking sites such as The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, Snopes, and PolitiFact.

Geoffrey A. Fowler contributed to this report.

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