“Elephants think humans are cute!”
“BREAKING NEWS RIGHT NOW!”
“She went to the store. You won’t believe what happened next!”
Day after day, our social media feeds are slammed with content like this, asking us to watch videos, read articles and view photos that must be seen to be believed. This is certainly not a bad thing. After all, it is human nature to share stories, especially on social media platforms that are specifically designed to connect with our friends and family.
But there is also a dangerous amount of misinformation online that gets shared. In a social media environment, a piece of shared content can reach hundreds of people in a matter of seconds. And, according to a study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, it takes the truth six times as long to reach an audience of 1,500 people than misinformation. This is alarming when you take into account that more than half of American adults get their news from Facebook.
Fortunately, we can combat the spread of false information by practicing good digital hygiene.
What is digital hygiene?
In short, it is the practice of being mindful about our digital experience. Think about dental hygiene for instance. We exercise certain habits, like brushing our teeth and avoiding certain foods, in order to maintain good oral health. Digital hygiene isn’t much different. Only instead of watching how much sugar we eat, we are thoughtful of the information we consume digitally and practice good social habits for sharing online.
Why does online misinformation spread in the first place?
There are many reasons for this but, generally speaking, viral rumors tend to spike during times of large news events. This is especially apparent when there is a lack of clear cut information available and the topic has generated a strong emotional response. In fact, according to a study by fullfact.org, stories that evoked high-intensity emotions were shared significantly more than those that were purely informational in nature.
Most times, people share misinformation altruistically, meaning they are sharing what they think is helpful information for the greater good of their followers. These people generally mean well and are not sharing bad information purposefully.
But there are those who share with misinformation with malicious intent, hoping to get a rise out of people. In addition, others may even share bad information for their own self-interest, such as financial gain by running misinformation as a paid advertisement.
What can be done to help stop the spread of misinformation?
Breaking the cycle of misinformation sounds like a daunting task, but we can all do our part by following a simple rule. Whenever you see a story pop up in your feed that makes you pause, it is important to show a healthy level of skepticism.
Before sharing, consider doing a quick fact check. You can do this by plugging the content into a search engine and seeing what articles come up. If you typically get your news from a single website, look at a few others to see how their coverage compares. You may even want to look at a fact check website like Snopes or Full Fact.
Another tactic you can try is to look at the source itself. You can ask the person who posted the article where they found it or click the link yourself before sharing. If the website looks like a personal blog or is full of clickbait articles, it is probably not a reputable source of truth.
It is also good practice to take a second look at any website name, even if it looks familiar. Some of the most popular websites for creating misinformation look similar to national organizations and may even steal their logos. Watch for website names that are unfamiliar or use extra extensions (like “.com.co”), hyphens and numbers in their URLs: these are usually good indicators that a website is not a reputable source of information. Some of these sources even openly admit to creating satire and misinformation on their websites.
Overall, this is the biggest fact checking takeaway: If you are unsure if a piece of content is true, do not share it.
What if you know someone who is spreading misinformation?
During your fact check process, you may realize someone you know, whether they are a family member, friend or someone in an online community you are part of, is sharing misinformation.
When reaching out to them, follow these steps:
- Make sure the information you discovered is correct. The last thing you want to do is to call someone out on a mistake, only for you to have committed the same one!
- Remember that social media is a public setting, just like being out in a restaurant or park. You don’t want to publicly shame someone for sharing something that is not true. Send them a private message instead.
- In the private message, meet the person at their level and practice empathy. Do not automatically assume they are easily duped or intentionally spreading bad information. Being polite and kind is just as important as the truth.
The bottom line: Practice skepticism for stories that are shared online, especially ones that trigger a strong emotional response. Do a fact check and do not share a story if you don’t think it is true. When discussing misinformation with someone who shared it, do so in a private setting and practice empathy and kindness.
By following these guidelines, you can practice good digital hygiene and stop the spread of misinformation in your online social network.