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A voters’ guide to combating misinformation ahead of the election and beyond

Clara Hendrickson
By Clara Hendrickson July 30, 2020

If Your Time is short

  • To combat misinformation online, experts recommend noticing how you feel when you see something you might want to share. Something that makes you feel angry or excited might be designed precisely to get you to share it. 

  • Do some research to check that the post doesn’t contain false information before you like, retweet, comment or share it. 

  • If you find out something isn’t accurate, explain how you verified the post and provide links to inform others.

With state primary elections ongoing and the November general election a few months away, you can expect to be inundated with posts, comments, attack ads, and all types of election-related content if you haven’t already.

The coronavirus has fundamentally changed the campaign season this election cycle. More so than ever, candidates, interest groups, foreign actors, and voters themselves are waging their political battles online.

Their posts may contain inaccurate or misleading information. Sometimes misinformation is intentionally created by those who manufacture false content and plant rumors to influence you — what’s called disinformation. While disinformation is created deliberately, it is often spread by those who don’t know its original source or creators.

"People need to realize their own account is a tool, and when you’re sharing content you’re giving your audience to somebody else," Darren Linvill, an associate professor of communication at Clemson University, recently told Rolling Stone.

Social media companies have integrated new tools to flag false information on their platforms, but the approaches differ from platform to platform and misinformation continues to flourish.

You, as a social media user, often have to discern for yourself whether something you’re seeing is accurate. Here is a guide to how to identify and flag misinformation:

Think before sharing content that triggers an emotional reaction

The number one piece of advice experts give is to recognize when a piece of content elicits a strong emotional response. A post might incite strong feelings that make you want to share it, but you should pause before doing so.

"If something you see online causes intense feelings – especially if that emotion is outrage – that should be a red flag not to share it, at least not right away," writes H. Colleen Sinclair, an associate professor of social psychology at Mississippi State University. "Chances are it was intended to short-circuit your critical thinking by playing on your emotions. Don’t fall for it."

Experts recommend doing some research on the post before retweeting, sharing, liking or commenting.

Do your homework

Mike Caulfield is a digital literacy expert at Washington State University whose website provides basic tips and tools for identifying the source and accuracy of online content. The blog focuses on misinformation concerning the coronavirus but the strategies can be applied to decode posts on any subject.

The first step to investigating a post is determining its source. You could read the account bio or "about" page of the individual or group that posted the content as well as conduct a Google or Wikipedia search to learn more about the person or organization.

Caulfield then recommends scanning the internet to see whether the same information has been reported elsewhere.

Finally, figuring out the original source from which a post draws its information will help determine whether the post leaves out critical pieces of information that would leave you with a different impression.

"One of the most common and damaging disinformation techniques is false framing — linking to a real article but summarizing it in a way that is deceptive," writes Caulfield.

You could find the original article quoting the person named in the post, check whether the post was published recently, and determine whether the original source even mentions the subject matter discussed in the post you saw.

Sometimes professional fact-checkers will have already done this work for you. Anyone can search a claim on Google’s Fact Check Explorer to see whether a fact-checking organization has evaluated it.

Let others know about the misinformation

Experts recommend pointing out inaccurate and misleading claims to others.

"Social media actually makes it more important that we’re willing to engage in those corrections because we know other people are going to see it, and we want to make sure that they're not left with the wrong information," Emily Vraga, associate professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota, told PolitiFact.

And when responding directly to the individual or group that posted the content, "try to avoid provoking them to defend themselves," recommends Drew Margolin, an assistant professor of communication at Cornell University.

You can provide links to the sources you found while researching to provide credibility and transparency to your fact-check.

New tools to combat the spread of misinformation

Just as the digital age has enabled new ways for misinformation to flourish, it has also given rise to new tools to combat its spread. One organization, First Draft, which researches and develops strategies for investigating misinformation,recently launched such a tool. First Draft has put together a two-week training for the public ahead of the November election. 

As part of the training, you will receive a text message every day for two weeks at a time of your choosing that will include information and tools for protecting yourself and your community against misinformation ahead of the election and beyond. 

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A voters’ guide to combating misinformation ahead of the election and beyond