How to Identify Misinformation When Consuming Content Online

(STL.News) It has been said, “Don’t believe everything you read and only half of what you see.”  This is especially the case in a global climate in which “fake news,” “misinformation campaigns,” and “propaganda” are the latest buzzwords.

What do these terms mean?  How can you identify this type of information when you see it?  We’ll examine this below.

What Is Misinformation?

Have you ever Googled a topic only to find conflicting information online?  For example, if you look up “resume tips,” you may find suggestions that contradict each other – one website says to include your photo while another says omit it, for example.

Is this misinformation?  In the case of the resume, the differences of opinion may depend on popular resume trends at the time the author entered the workforce or where they live in the world.  No one is intentionally trying to misinform you.  Still, misinformation has been defined as “false or out-of-context information that is presented as fact regardless of an intent to deceive.”

(You can find current and accurate tips on creating a basic resume here.)

When incorrect information is shared and spread – even when the topic is as innocuous as how to write a resume – this can be considered misinformation.

According to Business Insider, disinformation takes things a step further.  “Disinformation is a type of misinformation that is intentionally false and intended to deceive or mislead.”

This can include fake news, “false news stories, often of a sensational nature, created to be widely shared or distributed for the purpose of generating revenue, or promoting or discrediting a public figure, political movement, company, etc.”

It can also take the form of propaganda, “information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc.”

Protecting Yourself from Misinformation

Some news sources are very honest and forthcoming.  For example, in the about section of STL News, you’ll read the following:

“Our primary objectives are to provide unbiased and timely news stories that we obtain directly from sources.  Therefore, we publish news supplied from sources that we believe to be reliable. However, we are NOT journalists and have NOT independently verified the content.  Consequently, we recommend verifying the information before making any personal, financial, business, or political decisions.”

This informational outlet readily admits that while it tries to remain unbiased, unverified information could slip through.  Therefore, the reader should assume the responsibility of verifying the information before using it to make decisions.

Since anyone can publish anything on the internet, this is more important than ever.  When considering the accuracy of a piece of information, ask yourself the following questions.

Where Did the Information Come From?

Just because a link looks like it comes from a legitimate news source or official website, it is not necessarily so.  Some misinformation distributors go to great lengths to make their sites appear visually similar to other websites.  Sometimes, the URL is just one or two letters off from the actual web address, causing some to visit the site by mistake.  Take a careful look around.  It’s always best to get the information as directly as possible.

The same is true on social media. Anyone can set up an account, and “catfishing” – using someone else’s profile picture and assuming a false identity – is more rampant than ever.

Do They Have an Agenda?

Political, medical, and religious topics are among the most likely to be backed by a strong agenda.  Consider the wording of the information.  Is it objective, reporting only the facts, or does it lean heavily into a particular political ideology?  Is the author trying to inform you, or are they trying to convince you to do or not do something, to buy a product, or to spread the information further?  Are conspiracy theories involved?  Does the information incite people to hatred or violence?  If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” consider seeking out a more objective source of information.

Do Sources Agree?

When in doubt, check out a number of different informational sources.

What About Photos?

Images and videos can also be deceptive. Statements and actions can be taken out of context, or worse – with deep fake technology, videos can be made that seem to show a person saying or doing anything.

If it seems sensational, do a little research.  Consider one example. Several years ago, a photo went viral of a U.S. soldier holding a camel spider.  The spider appeared to be several feet in length!  A close examination of the photo, though, shows that it is an optical illusion.  The arachnids are still relatively big – but they are a few inches, not a few feet, in length.

In Conclusion

When doing research online, look for unbiased information that can be verified from various sources.  Be cautious of viral social media posts…..