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How do you spot and debunk misinformation? Experts chime in

Experts say falling for fake news is not a measure of intellect. Everyone is vulnerable.

Sifting through what’s real and what’s fake online is becoming a heroic feat.

For years, many of us were used to unreliable sources looking unreliable.

“We have a perception of what legitimate looks like,” said Kathryn Hill, executive director of MediaSmarts, a media and digital literacy organization.

“We think it looks professional and it looks really polished, because historically that was the case,” she said.

But that has changed dramatically.

According to Hill, hoax sites, satire publications, and false information have become incredibly sophisticated-looking, sometimes even trumping legitimate sources.

“What we know as credible sources, like universities, or non-profit research organizations, they may not have the funding to invest in their online presence.”

Many say it can be hard to wrestle with misinformation when it’s been engineered to deceive you.

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A 2018 study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that false information spread six times faster than legitimate info.

In fact, the falsehoods spread “significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.”

Something even more surprising? Humans — not bots — were more likely to spread misinformation.

According to Hill, misinformation is packaged in sophisticated and eye-catching ways, plays on emotions, and is designed to target vulnerable audiences that are most susceptible to confirmation bias. Anyone can fall for it.

“It’s everywhere now, it’s inundating us,” said Celia Du, a science communication specialist, who urges the public to look for misinformation in TV, radio, print — not just online and on social media.

“Misinformation and disinformation contain a grain of truth in them, so it makes it feel like the rest of it makes sense,” said Du.

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Even though the odds may seem stacked against you, Du says resources to fight misinformation are actually within reach. Fact-checkers have come up with numerous handy strategies for the average consumer to spot and debunk falsehoods.

Pioneered by award-winning writer Michael Caulfield and based on research by Stanford University professor Sam Wineburg, one such tool is called “SIFT.”

The SIFT model, pioneered by writer Michael Caufield.

The SIFT model, pioneered by writer Michael Caufield.

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Whenever you come across material you’re skeptical about:

S: Stop, take a deep breath, and regroup. What kind of reaction does this info produce? Hill and Du say the high speed at which we reshare posts facilitates lots of the spread of misinformation.

I: Investigate the source. This doesn’t have to be a “Pulitzer prize-winning investigation” — a quick google search will do. Who is putting out this information? Do they have the expertise to talk about this, or do they have an ulterior motive? Are they selling a product or magical fix-all? Are they being sponsored by somebody else?

F: Find better coverage. Who else is talking about this? Are reputable organizations or trusted reports sharing the same info? Can you find more in-depth information about the same claim?

T: Trace claims, quotes, and media back to the original source. What do you find when you Google them? Is there a longer version of the video that puts things into context? Can you find that media at all? If it’s difficult to trace, Du says that is an immediate red flag.

Not all of these boxes have to be ticked for you to identify misinformation. Some pointers, like finding better coverage, can stand alone.

If you don’t want to go through all that trouble, though, the good news is others have probably already done the work for you.

Hill and Du say searching the suspicious info on a fact-checking website like Snopes, Media Bias/Fact Check, or AllSides can be useful.

So you’ve debunked misinformation online. Now what? 

While the urge to cross your legs and call it a day can be enticing, think about what would happen instead if you shared your feat with your friends and family, and basked in the glory of all the praise that ensued.

But seriously though — Hill and Du say sharing that debunked info is the way to go because it can avert harm and change people’s false perceptions.

In April 2020, former U.S. President Donald Trump falsely claimed disinfectant could be injected into humans as a potential treatment for the coronavirus.

Hours later, the New York City poison control centre received 30 calls about individuals ingesting disinfectant.

The incidents continued for months.

“The impact of what we see online doesn’t just live there. It does come into offline, real life,” said Hill.

How do you share debunked info? Hill says you need two things:

  1. Know your audience. According to a University of Alberta infographic, you should address the general public, or people who are likely to listen, not very polarized individuals.
  2. Be nice and empathetic. Often, you are addressing people you deeply care about.

And if you’re still skeptical about the information?

Hill and Du say do not repost.

Why should I be responsible for debunking what others put out online?

Fair point, say Du and Hill, but just like we pay a price to participate in society (such as getting a driver’s license to operate a 4,000 lb car), we also have a price to pay in order to post and engage on social media.

And both experts say that price is becoming media literate.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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