How to fight lies, tricks and chaos online
By Adi Robertson @thedextriarchy, Illustrations by Alex Castro / The Verge on Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019
Features in QESP NewsletterVolume 31 , Issue 12 - ISSN 1325-2070
(QESP Editor’s Note: The following is a reprint of a Dec 3, 2019 article in The Verge by Adi Robertson. The original is available at https://www.theverge.com/2019/12/3/20980741/fake-news-facebook-twitter-misinformation-lies-fact-check-how-to-internet-guide The original has a Further Reading Guide with links to other research organisations and institutes. You can also listen to the discussion on The Vergecast)
A few months ago, I got angry about something on Twitter. Somebody had tweeted a photo of a paper sign in an apartment building, informing tenants that using the elevator would soon cost $35 a month. It was surprising, but on a gut level, exactly the kind of behavior I’d expect from a greedy landlord — the kind of thing that’s easy to furiously retweet without thinking.
But a little digging showed that the photo was uploaded to Reddit back in 2013, and the post’s author said the signs were quickly taken down. The building manager denied writing them to both the author and a reporter, suggesting that this was either a prank or an immediately abandoned plan. Retweeting the photo would have just outraged people about something that had seemingly never happened.
This kind of viral half-truth is part of the fabric of today’s internet, and the kind of anger it inspired has been turned into a dangerous commodity. It’s cynically exploited by businesses for ad-supported “fake news,” by scammers raising money online, and by authoritarian governments to spread hate and fear.
I don’t want to blame people who fall for these tricks. A lot of the problems are exacerbated by companies, governments, and other factors that individuals can’t control. But the internet is full of grifters, tricksters, and outright liars who rely on people’s basic trust to amplify their message. It’s worth slowing down and carefully navigating their traps — to avoid spreading an alarming false rumor, getting angry at a group of people for something they didn’t do, or perpetuating an honest misunderstanding.
And as a person who does care deeply about putting true things online, I know I’ve personally misunderstood stories because I didn’t think to look more closely, and not always because somebody was deliberately fooling me. It took me years to really understand where all the information I saw online was coming from. So this isn’t just a guide to spotting when something is fake. It’s a system for slowing down and thinking about information — whether that information is true, false, or something in between.
STEP ONE: WHEN TO BE WORRIED
It’s hard to be vigilant all the time, but there are a few red flags that indicate something might be misleading.
The first step is honing your sense of when a given piece of content is too good (or bad) to be true. Once you start looking, you’ll notice specific subtypes of this content — like ragebait designed to get traffic from people’s anger, hyperpartisan appeals that twist the facts, or outright scams. The techniques are relatively common across different types of story, and they’re not hard to recognize.
Outside these specific cases, the general technique is almost stupidly simple: if a story grabs your attention for any reason, slow down and look closer.
STEP TWO: HOW TO CHECK OUT A LINK
Once you’ve decided to look more deeply at a story online, it’s time to figure out where and when it comes from. Internet news can work like a game of telephone: every time somebody reposts or rewrites something, there’s a chance that important details will get lost.
The first step in that process is finding the date of the original story — which is one of the most helpful pieces of information you can get. If the story’s being shared in a Facebook post or a tweet, click on the post and find its date, otherwise known as the timestamp. You should also look for the source of the relevant information. Sometimes a news story will explicitly cite its sources, whether that’s by making clear that the author performed firsthand research and interviews, or by linking to a press release or another news outlet. If it’s the latter, just click through to see where the information is coming from, and make sure to check the timestamp on that as well.
Sometimes, though, it’s unclear where news originated — a story might print an inflammatory quote without saying where or when it’s from, or a Twitter account might share a photo with a description that might be wrong. In those cases, do a quick search for more coverage and original sourcing, generally using a search engine like Bing, DuckDuckGo, or Google.
For more specific search tips, here are some of the strategies I use.
STEP THREE: HOW TO FIND THE CONTEXT
Some online disinformation is blatantly fake or misleading. But other stories are more subtly wrong. They might omit important details, blow small controversies out of proportion, or use legitimate news to attract people before feeding them bad information.
The key here is looking for gaps in a story, or mismatches between a story’s claims and its actual source material. These might be honest mistakes — like accounts sharing satirical news without realizing it. Or they might be a deliberate attempt to fool people.
There’s no step-by-step guide for understanding a story’s full context. But there are a few principles you can keep in mind.
STEP FOUR: HOW TO WEIGH THE EVIDENCE
At this point, you probably understand the story you started with pretty well. You’re ready for the last, most subjective step of the process: deciding what it means. If you’ve been momentarily fooled by an Onion link or some other fake story — and seriously, it’s happened to all of us — this isn’t a tough step. If it’s a real piece of news, things get a lot harder.
You obviously don’t want to believe everything you see or read. But uncritically disbelieving everything is just as bad. Some news sources really are more consistently accurate than others. Some expert opinions are more trustworthy than your own amateur research. If you only believe things that you’ve checked with your own eyes, you’ll have an incredibly blinkered view of the world.
So the goal here isn’t to identify why a story is wrong. It’s to identify how the story works — which parts are complicated and subjective, which parts are probably accurate, and how much it should change your opinions or behavior.
Solving misinformation and disinformation isn’t as simple as following a checklist. Getting too invested in the checklist can even backfire. Researcher danah boyd has described a dark side of media literacy education in schools — where asking students to think critically can cement a blanket assumption that news outlets are lying. And I don’t want to put all the responsibility for solving misinformation on individuals.
But here’s the thing: I think all this stuff is fun. Tracing the path of information online is one of my favorite activities, like solving a puzzle or directing an archaeological dig. I want to share that process with other people — and to make a case for why getting things right is more interesting and valuable than just confirming your beliefs or scoring points online.
And above all, I want to argue for treating investigation like a shovel, not a knife. Critical thinking shouldn’t just be a synonym for doubting or debunking something, and the point of research isn’t simply to poke holes in a story. It’s to understand the story better, or — if somebody is telling that story maliciously or incompetently — to get deep enough to find the truth.