5 Things to Check Before Sharing News About Politics
Did you see a horrifying claim about a candidate you despise on Twitter? How about a video explaining the "untold story" of COVID-19? Before you hit retweet, maybe you should pause and think: Am I putting something truthful and helpful out into the world? Or am I part of the problem?
Wait, what's wrong with sharing a funny meme or an earth-shattering social post? According to researchers (yes, there are people who study this stuff), sharing "fake news" isn't just an oopsie -- it's dangerous. It doesn't matter what it is: a headline error, a deliberate fake, an out-of-context statement, or misappropriated content (e.g., revenge porn). When you don't make the effort to verify the accuracy of what you share, you unwittingly contribute to the growing problem of disinformation.
According to Dr. Claire Wardle, co-author of Information Disorder: Toward an Interdisciplinary Framework for Research and Policymaking, disinformation is more pernicious than just-plain-wrong misinformation. It's more like propaganda, intentionally fake content spread by people (or governments) for their own gain (money, power, fame). Both types contribute to a chaotic news environment, in which folks don't know who or what to believe. And the more we share, the more we help bad actors achieve their goals. And while traditional news sources can be held responsible for what they report, social media platforms generally do not face liability for when their users post (and the platform later promotes) disinformation.
Though social media platforms try to keep up with all this stuff, it's really a game of whack-a-mole. After all, the major players, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, tend to amplify the most sensational bits of content regardless of their accuracy in order to keep users interacting and engaged (because that helps sell ads, which make the companies money). As the presidential campaign ramps up, the information wars are most likely going to get worse. With mass communication at our fingertips, companies need to make changes to address false content, but in the meantime it's up to us to take responsibility for our own individual actions. Here are five things to check before you share news about politics:
Does it pass your own "smell test"? Think critically about everything you see. Reflect for a moment on the piece of information you're considering sharing: Does it track with established facts you already know about the topic? Does it seem just a little too outrageous? Is the person who shared it trustworthy? Where did it come from? If it's from a family member, private-message them for more information. Dig deeper.
Is your blood boiling? Are you close to tears? Do you feel like you've "won"? Sensationalistic news is designed to prey on our emotions (sadly, we humans tend toward negativity bias -- which means we're more likely to pay attention to things that make us angry, afraid, and sad). While it's important to have good media literacy skills to sniff out misinformation, Dr. Wardle encourages folks to develop "emotional skepticism" -- that's when you do a reality check on any heightened emotional response you're experiencing to determine if your feelings are being manipulated by what you're looking at.
Fact check. You can use Snopes, Factcheck.org, or any of these fact-checking resources to see if they've covered the piece of content in question. If you're looking at a meme, GIF, or other image, do a reverse image search on Google to see where else it comes up.
Compare. See how other sources are covering the same topic. Some sites and apps, such as SmartNews and Allsides curate news from many big outlets and label the political bias of the original source. Read laterally: Open up several tabs at once and cross-check information as you go.
Consider your own role as an information super-spreader. Ask yourself: Why am I seeing this piece of information in the first place? Social media allows creators to micro-target specific demographics so that their content will be legitimized through the act of sharing. Check the hashtag: Lots of folks make up hashtags that they want to go viral. If there's a hashtag associated with the content, investigate it to see who's behind it. Finally: Why are you sharing this? Does it only serve to confirm your beliefs and not further dialogue? Cross-examine your motives, and if you don't like what you find, just hit "save" and look at it later.
For even more resources to help navigate election season, visit our Young Voter's Guide to Social Media and the News.