6 Tips to Steer Clear of Misinformation Online

Download and print this guide here. Share your Data Detox experience, keep in touch, or get inspiration for activities by writing to Safa at datadetox@tacticaltech.org!

Apps, websites, and online media can be essential for accessing news, life hacks, and entertainment. But amid all that content, it can be tough to navigate the distractions to find what you’re really looking for.

What’s more, it can be hard to tell the difference between fact and fiction when you encounter a video, picture, or article online. From personality quizzes that try to profile you, to shocking headlines and altered photos or videos that can convince you of a completely different reality, what you see online is not always what it seems.

Having access to so much information can be both a blessing and a curse. The problem lies when things are not clearly labeled or are misleading, making it difficult for you to know what is what. We’re not just talking about misinformation, so-called “fake news,” or political advertisements... even a silly photo-filter app might not be designed for the reasons you think. The best defense is to ask critical questions, so you can learn to recognize the difference between a harmless parody and a hoax, between content that’s intentionally misleading or just poorly researched, and to spot red flags and unreliable sources.

In this Data Detox, you’ll explore misinformation-related topics and buzzwords, starting with a close-up look at your responsibility and then exploring the bigger picture, while getting advice on how to find your way through what’s out there.

Let’s go!


1. Realize Your Power to Make Waves

Liking, sharing, retweeting, reposting – these actions all describe how you interact with what you see online – and your interactions make a big difference. When enough people engage with a picture, video, or post, it spreads rapidly, by definition becoming ‘viral’.

Take a moment to ask yourself: “What’s my influence online?” When was the last time you saw a shocking or funny article, headline, video, or image, and within seconds you had already forwarded it to your friends?

Researchers have found that the stories and images most likely to go viral are those that make you feel fearful, disgusted, in awe, angry, or anxious. If this is something you did just this morning, don’t feel bad!

Did you know? Sharing can cause a snowball effect. If one person shares an article with 10 of their friends, and they each share it with 10 of their friends, it’s already reached over 100 people in just a few seconds. This makes it very hard to take it back or correct any mistakes.

Sharing Is Caring

Sharing is a form of participation. When you share something (anything), you’re playing a part in the chance that it might go viral. If it turns out to be misinformation, for example, do you really want your name and reputation attached to it? Before you share a link, consider whether you might be spreading something untrue, destructive, or toxic.


2. Think Twice Before Taking That Personality Test

When was the last time you saw a quiz (either in text or photo filters) called something like:

  • Which decade are you?
  • What is your spirit animal?
  • Which Disney villain are you?
  • What is your perfect vacation?
  • Which Game of Thrones character are you?
  • ... the list goes on!

While there’s a chance this was a fun quiz designed to get you to engage, it’s also possible that the questions were carefully crafted to collect data in order to categorize your personality, based on so-called psychometric patterns. The most commonly used psychological profiling scale measures your personality based on 5 traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (also referred to as OCEAN) in an attempt to more effectively target you or people like you.

Did you know? This was exactly the kind of personality test that got Facebook and Cambridge Analytica in trouble for profiling and targeting users without their knowledge.

Your answers to a quiz like “Which Simpsons character are you?,” along with your other habits that might be monitored by your browser, app, or connected items like loyalty cards, can give data analysts a sense of what kind of person you are, what you care about, and how to influence you to buy a pair of shoes (for example)... or even build a profile of you in order to decide how to try to influence you to vote a certain way in the next election.

Keep More Secrets

When you think of private information, your passwords, identification number, and bank account number might be the first things to jump to your mind. But details about you such as what scares you, what annoys you, and your ambitions are just as personal. These details can be considered valuable by data analysts, shedding light on what makes you tick as a person. Think twice before giving away that kind of information in a survey or a quiz.

Find tips for detoxing your data in the run-up to an election here.


3. Don’t Take the Bait

  • “You won’t believe these beauty tricks (number 5 is shocking!)”
  • “Unbelievable! She ate this everyday and now...”
  • “Man vs. Shark: What happens next will surprise you...”

When was the last time you clicked on a headline or video that sounded like this? Maybe it advertised one thing, but it led to content that was actually quite different than you expected? It could be that the headline seemed exciting but the article was actually really tame. It turned out you were neither shocked nor surprised.

That’s because you were baited to click on it.

Clickbait is a term used to describe sensationalist, dishonest, or made-up headlines used with the intent to provoke people to click on the headline or link. The more attention an article, video, or image receives, the more money it’s likely to earn. That means there’s a motivation for creators to say anything it takes to get you to click on or share their content.

Based on the personality profile built about you by the platforms you use (like Facebook and Instagram), you may get customized headlines that have been created to trigger your emotions in a way that’s most likely to get you to click.

Clickbait may be found alongside misinformation, but not always. Once you begin identifying clickbait headlines, you’ll notice them all over YouTube, blogs, and tabloids.

Get to the Source

When faced with clickbait, don’t stop at the headline. If it looks like a secure link, click into the article and find out who the author is, when it was published, and which sources it’s referring to. It could be that inside the article, there’s a note that it’s paid content or an advertisement, or maybe it’s categorized as an opinion piece. These details can help you decide whether it’s worth your energy.


4. Watch Out for Visual Misinformation

Deepfakes are videos, audio clips, or pictures that have been digitally altered, typically to replace someone’s face or movements or to alter their words. While “deepfakes” is a recent term, they have actually been around in one form or another for ages (like in the 1917 Cottingley Fairies photo or in the 1994 film Forrest Gump). It’s even easier to create so-called cheap fakes – misleading content that doesn’t require sophisticated technology, but instead can be created by simply putting the wrong headline on a photo or video, or using outdated content to illustrate a current event.

In 2019, during the peak of the Amazon fires in Brazil, celebrities and politicians like French President Emmanuel Macron shared photos of devastated forests ... just not the right ones. The magazine Mother Jones found that the photos that went the most viral were not from the 2019 wildfires in Brazil, but instead dated back as far as 1989.

How could this happen? The most common scenario is that a well-intentioned source was in a rush, didn’t do enough research, and published it online. Then it had a ripple effect where it went viral before it could be corrected.

It might seem impossible to truly combat misinformation, but there is something key you can do ... stay anchored.

Stay Anchored and Explore

Just like when you’re dealing with clickbait, don’t accept something at face value. If a video or photo you’ve seen seems surprising or outrageous, recognize that feeling and consider there might be more than meets the eye. Otherwise, if you notice the same image is filling up your feed or has been shared with you multiple times, recognize that as a possible reason to get to the real source.

That’s when you’ll want to ask more questions: who published it (which website, who was the author)? When was it published? If it’s an image, do a reverse image search on TinEye and see where else you find it.

Cross-check other credible news sources before you consider it to be true and before you share it with your friends and family.


5. Seek the Truth on the Internet

The term "misinformation" is used to refer to a wide range of inaccurate or misleading information, including satire, poorly researched or unverified content, hoaxes, and scams. Misinformation isn’t always spread maliciously, but regardless of the reason behind why it’s shared, the result is generally the same: people on the receiving end believe that something wrong is actually right, or that something happened that never did.

At best, it may be a humorous meme. At worst, it might be inaccurate health information or false political information.

Even with your best efforts to investigate and ask critical questions of the articles you read, it may still leave you feeling confused. But know this: you’re not alone!

All Hands on Deck

Just because a website doesn’t acknowledge their mistakes, it doesn’t mean they don’t make them. In fact, the most reliable publications are those that are extra careful with the truth, and employ people or entire departments whose sole job it is to fact-check.

Look for sources that issue corrections when they’re wrong. Even better is when the update is summarized right at the top of the article and shared on social media, so you don’t need to search too hard for it.

There are also tools online to help you. PolitiFact, Snopes, and Hoax-Slayer fight misinformation by employing writers, editors, and others to fact check rumors and gossip. Plug-ins like NewsGuard, TrustedNews, and the Official Media Bias Fact Check Icon will display grades, rankings, and reports about each news website you visit. You can then use that information to decide for yourself.

You may even consider taking investigations into your own hands. You can use Tactical Tech’s The Kit to help you verify with care.


6. Burst Your Filter Bubble

After websites and apps build a profile of what your interests are, you might find yourself in a filter bubble. This is when services feed you more stories like the ones you’re already clicking on. How does that limit or change what you hear about?

YouTube is the most obvious example of a platform that recommends content based on what you already watch (also known as “algorithmic curation”), but similar set ups can be found on Netflix, Spotify, on the Instagram and Twitter explore pages, in your Facebook feed, and on Amazon.

Being in a filter bubble can cause people to see completely different stories, news headlines, articles, and advertisements, as demonstrated in the interactive article Blue Feed, Red Feed.

It might sound like a good thing to only see content that has been tailored for you. But consider this example: in the same way that your interest in dog training videos on YouTube will continue to recommend similar dog videos, your neighbor’s interest in conspiracy videos on the same platform will continue them down that path. In the worst case, filter bubbles can make neighbors and communities and even whole nations more polarized.

Find out if you’re in a filter bubble! Sit down with a friend or family member and compare what topics you see first in your news app or on your social media feeds. Do the results surprise you? Are you in different bubbles or the same one? Either way, you can recommend they follow the tips in this Data Detox, too!

If you know you’re viewing algorithmically curated content designed specifically for you across your apps and websites, the question is: how can you step outside of your filter bubble?

Change the Winds and Mix Up Your News

A good way to burst your filter bubble is to subscribe to services that aggregate news and information from a variety of sources and with a diverse pool of perspectives. RSS feeds, forums, and mailing lists that exercise a broad range of opinions and themes may help you see outside of your bubble. Global Voices and The Syllabus are great options to start with.

If you found these tips helpful, check out Escape the Defaults to Enhance Your Digital Wellbeing for more Data Detox tips!


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Last updated on: 4/22/2021