The best ways to spot fake news on social media & help stop the spread of it

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(WXYZ) — Social media algorithms can change what you see and how you view the world. Echo chambers narrow our exposure to differing viewpoints and in some cases, can overload us with access to false information.

This week is news literacy week, and we’re partnering with the News Literacy Foundation to help provide you with ways we can all spot misinformation that’s meant to trick or mislead us.

Related: National News Literacy Week challenges public to test, improve news literacy skills

In a time of instant information gratification, immeasurable amounts of data online are at our fingertips. Some say it’s both a blessing and a curse

“The downside of that is we it’s very conducive to selective thinking," Helen Lee Bouygues said. She’s a fake news expert and critical thinking advocate with The Reboot Foundation.

For the last few years, they have been studying fake news and the misinformation ecosystem.

“What’s the link between fake news and critical thinking? There’s actually quite a bit because fake news is a bit of a symptom of not doing proper critical thinking," she said.

Social media has been a great boon to all kinds of activists because of its ease of use, but it also allows for easy targeting.

Bouygues says it’s different from going to the library to look up information. It’s less deliberate, and algorithms drive your choices rather than you.

“The negative side is you are naturally being tunnel-visioned in terms of even the sources of information that you’re gathering,” she said.

At the same time, trust in established news sources has been on the decline over the last 50 years.

According to Gallup, that confidence dropped to its all-time low in 2016 with only 32% of Americans saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media.

“There’s skepticism even about institutional sources," she said.

Another alarming trend that compounds the issue of fact vs. fiction came from MIT researchers.

They found that false news stories are 70% more likely to be retweeted than true stories, and it takes six times as long for true stories to reach the same number of people as false ones.

“People are not only falling into the trap of their cognitive biases, they’re nurturing it via different channels of information gathering," Bouygues added.

After former President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter on Jan. 8, researchers at analytics firm Zignal Labs say election misinformation dropped by 73%.

Research also indicated that the spread of misinformation on Twitter is attributed more to people than bots.

Three things Bouygues recommends:

Avoid single sources of information

Resist clicking on the first links in your online search

Familiarize yourself with common tactics used by some to mislead, like conspiracy theories and trolling, which prey on emotional reactions

“Ultimately people don’t want to be duped. That’s in our human nature. And ultimately we want to spend that extra time to have better information,” Bouygues added.

In a time when information is being weaponized, experts say it’s best to think twice before you retweet.

Fake news: bold visual warnings needed to stop people clicking – new research

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A senior doctor in charge of the NHS anti-disinformation campaign has said that language and cultural barriers could be causing people from ethnic minorities to reject the COVID-19 vaccine. Dr Harpreet Sood told the BBC it was “a big concern” and officials were working hard to reach different groups “to correct so much fake news”.

Some of the disinformation is religiously targeted with messages falsely claiming the vaccines contain animal produce like pork and beef which goes against the religious beliefs of Muslims and Hindus, respectively.

The issue of language is key because most warnings about misinformation online are in a written format. Take Facebook’s adoption of new alerts supported by independent fact-checkers, for example. They warn users of fake news and to try to prevent them from sharing it unknowingly. It is certainly a step in the right direction. But text warnings can be easily misunderstood and ignored. And that’s the problem.

Our research, which will be published later in the year, explores this issue and examines new, more visual, ways to warn users about potential misinformation. For our study, we manipulated a standard Facebook page design to develop ten different visualisation effects.

These effects can be categorised under colour-based or “block” techniques where the text is essentially highlighted, blur effects which play with and alter the focus of the text and pictorial-based techniques – like an image of shattered glass superimposed over the suspicious post. What was of real importance to us was how the image could be used to help people decide what is and isn’t misinformation.

In the physical world the design and use of warning signs is regulated by law and various standards must be followed. But online – and particularly in relation to misinformation – there are hardly any safety standards at all. So more attention needs to be given to the design of these warnings to support and motivate people to take more heed of the threat and its potential impact.

Our study with 550 adults found that people took more notice of warnings with assertive visuals highlighting the text, such as shattered glass or a block effect.

For many, the block effect clearly warned of impending danger, alarm or misfortune. When we asked which visualisation effect made people question the validity of what they were reading, the block visualisation was more effective for men while the blur visualisation worked better for women.

Author provided

Interestingly, the blur effects raised participants suspicions and acted more like a caution, to afford careful and potentially more prudent behaviour on Facebook.

Looking for clues

People are still hugely reliant on clues and weaknesses in the presentation of online content as ways to detect misinformation. For example, many participants told us they watch for things like bad spelling and grammar and flaws in the interface (like unprofessional designs) as ways to identify if something is not quite right. Unfortunately, in the age of sophisticated and convincing misinformation attacks, this technique might not be as successful as it once was.

The participants in our study felt they needed more help to cope with misinformation and many mentioned the need for bold signs and warnings. They wanted help to recognise that something is not right and so not to believe it.

Misinformation is clearly not going away. In 2020 a massive outbreak of disinformation about COVID-19 endangered lives and hampered the recovery. So it is more crucial than ever that people are given the right visual tools to find important and reliable information online.

In the real world, there are bold signs that warn us of danger – whether its a red “no entry” sign on a road or an exclamation mark which shouts: keep clear. It’s time key players like Facebook, Google and Twitter considered how a simple tweak to their designs might just help people spot danger online too.

7 Steps To Avoid Being Fooled By Fake News On Social Media

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Misinformation on social media is unfortunately nothing new. But a recent set of unique circumstances — the global pandemic and a contentious presidential election — has created an environment that helps spawn even more of it.

“Misinformation flourishes most when people are fearful, angry and uncertain,” says Suzannah Gonzales, director of education and content with the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit that provides resources to help people be smart consumers of news and information.

During unprecedented events, people are driven to seek explanations, and they may even want to find someone, or something, to pin blame on, Gonzales explains.

From imposter news sites to heavily biased blogs to deceptive images and deepfake videos, misleading content can be packaged in a number of clever ways. New research from the University of Colorado Boulder sheds some light on who’s most likely to be pressing the share button to help propel all of this fake content.

For starters, Facebook tends to be a more fertile breeding ground for fake news than Twitter, according to the CU-Boulder study that was published in the journal of Human Communication Research in October 2020. Also, people on the far ends of the liberal-conservative spectrum, and those who lack trust in conventional media, are most likely to share misleading content, the study found.

To coincide with National News Literacy Week, here are seven steps courtesy of NLP that can help you recognize fake content.

  1. Check Your Emotions

Are you angry, scared, curious, outraged or excited? Misinformation is more likely to hijack rational minds with emotional appeals, according to educators at NLP.

NLP also encourages people to “sanitize before you share” to help stop viral rumors from spreading, Gonzales says. Do this by first pausing and make sure your emotions aren’t taking over. Then, look at comments to see if anyone has fact-checked the information. Do a quick search on your browser: Turn the claim you’re checking into a question. Reply to the person who shared the information and ask for the original source or for evidence that supports the claim.


  1. Determine The Purpose Of The Information

False information can be packaged in a number of formats. Gonzales recommends you “think like a journalist” and do some digging to learn more about the source of information. Some questions you can ask yourself:

Is what I’m reading, watching or listening to a news report? An opinion column? An advertisement? A satirical piece?

Does the source have an “About Us” or similar page?

Can you find biographical information or contact information for its employees and contributors?

Dr. Glen Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Northern Georgia whose research focuses on partisan media influence on public opinion, also recommends being aware of replica and obscure news sources.

“One sneaky way to fake credibility is to attribute a source to a website that looks very similar to a reputable news source,” Smith says. “For example, instead of nbcnews, it might be ncbnews.”


  1. Be Aware Of Your Own Biases

Before you consume content, are you assuming or hoping that the information you’ll be presented is true? Or false?

Confirmation bias — which is the tendency to search for information that reinforces your beliefs — can be at play, explains NLP. People are wired to uncritically accept new information when it supports what they want to believe, Smith says.

“So, if you read a headline that is shocking, but confirms your views, you should probably be extra critical,” he says.

Another thing to keep in mind: The Gallup/Knight Foundation reported that Americans commonly share news stories with others, but primarily do so with like-minded people.

(AP Photo/Altaf Qadri, File)

  1. Consider The Message

In the aftermath of NBA legend Kobe Bryant’s fatal helicopter crash in January 2020, a fake image went viral that showed a supposed tweet from Bryant claiming he had information that would lead to the arrest of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The image shows he sent the tweet at 9:30 a.m. on Jan. 26, 2020; the helicopter Bryant was in crashed just before 10 a.m. on the same day. (, a nonprofit fact-checking site run by the Poynter Institute, debunked the claim).

The doctored viral image, Gonzales says, is a prime example of fake content being packaged “too perfectly.”

When considering a message, you should also consider if it’s overtly or aggressively partisan and look to see if it uses loaded language, excessive punctuation (!!!) or all caps for emphasis. Another red flag is if it claims to contain a secret or tells you something that “the media” doesn’t want you to know, according to NLP.

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

  1. Search For More Information

Americans are increasingly getting their information from social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but false information can quickly turn from a snowball to an avalanche on those sites. As social media platforms grapple with limiting the spread of false and dangerous information while allowing free speech, Consumer Reports points out that the rules on misinformation across the platforms vary widely.

As you search for more information, NLP recommends taking note if reputable news outlets are reporting the same thing. Has the information been contested or debunked by independent fact-checkers such as Snopes, Politifact or Can you determine where the information first appeared?

While social media platforms are now flagging posts that contain false information or lack important context, you can’t rely on social media sites to do the fact-checking for you, Gonzales says.

Also, as the social media giants crackdown on misinformation, several people have started flocking to sites like Parler and MeWe that don’t have the same fact-checking regulations, according to Chrysalis Wright, a professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida and the founding director of the university’s Media and Migration Lab. (In the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, though, Amazon web hosting service suspended Parler because of violent posts and threats. The site is essentially homeless on the Internet as Apple and Google also removed Parler from its platforms.)

(AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

  1. Go Deeper On The Source

Look around on the source website. Does the source have a policy to promptly correct errors and do so in a transparent manner? Also, look for disclaimers on the site to see if the content is labeled as satire.

Fake sites are also known to link to sources that don’t actually exist or actually say the opposite of what the article claims, Smith says.


  1. Go Deeper On The Content Itself

The NLP gives these helpful prompts to determine the legitimacy of content:

Search the byline. Is the content creator a real person?

Is what being reported old or outdated information?

Can you confirm key dates being shared, like the date, time and location?

Search for quotes used to see if they are presented in context and accurate.

Do a reverse image search on photos and graphics to see if they appear elsewhere online. Have the images been altered or shown in a different context?

The takeaway here? Fabricated news and content can be packaged in a variety of clever ways. But, keeping these steps in mind can help you filter out deceptive content and be a savvy consumer of information.

This article is part of the second annual National News Literacy Week, Jan. 25-29, a national public awareness campaign to promote news literacy and the role of a free press in American democracy. The week is part of an ongoing partnership between Simplemost’s parent company, The E.W. Scripps Company, and the News Literacy Project. Visit to test your own news literacy and take the pledge to be news-literate.