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 political news is growing, so how can you spot the misinformation?

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WASHINGTON — During News Literacy Week this week, we are taking a closer look at the newsgathering process and educating viewers on how to spot fake news.

In politics, fake news is everywhere.


If you are wondering how quickly a fake news story can be created and shared online, look no further than Newsy Congressional Reporter Nate Reed’s recent Twitter post about the National Guard troops sleeping in the Capitol prior to the inauguration.

Just walked into the Capitol to find literally hundreds of troops napping and lining up in the Congressional Visitor Center— as streets around here are largely blocked.

Many are cuddling their firearms, fatigues over their heads to block light, and riot gear in neat piles. — Nathaniel Reed (@ReedReports) January 13, 2021

Within minutes, someone took the photo and fictitiously published this caption on social media: “Massacre at the Senate.”

In case anyone’s curious how fast disinfo spreads, my pic of soldiers resting from this morning has already been picked up on the 4chan message board, where conspiracy theorists are alleging pics of a mass murder at the Capitol.

This is demonstrably false. — Nathaniel Reed (@ReedReports) January 13, 2021

“I’ve never seen anything like it. A photo that I had taken was so grossly taken out of context,” Reed said.


The spread of fake news happens across all political parties.

And it’s growing.

In 2019, fake news on social media contributed to 8.6 billion engagements. In 2020, misinformation resulted in at least 16.3 billion interactions. That’s according to NewsGuard, an emerging fact-checking website.

“Fake news now has become weaponized in politics,” said Chris Halsne, an investigative journalist and lecturer at American University.

Halsne says it’s getting worse.

“I could coach people on how to spot fake news, a fake headline, most of them don’t care anymore,” Halsne said. “People are seeking out news that matches their opinions.”


First, make sure you look at the source of the story. Other things to look for include looking at who the writer of the article is, who employs them and how long has the publication been around.

“Don’t just look at one news source,” Halsne added.


Gabby Deutch is with NewsGuard, an emerging fact-checking company that makes software to help spot fake news. The software is being used by libraries, businesses, and even in family households.

The way it works is each time a news article appears, a green checkmark or a red exclamation point displays, indicating whether you can trust it or not.

NewsGuard has two CEOS, one a conservative and the other a liberal, in order to ensure the company isn’t biased.

“We believe there is a large chunk of people in this country who care about getting accurate information,” Deutch said.

Unfortunately, Deutch says fake news will likely grow, as it’s cheap and easy to produce fake news.

“It is profitable to run these websites,” Deutch added.

How does fake news of 5G and COVID-19 spread worldwide?

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Share on Pinterest RapidEye/Getty Images A recent study finds misinformation on the new coronavirus spreads differently across various countries. However, there was a consistent misunderstanding of 5G technology.

Among the search topics examined, the myth around 5G having links to COVID-19 was the one that spread fastest.

Dispelling myths and encouraging people to fact-check sources could help build trust with the public. Stay informed with live updates on the current COVID-19 outbreak and visit our coronavirus hub for more advice on prevention and treatment. The year 2020 brought a COVID-19 pandemic as well as a pandemic of misinformation. From the first reported case in Wuhan, China, scientists have worked around the clock to gather information about this new coronavirus. In a year, we have learned a lot about the structure of the new coronavirus, how it spreads, and ways to reduce transmission. But with new information comes misinformation. There have been many potentially dangerous theories related to COVID-19, ranging from the new coronavirus being human-made to the idea that injecting bleach or other disinfectants could protect against infection. With the coincidental rollout of 5G technology, rumors have also linked the new technology to the new coronavirus.

Factors behind the spread of misinformation The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in widespread lockdowns across the world in 2020. With billions stuck at home, people have increasingly turned to social media, which is playing a pivotal role in the spread of misinformation. According to an October 2020 study in Scientific Reports, some social media sites, such as Gab, have a far higher proportion of articles from questionable sources circulating than other platforms such as Reddit. Engagement with the content on social media platforms also varied, with Reddit users reducing the impact of unreliable information and Gab users amplifying its influence. Not all misinformation is shared maliciously. A July 2020 modeling study in Telematics and Informatics found people shared COVID-19 articles — even if they were false — because they were trying to stay informed, help others stay informed, connect with others, or pass the time. One particular social media platform, Twitter, has become a double-edged sword regarding coronavirus news. A 2020 commentary in the Canadian Journal of Emergency Medicine suggests that Twitter helps rapidly disseminate new information. Still, constant bad news can result in burnout, or push users to seek out more optimistic information that may be false. But who is more likely to share articles from dubious sources? A 2016 study in PNAS found that like-minded individuals tend to share more articles with each other, but this can lead to polarized groups when article sharing involves conspiracy theories or science news. Sharing articles with inaccurate information was most observed among conservatives and people over the age of 65 years, suggests a 2019 study in Science Advances. The research was looking at fake news surrounding the 2016 United States political election. To investigate how misinformation spreads worldwide, an international team of researchers explored what types of misinformation were more likely to be shared with others, and the patterns in how that misinformation spread. Their findings appear in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Common misinformation terms Using the World Health Organization (WHO) website, researchers compiled a list of words falsely associated with causing, treating, or preventing COVID-19. The scientists also included “hydroxychloroquine,” even though it was not part of the WHO new coronavirus mythbuster page at the start of the study. The authors focused on four misinformation topics that claimed: drinking alcohol, specifically wine, increases immunity to COVID-19

sun exposure prevents the spread of COVID-19, or it is less likely to spread in hot, sunny areas

home remedies may prevent or cure COVID-19

COVID-19 spreads via 5G cellular networks. From December 2019 to October 2020, the team used Google trends to look at the frequency of these search terms in eight countries spanning five different continents: Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, the U.S., the United Kingdom, India, Australia, and Canada.

5G myth spread fastest The researchers observed that searches related to the new coronavirus and 5G started at different times but peaked in the same week of April 5 for six of the countries. The U.K. and South Africa observed a peak during the previous week. The volume of searches for 5G also doubled in size at a faster rate than other search terms. Searches for hydroxychloroquine displayed a unique pattern, with three distinct peaks. This was likely a reflection of the ongoing discussions over several months about the drug’s possible benefits. Searches for ginger and coronavirus occurred in several countries, including the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, and India, during the week of January 19, 2020. The remaining countries did not search for these terms until February or March, while Nigeria reported no searches for ginger and coronavirus for two consecutive weeks. However, the authors note this may be due to Google’s scaling algorithm and not from Nigeria having no searches for those weeks. The sun’s effect on the new coronavirus was the subject of searches from the week of January 19, 2020, in several countries. However, Kenya did not show any such topic search until a month later. Compared to other countries, searches for coronavirus and the sun doubled more slowly in Canada. Search trends for wine concerning the new coronavirus were inconsistent across countries. Scientists excluded Nigeria and Kenya from the analysis because of low search volumes. The U.S. had the earliest searches during the week of January 12, 2020, with a peak in April. The researchers noted no obvious groupings in terms of peak weeks across countries, with search peaks spreading across March 15 to April 12. “This study illustrates that neighboring countries can have different misinformation experiences related to similar topics, which can impact control of COVID-19 in these countries,” concluded the authors.

Limitations of study While the study tracked how often people encountered a topic dealing with new coronavirus information, the researchers could not deduce whether people believed in misinformation. The authors suggest further studies would be needed to determine a person’s interest in looking up a particular search term. Other limitations include variable access to the internet across countries — the authors note that less than 10% of Nigeria’s population has access, compared with more than 90% for the U.K. Another limitation was the search terms used, which may have excluded relevant content or included noise. Lastly, the researchers point out that it would be helpful to know the characteristics of people who tend to share articles with inaccurate or false data. This could help in developing future intervention strategies. “Although monitoring misinformation-seeking behavior via Google Trends is one pathway for identifying belief prevalence and trends, we should monitor information flow across multiple platforms including social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and messaging apps such as WhatsApp.”