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Misinformation and disinformation: How to stop the spread

You can correct your friends on social media and still be friends

In a world filled with confusion, lies, and disinformation, it can be nearly impossible to figure out what’s real and what isn’t.

Is that post your friend made about COVID-19 and the masks true? They used a fact from the CDC’s website! But it doesn’t add up… hmmm? Did the president really say that? Was that a Russian bot?!

It’s exhausting, really. So, the question is, how do you stop it? Yes, I’m asking you!

I asked our experts, Fergus Bell who is the CEO and founder of fathom, a company that helps media outlets decipher fact from fiction, and Ira Hyman Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Western Washington University.  They have differing views on some things, like if you should correct a friend’s Facebook post if you believe the information is misleading or factually incorrect.  But they both agree that we can make social media a less confusing, more accurate place.

There isn’t a wide brush approach to eradicating all mis/disinformation from our digital stomping grounds, unfortunately. Instead, it’s on each person to be vigilant in the fight against the spread of lies and deceit. Bell says the complexity of disinformation campaigns makes it hard to spot, “Disinformation is, is very subtle. And the kind of clever part is we don’t know if it’s disinformation or not. But we were starting to distrust things anyway.” Bell says knowing that so much bad information is available makes us second guess everything, “that’s gonna become a problem in that whole thing because you just don’t know what to believe.”

Why can’t we be friends?

If you’re like me you have friends and family that post things on Facebook that make you second guess what you know about them. I mean, c’mon, you’ve scrolled, stopped, read, had your jaw drop… ran your mouse over to the comment box and loaded your brain with a strong retort. But did you hit enter and send it? I know more often than not, that’s me. I get to the point where I’m about to send the perfect response and then… nothing. I delete the post. Is that the right move?

Well, there are two different schools of thought on this, “How to correct misinformation...” Hyman begins, “Well, one, you should go double-check first before you do something. And it’s really nice if you can link to the correct information and post that in there when you make a comment on somebody’s Facebook post or tweet or whatever social media you’re on. So that you’re not just saying this is what I think, that you’ve got it wrong here.”

Hyman says without facts to back up your argument, you just appear to be pitting your thoughts and ideas against the same.  Facts are facts and posts with facts attached are just opinions. 

On the flip side, when I asked Fergus Bell if you should correct a post a friend made that is misinformation, he had this opinion, “If I was to hover over someone’s posts and correct it, that would feel a little bit too personal. I don’t think you would necessarily achieve the desired result.” Bell was quick to point out that his friends' list is filled with journalists, so correcting one of them publicly might be different than correcting a crazy uncle. 

Bell says when you do this you need to be polite about it and remember that these people are your friends.  They probably matter to you more than a Facebook post does.  After all, we’re all different in some ways and different opinions, which is what makes us unique, “We can be friends if we disagree on things,” says Bell.

You Can’t Always Stick to the Rivers and Lakes that You’re Used to

We all have our favorite websites, social media platforms, email services, devices, and so on.  We probably have preferred news outlets too. I know I do, (clickondetroit.com,) but sometimes people search for sites that fit their ideology and they can forget that other news outlets exist, and more importantly, those other outlets might have something the lesser-known sites don’t have - credibility.

How many times have you seen a post on someone’s timeline and thought, what the heck is, “The Kalamazoo kaleidoscope?” New publications seem to pop up on the regular.  Our experts say that’s a big red flag.  If you notice a post which cites a strange new outlet your spidey sense should start to tingle and fact-finding should begin! Many times these posts fit a person’s beliefs so they’ll blindly believe what they’re sharing, “all of us need to be particularly watchful when it’s something that we really like,” says Hyman. He says it’s simple, “We really want it to be true. Because you know, then it’s been through our own worldview, and we’re very vulnerable.”

Hyman and Bell both say you need to check, double-check and check again whenever you run across something that doesn’t look right. There’s no easy answer on how to stop the spread of disinformation, but Hyman says this is your best bet, “slowing down allows us to, you know, assess whether or not we really want to do something. And then the second piece is when we do encounter something, that’s clearly misinformation, if it’s an important bit of misinformation, it’s probably worth correcting it. And that means grabbing the right sources off the internet and linking to those to provide the correction to it.

You may not change the mind of the person you’re discussing (the issue with,) but you might save other people who are exposed to that by providing them the correction immediately. So those are the two big ones, you know, slow down and correct, when it’s important.”

Always good advice! Everything would be a little easier if we all just slowed down.


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