How to spot disinformation — and what Wisconsinites can do about it

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Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

Retired University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism professor Jack Mitchell teaches a class called “How ‘Fake’ is the News?” at Christ Presbyterian Church in Madison, Wis., on March 6, 2020. The class discussed how to identify misinformation in the news media.

Organizations including First Draft, Medium and the Brookings Institution, have compiled recommendations for how you can identify and avoid sharing disinformation. Wisconsin Watch has drawn from these resources and advice from experts to provide the following guidelines for staying vigilant online:

  1. Check the source. A basic rule of journalism, this can be surprisingly difficult with memes, graphics and other visual content. But proceed with caution if there are no links to articles in trusted media, source data, references to published studies or valid user profiles associated with the information.
  2. Check your pulse. Inflammatory content is often intended to push buttons and sow division. If a post makes you furious, it might have been designed for that purpose, so think twice before sending it on to your friends. Also always consider your own biases before engaging, and be conscious of the fact that things can seem more plausible when they align with one’s own worldview.
  3. Check images. Several online reverse image search tools, like TinEye, make it very easy to find out whether an image is original or copied from elsewhere on the internet. They can also be used in conjunction with tools like Botometer, which assesses whether Twitter accounts and followers are likely to be real people or bots, so you can comprehensively gauge an account’s authenticity.
  4. Check the context. If a post appears in your feed from a group, page or organization that you have never heard of — even if it was shared by a friend — take a look at that organization’s home page. Do they only post far-right or far-left content? How much of it seems to be grounded in fact-based arguments versus emotional appeals? Finally, are the posts up-to-date, or do they dredge up hot-button topics from the past? 
  5. Check your impulse to share. The bottom line, according to experts like Lee Rasch and David Becker, is that false and misleading content will be less likely to gain traction if people avoid sharing it. That’s why it is sometimes better to channel your energy and enthusiasm for a topic or candidate into something positive: volunteering or promoting a cause that you care about in a non-toxic way, for example, instead of getting lost in what First Draft calls the “information disorder” online.

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