Nobody likes an awkward and sometimes heated debate on perceived facts and fake news over Thanksgiving dinner. Do we just sit idly by with a half-smile on our face and chew our turkey while misinformation is spewed at one side of the dinner table, or can we take moments such as this as a teaching experience for our family members? Whether you aim to address the misinformation at Thanksgiving dinner, after dessert, or in an email two days later, I believe the following investigative verification tips are valuable tools to share with friends and family about deciphering misinformation. The methods I’m proposing are specifically geared toward misinformation shared on social media, but using some of these tools will also advance your friend’s or family member’s digital literacy skills. I’m choosing the essay format to relay this information because words have always been the best way to communicate ideas with a broad perspective.
The post-truth era is a grueling, real-time test of society’s digital media literacy skills. As well-informed citizens, we owe it to our neighbors and family members to expose them to the truth and the manipulative methods in which their own leaders and those who amplify their messages have duped them. Whether they want to accept reality is up to them, but by not exposing them to the truth, you might miss the opportunity to save them from being swept into the sea of lies. While our emotions easily manipulate us, the truth is out there if we pull the blinders off of our eyes.
Most people share misinformation with good intentions, thinking that what they are sharing will enlighten others about an emotionally-charged issue as a call-to-action of sorts. That is the exact goal for the purveyors of misinformation on social media. The next time a friend or family member spreads misinformation that they came across on social media, ask them to investigate the social media account or accounts from which they are sourcing their information.
Misinformation can be spread on social media by humans and bots, but a crucial step in in investigating a source on social media is by finding out if the source of information in question is a real person or a bot. Ask your friend or family member what does the account look like? Does the profile image look genuine, is there a string of numbers attached to the username (a telltale sign of an automated bot), and how long has the account been active? Post volume and frequency are other critical indicators in deciphering bots from humans. Let them know that if a Twitter account sends more than 72 tweets out a day, it is undoubtedly a bot. Also, you can let them know about another significant indicator of human presence: the way the posts read. Ask them if they sound like a human. Suppose they are still uncertain about the user being a human or a bot. In that case, tell them they can use online tools such as Botometer, which determines the likelihood of Twitter account’s bot-like activity.
Determining an account is human-made doesn’t rule out that the post in question is actual factually based information. The hashtag amplification chain on social media can champion good social causes, but it can also provide a podium for bad actors to amplify misinformation campaigns to the masses. That is when digital media literacy skills are necessary to determine fact from fiction. Providing your friends and family with tools to critically evaluate digital media is probably the most crucial tips you can offer to them.
Digitally altered photos or authentic images attached to content that has nothing to do with the image are everywhere on social media. It has become increasingly challenging for the average person to separate reality from fiction. While you can tell your friends and family members to become more proficient with the internet, digital photography, and online media platforms, it is easier said than done. A good tip you can share is how to find the original source of images on social media. Inform them to do a Google Reverse image search on the image in question. This will allow them to trace the image’s origin and see where it has appeared online to determine if it matches the post on social media associated with it.
The last tip I would recommend to a friend or family member to enhance their ability to decipher misinformation would be to show them the SIFT method. Learning how to investigate the validity of sources, find better coverage on topics and trace media to its original context is an effective and necessary way to consume media in the post-truth era.
Sharing valuable advice on spotting online misinformation with the ones we love and hoping that their digital media literacy skills improve can be a daunting task. Whether we choose to share this information at the dinner table or in a private setting is on a case-by-case basis. Educating loved ones on logically consuming media without arguing is the first step we all can take to help curb misinformation.