Outsmart Fake News: Protect Yourself From Online Misinformation

Outsmart Fake News: Protect Yourself From Online Misinformation

Discover how to decipher fact from fiction and avoid falling for fake news stories on social media. Spreading false information can be a source of personal embarrassment – as Abraham Lincoln reportedly said, “It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” More seriously, it can also be harmful to society. Examples abound of instances where false stories have had serious consequences, from the rise of measles in the UK following an ungrounded rumour about a childhood vaccine to the serious disorder in the USA following false allegations of election-rigging in the 2021 presidential race.

What Is Fake News?

Fake news can arise through a number of means: 

  • Misinformation such as rumours and false or misleading information which is spread without intent to mislead;
  • Disinformation or fake information that is deliberately spread to mislead the reader; 
  • Malinformation describes facts that are twisted or used out of context to spread hatred or negativity. 

One of the challenges of fake news is the speed with which it spreads. “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.” – Mark Twain. The greatest challenge for governments and lawmakers is legislating against malicious or dangerous stories while protecting important freedoms such as free speech and the freedom of the press. 

False Stories That Have Made The News

Fake: Vaccine booster shots increase likelihood of death. Dr. Richard Urso told lawmakers in the state of Tennessee that individuals who received COVID-19 booster shots were more likely to die from coronavirus.

Truth: The Associated Press reported on this fake news and stated that researchers disputed the vaccine claim with verifiable studies that showed the opposite to be true. Some countries introduced legislation to prevent scaremongering about vaccination programmes during the pandemic.

A protester uses a ‘fake news’ poster to demonstrate against a ban on refugees entering the USA in 2017. Photo by Kayla Velasquez on Unsplash.

Fake: Venezuelan migrants deported from Martha’s Vineyard. An Instagram post claimed that 50 migrants had been deported from Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. This “humanitarian crisis” post was widely shared on Facebook

Truth: PolitiFact clarified that a local government or municipality cannot deport any person/s. The group were brought to the mainland for food and shelter as the island did not have the resources to accommodate them.

Fake: Russian media referred to its invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation” designed to rid Ukraine of Nazis. Coverage, which is government-controlled, majors on Russian victories with little reference to losses.

Truth: What is taking place between Russia and Ukraine is a war with many fatalities on both sides. Reputable news outlets such as BBC Verify have fact-checked the Russian slant on events and pointed out inaccuracies.

How to Spot Fake News

The burden falls on you as the consumer to not only spot fake news but also take responsibility and resist sharing or spreading it further. Here are some ways to ascertain the veracity of any story:

Verify the source. Inspect the web address you’re viewing the article on. A small spelling error may alert you to the truth of the site and what they are reporting. 

Double-check with other sources. Read other reports from reputable media outlets. Has anyone been quoted in the article? Are they an authoritative spokesperson?

Use a fact-checker site

. These carry out vital checks into whether a news story is authentic. Apart from investigating national news stories in their base country, most also look at international headlines around health, climate change etc. This list is far from exhaustive but examples include:

  • Snopes – US entertainment and politics
  • PolitiFact – run by the Poynter Institute, exposes false news stories in the USA with English and Spanish translations
  • FactCheck.org – A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center, checks the veracity of stories circulating in the USA
  • FullFact.org – UK-based independent fact checkers
  • AAP FactCheck – Australian-based independent organisation 
  • BBC Verify – UK and international news checker.

BBC Verify examines UK based and international events to provide factually accurate accounts of incidents such as the attack on a Moscow concert hall in March 2024 in which over 100 people were killed. Image from BBC.co.uk

Check images. Images used in fake news articles have been doctored, altered, edited, and manipulated in one way or another. Google’s Reverse Image Search tool allows you to check where various images originate and whether they have been altered.

Is it satire or parody? These types of articles and posts often go over people’s heads and they believe them to be true. Satirical posts are not fake news but exist for comedic value or to make a point.

What to Do if You Spot False Stories

Sometimes it’s enough to ignore fake news – by not passing it on, you are protecting others who may be more gullible. However, if the misinformation is harmful and you know it is false, and especially if it concerns a member of your family, there are a few steps you can take.

  1. Report the content or misinformation using the tools on the relevant platform.
  2. If you or a loved one have mistakenly spread information that you now know to be false, use the same platform to explain your error, if appropriate.
  3. Ensure that the victim of a false rumour has the emotional support they need, particularly if it is a young person. Children’s charities can help in that regard.

How to Avoid Fake News and Be a More Informed Reader

The best weapon against misinformation is factual information. We need to become digitally savvy and learn what we can about media, news, and information. The tool that is used to spread fake news also employs the weapons we can use to fight fake news. That is digital literacy. 

Alison teamed up with Dr Helen Crompton, an international expert in educational technology, on behalf of the Mobiles for Education (mEducation) Alliance to create two courses to help students navigate the internet safely and effectively.

  • The Diploma in Global Digital Literacy is a comprehensive course for new and experienced internet surfers. Covering everything from identifying credible digital content to creating high quality online content, it exposes the negative aspects of the web and explores how to maximise its positive aspects. Topics include understanding your online identity and digital footprint, using the internet for communication and collaboration, becoming a content creator, generative AI, digital problem solving, protecting your personal data and more. This course is perfect for socially conscious individuals or anyone who wants to use online skills to improve the world around them.
  • The short, certificate course, Global Digital Literacy, is the perfect introduction for beginners, covering everything from creating content to keeping your online identity safe.
  • Another source of expertise is our short certification, Fact Checking 101. Here, respected author, editor and teacher Marcia Yudkin lays out a roadmap for journalists to ensure they are reporting factually accurate information. She includes guidelines for fact-checking the authenticity of surveys and studies –  a popular tool for misinformation online. Download the exercises to practise your fact-checking skills.
    Learners who have benefited from this course include Chinedu O., who writes: “The course content was great. Short, Simple and Staight to the point.”
    George K. reports it was “Eye opening. I was able to discern between fact or fiction especially in US politics.”

Clearly, satire aside, fake news is no laughing matter. Empower yourself to become a more informed, digitally savvy citizen by enrolling in our free online courses today.