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How do you spot fake news? Here are some practical tips

A large amount of misinformation has been shared in Ireland and beyond during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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SOME MISINFORMATION IS easy to spot, but other posts or articles are designed to look as real as possible, making it difficult to distinguish what’s true and what’s not.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been an increase in the amount of misinformation being shared in Ireland and beyond.

In the latest article in our series on misinformation, we explore some practical tips on how to spot so-called fake news.

Here are some things to bear in mind when considering if information is true or not:

  • What/who is the source?: Does the information come from a reputable source? Is there proof to back up whatever claim is being made?
  • Read more than the headline: Many people share an article without reading it all (Twitter recently started trialling a function that prompts people to read an article before they share it, as many don’t)
  • Check the details and date: Some stories are not completely fake, but are distortions of previous events.
  • How does it make you feel?: Is the post designed to make you angry or scared or shocked?
  • Ask yourself, ‘Is this some kind of joke?’: Satire is sometimes mistaken for actual news.

Seek out the original source

Joe Galvin, a managing editor at Storyful, a website that verifies information online, said the most important thing to seek out when deciphering if information is true or not is the original source.

“If you find yourself reading phrases like ‘according to x’ or ‘it has been reported’ or ‘it is claimed that’, that should be ringing alarm bells immediately, so always look for the primary source of information if you can.

“If a report or a tweet says that something has happened in such a place, can you find out who first mentioned that? Can you find who reported that?”

Galvin acknowledged that “a lot of people don’t have the time to do that”, but said the process doesn’t have to take long.

“As a general rule, when you see information being shared, ask yourself is it from the original source.

“Is it a primary source? Is it someone that witnessed it? Is it someone that was on the scene? Is it someone that’s connected in some way to what the information is? And if not, think twice about it.”

How does it make you feel?

Galvin said another good rule of thumb is to ask yourself how a certain piece of information makes you feel.

“Do you want to share it immediately? Is it designed in such a way that makes it immediately shareable? Does it provoke strong emotions in you? Particularly emotions of fear or disgust or things like that.

“Is it portrayed in such a way to make you feel a strong visceral reaction? Is it shocking? Is it something that just demands to be shared?

Instantaneous reaction is the worst, you share before you think.

Galvin said fear can also be “a big motivator ” when sharing misinformation.

“There are different types and different motivations behind misinformation, sometimes people are doing this for the lols, as they say, other times people are doing it for more nefarious reasons.”

‘The army will be on the streets’ 

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, many people were worried about what lockdown measures would be implemented.

Inaccurate messages claiming that the army would be patrolling the streets and guarding shops were widely shared on various platforms but on WhatsApp in particular – we debunked these claims back in March.

download (5) One of the many inaccurate messages sent via WhatsApp in March.

Galvin said once you’re confronted with information like that, ask yourself: “Who is saying it? Is a primary source?

“Can we find a statement on the army’s website or from an official source to corroborate what we’re seeing here? And if we can’t, maybe we should think twice.”

Galvin said part of the reason misinformation often spreads so quickly is because “people love rumors, they love gossip, and they like to feel like they’re on the inside track”.

“That’s what’s attractive about WhatsApp – it has the feel of something intimate and personal, like you’re getting privileged information when in fact it’s just being sent everywhere.

“There is an attractiveness to this misinformation too, that is the challenge.”

Galvin called on people to “question what you read and what you see at all times”.

A grain of truth 

Some posts or articles are entirely false, but others that are incorrect overall may contain a grain of truth, making them seem more plausible.

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Galvin said these types of posts can be particularly dangerous as they’re generally harder to recognise.

“If you want to have a healthy dinner and your plate contains five peas and then six Big Macs, the five peas don’t make it a healthy dinner. You know what I mean? There is an element of health in it, but most of it is just trash.

“So you should think about information in the same way – a grain of truth can often be more damaging than no truth at all in some ways because it coaxes us to think in a certain way or to react in a certain way.

“We wouldn’t pollute our bodies with bad food just because there’s a grain of goodness in it, we shouldn’t pollute our minds with bad information just because there’s a grain of truth in it,” he said.

A more detailed breakdown, compiled by Factcheck.org, about how to recognise false news stories can be read here.

 

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Through 2016, deep fakes, Brexit and Trump, Ireland did not see misinformation in the same way or at the same level as other jurisdictions.

But since the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed, TheJournal.ie FactCheck has debunked or examined 75 claims about the coronavirus. Through that work, we have been able to track the pandemic’s impact on Ireland’s susceptibility to and relationship with fake news.

In this series, we will investigate some of the more notorious stories – who started them, and what effect they had on the population? We interrogate the atmosphere and tools that allowed the messages to spread – their R number as scary as Covid-19’s.

This new coronavirus may not be with us forever, but misinformation could be one of its deadly after-effects. 

So now we ask: Is Ireland changed forever? See the full series here.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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