How to navigate election misinformation online

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By James Rinker, Keene Sentinel

11/13/23

On the heels of the third Republican presidential debate, multiple claims made by the candidates have been subject to fact-checking.

Politifact, a nonprofit fact-checking website, examined 20 claims candidates made during the debate on topics ranging from the Russia-Ukraine War to the environment and abortion. Reuters looked into claims made about the Biden administration’s approach to the Israel-Hamas war. Both reports show over half of the claims made were either missing context or misleading.

As we approach the presidential primaries in the coming months, the rapid spread of misinformation online is one of the biggest challenges facing voters, said Phil Barker, a political science professor at Keene State College.

“Misinformation and disinformation spread far quicker than the actual information online,” he said. And as more people look to find their news through social media, the higher the chances of encountering misinformation, he added.

Americans ages 16 to 40 consume news from at least six different sources at least weekly, according to a 2022 study by the Media Insight Project, a research initiative that examines the habits of news consumers in the United States.

Those sources include not only national and local news outlets like newspapers and broadcast TV, but also a range of social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.

“With all that together and being left on our own to sort through it all, we’re not particularly equipped to deal with it,” said Barker.

As the country prepares for another election year, The Sentinel spoke with two experts who say the key to identifying misinformation online is to stop and question what you’re seeing or hearing; consult multiple sources to gather reliable news and information; and even if you agree with what you’re reading, seek out different viewpoints to combat confirmation bias.

The root of our interactions

The stronger your beliefs are about a particular topic, the easier it is for you to believe in the story that aligns with your own beliefs — even if it isn’t true.

“Either positively or negatively, it’s very easy to use false information to exploit our confirmation bias, “ said John Silva, the senior director of professional and community learning for the News Literacy Project, a national nonpartisan education nonprofit. Confirmation bias is when we unconsciously seek out information that aligns with our own implicit bias, or the things we believe in.

“We’re not trying to see if it’s actually true, just that it aligns with what we think is true,” he said.

Another thing people tend to do when interacting with the news is known as motivated reasoning, a way of thinking in which people actively search for and interpret information that supports their own beliefs.

We’re more likely to reject news and information that doesn’t line up with our worldview and accept those that do, said Barker. And when it comes to finding information online, another layer is added: our emotional response to it.

“People are drawn or react more strongly to posts and information that strike fear and anger, strong emotions. It’s a part of human nature,” he said. “Even if you’re skilled at sorting through it, these sorts of posts and misinformation are designed to get a reaction from you.”

How to navigate misinformation

The first step towards sifting through misinformation is to be aware of where it is coming from, Silva said.

“There is an incredible array of bad actors — people actively trying to manipulate us into false beliefs,“ he said. “We have to be actively engaged in preventing that for ourselves. We can’t wait for somebody to do that for ourselves.”

He said it’s important to recognize when we fall into what he calls an “echo chamber.” This is an environment where a person only encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own.

Asking ourselves questions like, “Am I only getting my information from sources that agree with me?” and “Am I allowing myself to have my views challenged?” can help expand the sources we consult for information.

Silva said that sometimes people also have to engage in uncomfortable and difficult conversations, like talking with people they disagree with, so we don’t get stuck in the echo chamber.

“Consider those sources that are being excluded,” he said. “You don’t have to agree with it, you don’t have to incorporate it into your worldview, but you have to be open to hearing what other people have to say.”

When engaging with content online, there are a few tools and strategies to use to make sure it’s trustworthy.

The SIFT Method — which was developed by digital literacy expert Mike Caulfield — is a series of actions you can take in order to determine the validity and reliability of claims and sources online.

The SIFT Method was developed by digital literacy expert, Mike Caulfield. The four-step series of actions – Stop, Investigate, Find and Trace – are used in order to determine the validity and reliability of claims and sources online. James Rinker/Sentinel Staff

1. Stop. Whether you find yourself strongly agreeing or disagreeing with a social media post, you should stop and consider whether or not it’s factual before sharing it.

“If it’s just something you’ve seen posted on social media, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but you should verify it,” said Barker. “Especially if it generates a reaction, you should look a bit deeper into it.”

2. Investigate the source. Ask yourself if the news source is reputable. There are reliable fact-checking websites, such as Politifact and Factcheck.org, that can be used to investigate claims being made by the source.

And be skeptical of the source, even news organizations.

“It’s easy to get swept up in the big national outlets and what they’re reporting, but local elections and local news coverage of elections probably have a far larger impact on your life,” said Silva.

3. Find additional trusted sources. Try not to rely on the same sources of information all the time. Barker tells his students in his courses to seek out multiple sources across the political spectrum.

“If you think that the New York Times is too liberal, then look at the Wall Street Journal,” he said. ”Look at the other news sources out there.”

If you can’t find two or three other reputable sources who support the claims being made with evidence, then the information you have might not be true.

4. Trace the information back to its original context. The two most common types of misinformation found online are either false context or manipulated content, said Silva.

False context is something that has been taken out of its original context and is now being used to falsely corroborate a claim. Manipulated content is a little more deliberative, he said. Manipulated content is a little more deliberative, and is created when something is taken from its original form and changed with the intent to deceive.

its original form and changed with the intent to deceive.

“It’s common with images since photo editing tools are very easy to find and use now,” Silva said. “You can change a message on a sign or a t-shirt or take something out of an image, and make it say whatever you want.”

The News Literacy Project created an online fact-checker called RumorGuard to identify misinformation like those altered images that are going viral online and provide tips on how to spot and stop similar trends.

There’s a tendency for people to feel discouraged or cynical because of the vast amount of misinformation circulating online, said Barker. However, there’s a silver lining to the situation.

“That’s the beauty of the Internet. It brings us the misinformation, but it provides us the tools to do that digging, too.”

James Rinker is The Sentinel’s digital community engagement journalist. He can be reached at jrinker@keenesentinel.com, or at (603) 355-8569. Follow them on Twitter @JamesRinkerKS

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org. 

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