There has been quite a bit of comment in the media recently about the rise of fake or misleading information online. Politicians have recently begun to address the concept and even specific incidences directly as it begins to impact upon our response to the Covid-19 situation, which relies on collective action.
It used to be that we all got our news from the same few sources but now with social media and information available on the internet generally, every man and his dog is presenting ‘news’ and much of it is rather dubious. It can be hard to tell how reliable an item of news is, especially when some sources are deliberately presenting misinformation. On social media any layman can present his or her view on a topic and it’s just as accessible as, for example, the views of climate scientists, or NZ’s leading Epidemiologist. This study from 2018 found that “Lies spread faster than the truth”. You may have noticed that Facebook always has the most crackpot comments right at the top. That’s because comments which receive the most responses are considered most ‘relevant’ and moved to the top, even if most of those replies are dislikes or responses against the first unpopular comment. This is why Facebook is considered to be a rather inflammatory social media site.
Even the ‘mainstream’ media are under pressure to make the news more exciting, which can lead to misleading ‘clickbait’ headlines. Since most people don’t buy newspapers anymore and read their news for free online, media outlets rely on advertising for their revenue, and that is based on the number of ‘clicks’ they can generate. So an exaggerated, hyperbolic or antagonistic headline is often paired with an otherwise carefully researched and balanced article. If you read the body of an article posted online and then read the comments it soon becomes clear that many of the incensed comments have been written by people who’ve not even read the article.
A lot of people also seem to be under the illusion that the internet operates in the same way as television or radio where everyone is presented with the same content. In fact, platforms like Facebook or You Tube use algorithms to create an individualised experience for each user based on content you’ve viewed in the past. Have you ever been surprised to see an ad for something you were just thinking about? You can test this by looking at someone else’s social media account. This leads to an ‘echo-chamber’ where you’re constantly bombarded with similar content, whether it’s reliable or not. So for example if you read an anti-vax article, you will soon have been presented with 100 more, which appears to provide extra weight to the arguments.
Here are some tips for successfully navigating content online:
- Check the publication date, news often recirculates as people find and share it again.
- Check the source. Is it known to you? Is it considered secure and reliable?
- Read the whole article. Does the headline accurately reflect the content?
- Look for alternative sources of the same story or information to corroborate it.
- Could it be satire? There is a site called The Onion which presents satirical news articles which people frequently mistake as truth.
- Consider the motivations of the writer. Sometimes research is funded by political groups to promote a particular agenda. Sometimes media commentators present their own personal views rather than a factual and well researched article.
- If in doubt, please don’t share.