Editorial

The dangers and prevalence of misinformation

Posted 2/12/20

 Misinformation online is rampant, and the only thing we can do to stop it is to not share it ourselves.

Newspapers like The River Reporter must maintain a level of diligence in fact-checking …

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Editorial

The dangers and prevalence of misinformation

Posted

Misinformation online is rampant, and the only thing we can do to stop it is to not share it ourselves.

Newspapers like The River Reporter must maintain a level of diligence in fact-checking everything it sends to print. However, in the age of constant connection, social media websites allow people to act as citizen journalists when something significant is taking place.

Last month, a small fire broke out at the Villa Roma, and Facebook was set ablaze with sensationalized reports from its users: “The Villa Roma is on fire.”

There must have been a sense of relief when the facts came out: The fire was small and contained in a guest room. But had this misinformation been squashed, or initially reported responsibly, there would’ve been no release of held breaths.

Our cellphones have made it much easier to watch an event unfold in real-time without being anywhere near it. This has both positive and negative impacts on our society. For one thing, having a device on hand that connects you to your online community is a great tool; it has democratized the spread of information. People can show the world what mainstream news outlets neglect to cover. People can hold others accountable and reveal bigotry or abuses of authority. However, it wasn’t so long ago that breaking news broke with journalists and only journalists.

Before publishing anything, professional journalists must thoroughly vet the information and seek out comments from all parties involved in a story. They have a team of colleagues and superiors who fact-check the information. They must consider what the potential blowback of publishing the information is. Publishing something that turns out to be false, misleading, or somehow harmful to the subject of the story could cost a journalist their job and potentially their career.

Today, anyone with a phone camera can help inform the rest of the public. And these citizens who report what they perceive to be happening have no publishers, editors, or advertisers to answer to, and no repercussions for getting the story wrong

Among the misinformation, there are pieces of truth—as in the local example of the fire in a Villa Roma guest room. However, sensationalized and exaggerated versions of the truth get more attention, more clicks and more comments. Before you can retract a detail, it’s traveled over countless newsfeeds. It makes sense that misinformation spreads “farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth, in all categories of information,” as stated in a study by MIT scholars.

Unfortunately, the spread of misinformation as a tool—as a weapon—is an industry that is booming, partly because we are so quick to share and comment—into a newsfeed that is disturbingly tailored to our interests, affiliations and opinions—rather than step back and ask questions. We have power in what we share online, and it’s being weaponized. Especially in this intense election year, misinformation campaigns abound on both sides of the political spectrum.

A Christian Science Monitor article on how manipulative digital political campaigns have become reports, “GOP officials say they have invested over $300 million into their data operation since [2012] and have collected roughly 3,000 data points on every voter in the country, in a system jointly owned by the Trump campaign and the RNC.” This, according to the article, was the result of wanting to “level the technological field” after losing to Obama in 2012.

No matter which side of the political divide you’re on, 3,000 data points about each voter seems excessive.

A study by Scientific Advances that focused on the 2016 election produced some interesting results on demographics: “Respondents in each age category were more likely to share fake news than respondents in the next-youngest group, and the gap in the rate of fake news sharing between those in our oldest category (over 65) and youngest category is large and notable.”

The study goes on to explain that there is a “general lack of attention paid to the oldest generations in the study of political behavior” and so more studies are needed to contextualize the connection between age and spreading misinformation, but a reasonable explanation is a lack of digital media literacy, and perhaps a lack of understanding that what we see on our newsfeeds is very specifically tailored to impact us, whether in a positive or negative way. The misinformation that ends up in front of us is likely not there by chance. It doesn’t help that so many people share information after just reading the headline. It’s not that we need to read every article we see, but perhaps we need to start considering our individual power when sharing, as sharing information increases its influence. Newsfeed algorithms put inflammatory information in front of us to keep us engaged and generate more interactions, and our shares help it grow and grow. It would be helpful if these newsfeed algorithms didn’t encourage these harmful instincts of ours, but they have their own goals separate from our society: learn about us, sell to us and keep us online.

There are many sources that are great for debunking widespread rumors and falsehoods. However, they are not a solution to the problem, especially in a local sense. These sites only pay attention to potential misinformation once it has reached a national or global scale. There is no place for fact-checking information about our local community: conjecture about how a fire in one of our neighborhoods started, lies told by somebody running for municipal office, etc. In our local bubble, the only way to curb the spread of misinformation online and on social media is for users to adopt better behavior. People need to be more patient and more skeptical, especially of sensational information.

The oldest generations among us have a reasonable excuse—as mentioned, it used to just be professional journalists who broke news, and now anyone can post anything with a flashy headline. Even still, we’re all guilty of spreading misinformation in one way or another. When anyone can throw information online, start a website and share their opinion, it gives the illusion of an equal platform for all opinions and ideas—another reality that is loaded with positives and negatives for our society.

We need to take caution and practice inquisitiveness when we’re online—let it be our first reaction, rather than reacting and hitting the share button. Pause and consider what you’re reading; put your curiosity in a toolbox and work at refusing to let misinformation be a tool used on you.

Hoax/rumor checking sites: 
www.snopes.com 
www.factcheck.org 
www.truthorfiction.com

Political fact-checking sites:
www.politifact.com  
Fact Checker” by Washington Post
Fact Checking” by Politico

Media-bias-checking sites:
www.fair.org 
www.mediabiasfactcheck.com

Video/photo verification:
www.google.com > image > camera icon for reverse image search

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