News consumers have a huge challenge today sorting through fake news and misinformation on the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Nov. 3 presidential election. Even in normal times, fake news has been ever growing through social media, fake news sites and other technological devices created to mislead the public about basic facts. But the pandemic and the election have made it even more difficult, with partisanship often becoming more important than truth.

Our intense division in this country over just about anything considered political results in the partisans looking for anything that will support their version of the truth. And if they can’t find it, they can create a phony website and just make it up.

More than ever, it is crucial for the public to be critical thinkers and corroborate the information they are consuming. Your health and your democracy are at stake. You must use all the tools at hand to verify information. Use fact-checking sites, read a wide variety of media from different points of view, and don’t share information of social media that you haven’t confirmed.

Yes, it is a lot of work, but being an informed news consumer is worth the extra effort. We know that Facebook is full of misinformation, and “news” stories taken from phony websites. Recently, though, Facebook has started removing misinformation created by operatives whose goals include sowing division in America.

That’s a start, but we can’t rely on social media sites alone to do the work that we should be doing to ensure that we are basing our opinions on verified information. We at the Institute remain skeptical of the commitment by social media platforms to do all they can to limit the spread of misinformation.

This is what Facebook just did, according to this story in the Washington Post: It removed fake account and pages that reportedly were created by Russians operatives who had recruited U.S. journalists to create the phony content. The goal of the operation was to distribute election misinformation on a “fake left-leaning news site” called Peace Data.

“Facebook said it caught the network of 13 fake accounts and two pages early, before it had a chance to build a large audience — an action that the company said was evidence of its growing effectiveness at targeting foreign disinformation operations ahead of the 2020 election,” according to the Post story. “The takedown emerged as a result of a tip from the FBI and was one of a dozen operations tied to the Russian Internet Research Agency, or individuals affiliated with it that Facebook has disrupted since the last presidential election, when IRA-backed pages amassed millions of views on the platform.”

Veteran journalist Timothy Drachlis, the Roger Tatarian chair for the Media, Communications and Journalism Department at Fresno State, said the misinformation problem often gets worse because some “deliberately distort information or have such partisan views that they always search for anything that fits their agenda/worldview.”

Drachlis said the controversy over how many people have died in the United States from coronavirus is an example.

“After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on its website that 94% of the 180,000 U.S. coronavirus deaths had co-morbidities, the far-right website Gateway Pundit tweeted that only 6 percent of these deaths really were from coronavirus. President Donald Trump even retweeted that claim,” he said.

“Health officials and experts spent a fair amount of time earlier this week explaining that 180,000 people really have died of coronavirus.”

Drachlis said Gateway Pundit’s claim is dangerous because it actually can make the pandemic worse.

“Some will believe the claim, act as if nothing bad is going on and the risk of transmission and coronavirus spread then dangerously increases,” he said. “Misinformation, whether deliberate or accidental, can endanger everyone’s health.”

One of our goals at the Institute for Media and Public Trust is to empower news consumers with strategies that help them identify phony news content. Here are eight tips that should help you verify information on the pandemic and the election.

  1.    Look past your personal biases. This is crucial in sorting out content. We often believe the worst about people or politicians we despise. Those biases can blind us to what we are sharing on social media, even if there are red flags that suggest the stories may not be factual.
  2.    Do you recognize the source of the item?Be skeptical if it comes from a source that you’ve never heard of. That doesn’t mean it’s false, and it could come from an obscure but legitimate news outlet. But take extra time to confirm the facts on sites you may not recognize.
  3.    Use search engines to see if anyone else is reporting this particular story.If it is as big a story as being promoted in the headline or share text on a social media site, surely other news outlets will have a version of the story at some point.
  4.    Check the link in your browser.Many fake news sites try to mimic actual news sites. The link might have a slight variation from the legitimate news site. If the link looks odd, that’s another red flag.
  5.    Look at other stories on the website.Does the content pass the “smell test?” Check out the writing style. Do the stories on the site have excessive capital letters, exclamation points, obvious grammatical errors, or other oddities that suggest the content may not be reliable?
  6.    Read the “Contact Us” and “About Us” links.Are they working, and do they give information that is helpful? Can you email the story’s author?
  7.    Go to fact-checking sites.Use them to see what they say about the news story before you post it on social media. Try factcheck.org, snopes.com, politifact.com, or other fact-checking sites. And if you have questions about the quality of a particular fact-checking site or think it is biased in one direction or another, use multiple fact-checking sites to verify the information. Google “fact-checking sites.” There are dozens. Use the collective wisdom of the sites, and don’t pick an outlier because it may support your point of view.
  8.    Be skeptical.It will always make you a smart news consumer.

    Watchdog Media
    Editorial Cartoon by SW Parra. swparra.wixsite.com/mysite

Please don’t fall victim to misinformation and distorted content about COVID-19. You owe it to yourself and your families.

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