If anyone thinks misinformation and disinformation challenges will diminish now that the divisive 2020 presidential election has been settled, they aren’t watching the next phase of information manipulation. It’s only going to get worse, especially as many news consumers seek out information silos that confirm their political biases. Gone are the days when we had political conversations based on a common set of facts.

Conspiracy theories, and the phony digital content that drive them across the Internet, continue to flourish. And too often, internet users on all sides of the political spectrum are looking for sources of information that confirm their political opinions. That means the content they consume may not be factual, but they continue to pass it along on social media sites because it backs up their opinions.

In this upside-down world, too many people form opinions and then find “facts” that reinforce their views. It doesn’t have to be factual, just supportive. There was a time when people consumed news content and then formed opinions upon based on the facts and their political philosophies. Now it is just the opposite for too many. Because social media is such a “Wild West,” as many people call it, it’s difficult to get a handle on the problem because technology gives those who want to mislead an ever-expanding set of tools to manipulate content.

We will never control misinformation and disinformation as long as the loudest among us care more about the political take of the content they pass along than they do about whether that content is factual. This puts them into an “Internet echo chamber’ that confirms in their minds that phony content is actually legitimate. If they have large social media followings, the false content gets amplified. Make no mistake, those pushing disinformation know what they are doing, even if their followers don’t.

Let’s pause to define two crucial terms. “Misinformation” is inaccurate information that is spread on social media regardless of the intent to mislead, while “disinformation” is knowingly creating and spreading false information for nefarious reasons, according to Dictionary.com. Some use misinformation and disinformation interchangeably, but they are not the same. Be careful when using these terms so that you are conveying the meaning you intend.

We know that the more someone embraces conspiracy theories and other questionable content, the more they are pushed deeper into getting their information from fringe online groups, sending them down a dark hole of disinformation. They eventually are believing outlandish theories like those being pushed by groups such as QAnon.

Remember Pizzagate? It actually came before the bizarre QAnon theories, but it set the stage for QAnon’s gaining a foothold among many fringe groups. The debunked Pizzagate conspiracy theory had top Democratic officials running a child sex trafficking out of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. Pizzagate never happened, of course, but that didn’t stop a man from driving 350 miles from his North Carolina home to the pizza restaurant with a rifle to free the abused children. He believed this false information, and ended up going to prison. The owner of the pizza business and employees were subjected to threats from others who believed the conspiracy theory.

So conspiracy theories are not only misleading, they are dangerous. The violent and deadly insurrection at our nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6 was based on the false narrative that the election was stolen and then-President Donald Trump had actually won the 2020 election. Trump echoed that falsehood for weeks after the election, and supporters on social media and on conservative radio and TV continued to pound away at that debunked theory.

At the Institute for Media and Public Trust, we believe that we will never stop the spread of phony content without the public being media literate. Too many are being manipulated daily on social media sites, which is why we think that media literacy should be required coursework in the very early grades of our public schools, and continued throughout their formal schooling.

We know that in this digital age, too many people lack even the most basic media literacy tools. Our goal is to empower news consumers to make their own content choices, but to do it smartly. So don’t just post content that a friend sent you without checking it out first. We believe strongly that an informed public is crucial to our democracy, and citizens must know how to access accurate digital information to participate fully in our public institutions.

When we created our Media Institute in 2018, we began putting together a list of tips to help the public sort out news content they saw on the internet. Here are eight smart ways to determine if information you are seeing on your digital device is legitimate.

  1. Look past your personal biases. This is crucial in sorting out news 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 news 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 or information. 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. Don’t believe those who tell you that the “mainstream media won’t report this information” because of some conspiracy among media elites.
  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, use multiple fact-checking sites to verify the information.
  8. Be skeptical. It will help make you a smart news consumer. But be sure your skepticism is based checking out the facts. You have the tools. Use them.