“Misinformation” is inaccurate information that is spread on social media regardless of the intent to mislead, while “disinformation” is false information that is spread with the express purpose of duping people.
This can be done for many reasons. It could be a political smear, which you will see a lot during election season, or it could be done by scammers trying to get into your bank account. That is much different than people spreading misinformation on Facebook because they don’t know the information is false.
Our goal at the Institute for Media and Public Trust at Fresno State is to give you tools to identify misinformation and disinformation. We believe that media literacy is crucial for anyone who uses a digital device. Our first lesson is don’t use misinformation and disinformation interchangeably. The only similarities are misinformation and disinformation are false.
The bigger issue, of course, is there is too much bad information being spread on the internet. That’s one of the main reasons that we created the media institute four years ago, and why we believe so strongly that media literacy is crucial to an informed society. It should be taught in every school beginning with the time students get a digital device. And that’s getting younger and younger.
Social media companies are trying to limit false content on their platforms — maybe not Twitter now with Elon Musk running it — but we believe the best strategy is to arm users with the tools to identify bad information. We have developed tips to help, and we believe the education system must get much more active in teaching media literacy. In California, K-12 schools are supposed to be teaching media literacy. But I don’t see it.
I raised the issued with my advanced reporting students at Fresno State, asking them how much media literacy education did they get in high school. Only two of 23 recalled a high school teacher mentioning media literacy, and they didn’t even remember it until I asked them about it. The two who recalled media literacy from high school said it didn’t make a big impression on them at the time.
As for the students’ overall media literacy skills, the class members said they are mostly self-taught. When asked how they confirm information they see online, they said they look to multiple sources or go to “trusted sources” that they know through experience and have a track record of providing factual information on the subjects they are interested in.
Clearly, we need to do better in teaching media literacy.
At the Media Institute, we have complied eight tips to help news consumers identify bad information. Here they are:
- Look past your personal political 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.
- Do you recognize the source of the news item? Be wary 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.
- 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. News sites are competitive and they aren’t going to ignore stories that are factual, compelling and will drive readership.
- 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.
- 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? Is there a range of stories, or just a handful of stories pushing a particular point of view?
- 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, and get a response?
- 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, politifact.com, snopes.com, or any of the many other fact-checking sites. There are hundreds. And if you have questions about the quality of a particular fact-checking site, use multiple fact-checking sites to verify the information.
- Be skeptical. It will help make you a smart news consumer. But be sure you use your skepticism to check out the facts in a thoughtful way. You have the technological tools to be a wise news consumer. Use them, and you won’t be fooled by those spreading false information.