First do no harm: Stop disinformation in six easy steps!

We all know that one person on social media. Maybe it’s a neighbor, a friend, even a parent or relative. They share things we know are debunked. We roll our eyes. We google a link to Snopes or some other fact checking site and paste it into the comments. The person says, “Oh, I didn’t know that!” and deletes the article. Or doesn’t. And then, days later, they do the exact same thing again. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Honestly, with so much of the dumb shit we see on social media day in and day out, it’s hard to not get cynical. We’ve seen all this before. How can people be so obtuse? Like, google it!

But the truth is, we (yes, I’m saying you and I) also spread disinformation. Sure, it may not be of the exact same clickbait variety, but in some ways, that’s just as dangerous if not more.

Before you whip out the “World’s Biggest Downer” prize to give to me, let me be clear: I know you don’t want to spread falsehoods or lies. I don’t either. Disinformation happens. Some of it is inevitable, given that every day reading the news feels like attempting to drink out of a fire hose.

But with really not much extra effort, we can all make sure we’re not spreading stuff that needs to be debunked.

The first motto of anyone on social media has to be like the Hippocratic oath: FIRST, DO NO HARM. Here are some easy habits to get into which can make you a better human online.

Consider the Source

What’s the url/web site? Are you familiar with them? Are they a generally trustworthy news organization?

If you’re not familiar with them, check and see what the homepage looks like. Do they have an “About Us” page which describes how long they’ve been around, what their mission is, who funds them?

Who wrote the article? Is there an author listed? If so, can you click on their name and find their bio and links to other articles of theirs? Does everything look legit and trustworthy?

If the article has no author listed, that’s a yellow flag to proceed with caution. In general, folks who want to be accountable will put their names on things. (Of course this doesn’t apply to things like whistleblowers who might face blowback because of what they reveal. But in that case, they should have other things to corroborate that they are who they allege to be, and they have reason to know the things they know, and these things are independently verifiable).

The point is not to 100% qualify or disqualify anything based on the source, but rather to use common sense and test what is being said against what you know or can find out about the source. For instance, if you get an article with claims about illegal immigration and it’s on The Daily Caller (a known white supremacist web site), you can be pretty freaking sure that any information you’re getting is going to be racist. Whereas the Washington Post or even the New York Times is a more trustworthy neutral source (though they may also have articles which are problematic).


Did I mention always? Always.

You’d be surprised how easy it is to get an article that sounds like it’s talking about something RIGHT NOW which actually was written four years ago or more. Because sites may update their graphic design over the years, you can’t use visual context clues we did in the olden days like a cringeworthy font or something yellowing at the edges.

When you share something that’s older, do us a favor and MENTION THAT IN YOUR CAPTION. Even if it’s just a few months old, it’s really really important we don’t share old stuff as though it’s current stuff.

In conclusion, PROMISE ME YOU’LL LOOK AT AND MENTION THE DATE OF ANYTHING YOU SHARE if it’s not within, say, the last week.

Corroboration: Stop, corroborate, and listen

After you’ve done the above (which, really, once you’re used to it takes a few seconds at most), do a quick keyword check using google news or by seeing what’s trending on Twitter.
Is it being reported elsewhere? If so, by whom?

Remember: you aren’t a journalist. Most likely, you’re not a fact expert in everything it would take to verify or debunk all of the info you’re getting. So look for the people who must do their due diligence. They may be slower to make clear cut pronouncements on things, but we tend to favor speed of information over accuracy and THAT IS A PROBLEM.

I’m not being a killjoy and saying don’t ever go on twitter or reddit or wherever, but I’m telling you, if you’re drinking from the firehose, you must be diligent in presenting your information to anyone else as just that– raw, uncorroborated data.

Yes, even for videos.

With deep fake video technologies, it’s increasingly easy for people to manipulate and propagate videos that seem 100% real. It’s also easy for people to edit videos so that you lose all context for what someone was saying and why. When in doubt, always go and check for the full source, and always look for verified sources who will face lawsuits or other serious repercussions if they get shit wrong.

Speed: The faster, the furiouser

News stories that develop quickly and are reported on the fly are much more likely to have errors in how they’re reported and how they unfold. I know, it’s super hard to cool your engines, especially when it feels like every new thing is an emergency. (I mean really, there are a lot of freaking emergencies– not discounting the horribleness of what we see every day unfolding.)

But the problem is that our limbic systems are getting hijacked, and we’re primed to react. You know how this feels. It feels no bueno. It also feels inevitable and out of control. But it’s not.

Give yourself time to take in information, and understand that it may evolve over time. If you decide to run with it and share it on social media, make sure to frame it as such. Go back and add new pieces of information as they come in. Edit your original caption with updates. If you write something that ends up being corrected or wrong, TELL PEOPLE ABOUT IT.

Similarly, if you write something, say, about Medicare for All, and come to understand something different or additional down the line, use your little search window, find the place you were talking about it before, and add more information there. My friend Ebony Murphy-Root does this with her social media and I can’t tell you how useful it’s been to me not only to see how she keeps herself flexible and accountable, but how it models to me how I can do so as well.

Studies and Polls are Best Guesses, Not Impenetrable, Unchangeable Fact.

Not going to spend much time on this, other than to say that whenever they come out with a study that says something like “Chocolate is good for you!” everyone shares the shit out of it. But remember back in the ’80s when they told us that eating fat made us gain weight, and then everyone went all Atkins diet and Keto and decided carbs are what makes us gain weight? Ok, so you get the idea. Things shift over time.

With polls and studies, it’s important to look at:
-Sample sizes (How many people participated? Was this a scientific poll?)
-Timeframe (When was it conducted?)
-What person/people/organizations conducted the poll or study?
-Was the poll or study funded by an outside group? If so, what was their aim?
-Phrasing of questions and scope of what is being studied can cause huge swings in outcome.

FAQ on polls by the Pew Research Center
How to evaluate scientific research as a non-scientist by Scientific American

Fact check and check some more

Using well-known fact checking sites is always a good place to go, when in doubt. We love this concise “Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook” from NPR’s On the Media, and this one goes subject by subject and debunks common errors. (Handy tip: Bookmark these on your browser for easy use!)

From On The Media

Ask not what the Internet can do for you; Ask what you can do for your country

Look, I know at this point if you’re still reading you may be feeling overwhelmed. Just know that you’re awesome that you’ve even decided to think about this issue, and it is easy to do these things. Not only do they take very little time, but they’ll also become automatic the more you do them.

Whenever you see new information, take the approach of a detective. Your first instinct can be to say, “hmmm, very interesting” and to realize you’ve gotten another piece to the puzzle.

Remember that in general, the more disturbing or inflammatory the content, it’s important to ask yourself: Who would want me to see it this way and why? It is fully possible that even people who are on your side politically are presenting information in a way that is meant to get a particular response. That’s not wrong, per se, but it’s important we hold ourselves and everyone else to the same high standards.

Now go out there and get sleuthing.