Written By: Security.org Team | Published: January 19, 2021

Misinformation and disinformation (MDI) presents a challenge to American and other democracies.

In this guide, you’ll learn what MDI is, and how to protect yourself, your children, and your loved ones. In addition, we provide resources on fact-checking, prevention and reporting misinformation.

Table of Contents

  1. What Are Misinformation and Disinformation (MDI)?
  2. Video Breakdown
  3. How To Protect Yourself From Misinformation and Disinformation
  4. How To Talk About Misinformation and Disinformation With Your Children and Loved Ones
  5. Misinformation and Disinformation Facts and Figures
  6. Misinformation and Disinformation Resources
  7. How to Report MDI on Social Media

What Are Misinformation and Disinformation?

First, let’s define our terms, misinformation and disinformation, often combined into MDI.

Misinformation Definition

Misinformation is false and typically harmful information that’s not shared with malicious intent, meaning that the person sharing it believes that it is true.

Disinformation Definition

Disinformation, on the other hand, is the same type of information as misinformation, false and harmful, but the person sharing it has malicious intent and knows that the information is inaccurate.

How They’re Different

When it comes to distinguishing misinformation and disinformation, intent matters. While most people don’t knowingly share misinformation, the opposite is true with disinformation, typically shared by unethical organizations or extremists. So while misinformation can come from anyone, typically posted on social media, disinformation is less common. Liberals and conservatives are equally as likely to spread misinformation, according to research from Nottingham Trent University.

Contrary to popular belief, MDI isn’t a new problem, but the rise in social media platforms like Facebook allow it to be shared with many people in speeds faster than ever before. And without media literacy, platforms like Facebook become many people’s primary news source, clearly a huge problem for anyone participating in a democracy.

Video Breakdown

In this video, journalist Aliza Vigderman explains what misinformation and disinformation are, how they're different, and how you can avoid them online and off.

How To Protect Yourself From Misinformation and Disinformation

However, there are a few ways that you can protect yourself from MDI.

  • Verify information: Today, we have access to more information than ever before, and it’s all right at our fingertips. Take advantage of this data surplus by verifying information that you read in news articles with other trustworthy sources. Even the most respected outlets, like The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, can get facts wrong sometimes. This process of checking multiple websites to verify certain information is called “reading laterally”, while staying on the same website is called “reading vertically”.
  • Consider the source: The first thing you should do is find out who is the primary source of information, as compared to the secondary source who is reporting on this data. Ask yourself the following questions:
    • Who is this story coming from?
    • What is the background of the source?
    • Who does this story benefit?
    • What is the source material the article is being written about?
    • Are you familiar with this person or organization?

    If the answer to the last question is no, take a few moments to research the source’s credentials. On Twitter, that can be as easy as checking their bio.

  • Be skeptical: With the prevalence of MDI, especially on social media platforms, it’s important not to automatically trust someone just because they say they’re a journalist. Rather, traditional journalists are trained in ethics, and that will show in their work. One example is the use of anonymous sources. Professional journalists will only use anonymous sources when their identities need to be protected for their safety. They’ll also corroborate what the anonymous source tells them with other evidence. So if you see an article that relies heavily on anonymous sources without any named sources or other confirming evidence, distrust the source and the article.
  • Go beyond the headline: Make sure you read the entire article and not just the headline, as editors can alter headlines to be better click bait.
  • Use diverse sources: We all have our own political beliefs, but to obtain the most objective information, it’s important to read news sources from the left, right and center. .
  • Get objective: It’s also important to differentiate between news articles and op-eds. While op-eds are often emotional and subjective, news should be written as objectively as possible. So if you finish a news article feeling extremely angry or scared, that’s probably an indication of a lack of objectivity.
  • Don’t trust your gut: While humans like to think of themselves as rational beings, psychologists know that we suffer from many different types of “cognitive biases” that make us vulnerable to MDI. Essentially, the more effort it takes to process information, the more uncomfortable we feel and thus, the more we distrust the information. In contrast, when we like data and can process it easily, we’re more likely to trust it. However, this “gut feeling” is very different from authentic expertise, so unless you’re an expert on a subject, it’s best not to trust your gut. While there are over 100 cognitive biases that we experience, here are two examples of common mental blind spots:
    • Confirmation bias: Humans tend to look for information that conforms to their already-held beliefs, as it’s easier to build neural pathways for information that we already know. Confirmation bias only increases when strong emotions are involved, as it makes it harder to break down these pathways with contradictory information.
    • Narrative fallacy: We’re also more likely to fall for narratives rather than hard facts and figures, preferring stories with clear causes and effects over hard evidence. Narrative fallacy is often combined with confirmation bias, as we’re especially likely to believe a story if it conforms to our preconceived notions.
  • Think critically: In order to combat these natural cognitive biases, look for statistics and scientific reports as opposed to anecdotes or stories to confirm information.
  • Fact-check: There are a number of fact-checking websites that rely on peer-reviewed research rather than stories. One common example is the website Snopes, but we’ve listed other options in our resources section below. If you’re short on time, you can use these websites as your proxy.

How To Talk About Misinformation and Disinformation With Your Children and Loved Ones

Whether you have a young child unaware of the existence of “fake news”, or you have a relative spreading misinformation on Facebook, here are the best practices to protect your family and loved ones from MDI.

Children

With children, it’s first important to define “fake news” as made-up news. Then, you can show them examples of reliable news sources and how they can differentiate between the two. Be sure to point out that reliable sources should have bylines with the author’s first and last name included, not a first name only or a nickname. Next, differentiate between news articles and op-eds and explain why it’s important to get both sides of the story. To demonstrate the need for an array of news sources, you can read your child Jon Scieszka’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, which tells the classic fable from the wolf’s perspective. For older children, show them the difference between a movie’s trailer and its negative reviews from critics.

There are also a few other lessons to impart to your children regarding MDI:

  • Just because a fact is widely reported does not necessarily mean it’s accurate.
  • No one is immune to MDI, including you.
  • You can fact check information through fact-checking websites, by doing a reverse-image search on Google, or by doing a regular source on Google with a word like “hoax” in your search terms. To make this more palatable for children, act like you’re “playing detective”.
  • Consider the source and what they have to gain from the information (although this may be appropriate for older children only). If you’re not sure about a search, again, “read laterally” and compare it with sources from the mainstream media.
  • You can recognize phishing websites by looking for signs such as:
    • URL ends in .co
    • Website is low-quality in general with spelling and grammar errors, lack of sources, sensationalist images and words written in all caps.
    • No “about us” section.
  • Click bait is meant to make you emotional, which is a good indicator that a source is not trustworthy or objective.

In general, it’s important to promote skepticism and critical thinking while discussing news with your kids. And if all else fails, have them ask themselves these questions while reading news, sourced from Ithaca College’s education program Project Look Sharp:

  • Who created this article?
  • Who is the article’s target audience?
  • Who paid for this article, or who gets paid when you click on it?
  • Who could be harmed from or benefit from this article?
  • Does this article leave out any important information?
  • Is this article credible, and if so, why?

With a dose of healthy skepticism and an emphasis on reading laterally, you can teach your children how to tell fake news from real news.

Loved Ones

Since the prevalence of MDI in the late 2010s, many people have been upset or frustrated by their loved ones sharing misinformation, usually on social media. Of course, most people want to maintain good relationships with these people while still correcting their inaccurate information. Once you do your own research and verify that the information is, in fact, misinformation, here’s how to talk to your loved one and still maintain a positive relationship:

  • Respond publicly or privately: If the originating misinformed post has gotten a lot of likes and comments, then write a public comment linking to a credible source. This will not only convince your loved one of the misinformation, but also others who could potentially be swayed. However, if the post has not received a lot of engagement, it’s best to message your loved one privately as to avoid giving the post more visibility. They also might be more receptacle to a private versus a public note, so use your judgment.
  • Watch your tone: While you might feel upset about the misinformation, try not to convey that emotion in your tone, whether verbal or written. Instead, try to maintain a positive and supportive tone, as an angry or shaming tone can alienate the person further, making them even less receptive to changing their minds. A good way to start off would be something like “I was curious about what you posted, so I did some Googling and found…”
  • Be empathetic: Another method for not alienating your loved one is to share a story about a time you shared misinformation, empathizing with their position.
  • Agree to disagree: While we can try with our best intentions, it’s not always possible to change someone’s mind. If the conversation isn’t constructive, simply share your fact-checking tools and end the conversation.
  • Share resources: From there, you can also post these resources and verified information on your own feed so that they can access it if they want.

While we can’t control what our loved ones say or think, clear and calm communication is the only way to change someone’s mind.

Misinformation and Disinformation Facts and Figures

Just how big of a problem is MDI, anyway? Recent data and peer-reviewed research shows that:

  • People that are more active online are more likely to focus on a small number of news sources, leading to more political polarization.
  • A user’s preference for news outlets depends more on their community online rather than their physical community.
  • According to a 2016 survey, 64 percent of adults in the U.S say that fake news stories cause a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current events and issues. This was the case across all demographic characteristics including education levels, political parties and incomes.
How much confusion has fake news caused regarding the basic facts of current events? % of U.S adults
A great deal of confusion 64%
Some confusion 24%
Not much or no confusion 11%

The same survey found that nearly 40 percent of people claim to be “very confident” at recognizing fake news, while another 45 percent say that they are “somewhat confident”.

How confident are you in your ability to recognize fake news? % of U.S adults
Very confident 39%
Somewhat confident 45%
Not very/ not at all confident 15%

32 percent of the survey’s respondents said that they see fake news often. 23 percent admitted to having shared fake news.

How often do you see made up political news online? % of U.S adults
Often 32%
Sometimes 39%
Hardly ever or never 26%
  • MDI is shared more quickly than true information. Looking at rumors from 2006 to 2017 on Twitter, the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that the top one percent of fake news reached between 1,000 and 100,000 people, while legitimate news rarely reached over 1,000 people.
  • That makes MDI 70 percent more likely to be retweeted on Twitter compared to true information, reaching its first 1,500 people six times faster. With political news, this trend is even more pronounced.
  • Rather than coming from a particular political party, people that share MDI are more likely to be doing so because they are distracted or too lazy to verify the information. People in both parties are guilty of sharing misinformation, according to the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Misinformation and Disinformation Resources

Here, we’ve compiled a list of the most trustworthy fact-checkers, resources on MDI and instructions on how to report fake news on social media.

Fact-Checking Resources

Some of the best websites for fact-checking include:

  • Snopes: Snopes is the original fact-checking and myth-busting website, supported by an organization that’s free of political affiliations.
  • FAIR: FAIR is a national media watchdog group that looks for censorship and bias in the media, promoting diverse viewpoints.
  • FactCheck.org: Last but not least, FactCheck.org is a non-profit and non-partisan website run from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.

MDI Prevention Resources

Whether you want a Chrome extension that points out fake news or a media literacy education via video, the following resources have got you covered.

  • Project Fib: Project Fib is a Chrome extension that you can use to detect fake news on Facebook.
  • Bot Sentinel: Similarly, Bot Sentinel is an extension for Chrome, Firefox and Android devices that uses machine learning to classify Twitter accounts. Not only does it detect bots, but it also detects accounts or content that violates Twitter’s guidelines with a 95 percent accuracy rate.
  • CrashCourse Media Literacy Videos: This six video playlist is a useful crash course on media literacy.

How To Report MDI On Social Media

Given the public outcry on the spreading of MDI through social media, many platforms (but not all) have implemented systems for users to report it in a few easy steps.

  • Facebook: Next to the post containing the MDI, click on the three asterisks, Support/Report post, False News, Next and then Done.
  • Instagram: Click the three dots above the post, Report, It’s inappropriate and False information.
  • Youtube: Reporting MDI on Youtube differs based on whether you’re watching on your desktop, iOS or Android mobile device, and whether you’re reporting a video, comment or playlist. For instructions, read Google’s support page.
  • Twitter: Next to the offending Tweet, tap the downward arrow, Report Tweet, It’s Abusive or harmful and fill out the information.
  • TikTok: Next to the TikTok video, tap Share, Report and then follow the instructions.

Recap

Since humans come with built-in cognitive biases regardless of their political beliefs, we’re all susceptible to believing or even sharing misinformation. But by verifying sources, reading laterally and gathering diverse viewpoints, we can shake off these biases and lean toward objectively, which is in the best interest of our democracy.

References