Misinformation and Disinformation: A Guide for Protecting Yourself
Includes Resources, Fact-Checking and Talking To Your Children
When we can’t agree on what’s true, we can’t agree on anything. That’s why misinformation and disinformation (MDI) is so dangerous for our democracy – and why we all have a duty to combat it.
In this guide, you’ll learn all about MDI: what it is, how to recognize it, and what to say to loved ones to keep them from falling for it.
Table of Contents
- What Are Misinformation and Disinformation (MDI)?
- Video Breakdown
- How To Protect Yourself From Misinformation and Disinformation
- How To Talk About Misinformation and Disinformation With Your Children and Loved Ones
- Misinformation and Disinformation Facts and Figures
- Misinformation and Disinformation Resources
- 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 is false and typically harmful information that’s not shared with malicious intent.1 Your Great Uncle Ted doesn’t mean any harm when he shares that post about how the aliens built the pyramids, but that doesn’t make it true.
Disinformation is false and harmful information that is shared with malicious intent. A real-world example played out on X (formerly Twitter) during the 2016 election. 3,841 accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency (popularly known as a Russian troll farm) posted divisive, often inaccurate content.2
How They’re Different
When it comes to distinguishing misinformation and disinformation, intent matters. Misinformation can come from anyone who doesn’t do enough research before they hit “share.” Disinformation, on the other hand, typically comes from extremists or unethical organizations. One distinction that doesn’t matter? Political party. Liberals and conservatives are equally as likely to spread misinformation, according to research from Nottingham Trent University.3
Contrary to popular belief, MDI isn’t a new problem and it doesn’t just spread on the internet and social media. MDI has played a major role during conflicts and wars, in strengthening regimes, and in controlling public views for centuries. However, the rise of easily-accessible social media platforms like Facebook and X allow false information to be shared with more people at faster speeds than ever before. Because these platforms have become many people’s primary news source, that false information is a big problem for democracy.
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
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 social media, that can be as easy as checking their profile or 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. 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. Click bait can be deceiving.4
- 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.5 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 a few 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.
- Halo effect: Just because someone is attractive, funny, or confident, doesn’t mean they’re telling us the truth. But we’re way more likely to believe them anyway. Watch out for that bias – a slick influencer could be spreading misinformation, while a less-than-polished journalist could be publishing real news.
- 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.
- Look out for deepfakes: A picture is worth 1,000 words, but if that picture is fake, every one of them could be a lie. Check for signs that a shocking photo or video is AI-generated. Strange lighting effects can be a giveaway.
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.
With children, it’s important to start with the basics: 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.6
- 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.7
- 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:8
- 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.
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:
- Choose when to respond publicly or privately: It’s often best to message a loved one privately about a misinformed post so as not to give the post more visibility.9 Most people also tend to be more receptive to a private note than one made in public, as the latter might be perceived as a personal attack on them. However, in some instances, writing a public comment linking to a credible source might also be beneficial, especially if the post has gotten a lot of likes, comments, and attention. This will not only convince your loved one of the misinformation, but also others who could have been potentially swayed.
- 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.
We can’t control what our loved ones think or say. We can communicate or concerns, calmly and clearly.
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 Pew Research survey, 67 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.10
|How much confusion has made-up news caused regarding the basic facts of current events?
|% of U.S adults
|A great deal of confusion
|Not much or no confusion
The same survey found that 63 percent of people claim to find it easy to identify made-up news, though only 53 percent said the same about altered videos and images.
|Made up news has a big impact on …
|% of U.S adults
|Americans’ confidence in government
|Americans’ confidence in each other
|Political leaders’ ability to get work done
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
|Hardly ever or never
- MDI is shared more quickly than true information. Looking at rumors from 2006 to 2017 on X (formerly 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 X 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.11
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.
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 media literacy education via YouTube video or video game, the following resources have got you covered.
- Detect Fakes: Hosted by Northwestern university, this website lets you try your hand at detecting deepfakes. It’s good practice for spotting them in the wild online.
- Bad News: This browser-based game shows you how someone goes from regular poster to fake-news-spreader.
- 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.
- X:Next to the offending post, tap the downward arrow, Report Post, It’s Abusive or Harmful, and fill out the information.
- TikTok: Next to the TikTok video, tap Share, Report and then follow the instructions.
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 objectivity, which is in the best interest of our democracy.