Misinformation has become an unavoidable part of the internet and many of our lives – however ignorance is not.
What is it?
To understand how we can stay informed, it is important to know what misinformation is, together with its sub-areas.
Misinformation is false or misleading information, created and spread by anyone, either to deceive people or simply because of ignorance. Nowadays, we often hear the term “fake news”, but it is nothing more than misinformation presented as news by news outlets without providing any verifiable evidence.
A similar term is “disinformation”, it is different to misinformation because it is the deliberate spread of false information, usually to manipulate the population. It can quickly become “propaganda” if it has a political motive.
Propaganda is when biased or misleading information is used to push an often political agenda or view onto others.
Arguably, there is more misinformation now than there ever was in the past. One simple explanation for this increase is likely the increased numbers of social media users:
This year, we have reached a point where 50% of the population has access to social media (3.78 billion). In other words, 3.78 billion people can post anything, and it can be viewed by anyone.
Gallup, a high credibility polls creator, has suggested that only 10% of the population are natural leaders, meaning the rest are followers who will listen to them and what they say – including misinformation. A more specific yet similar study showed that 65% of Americans believe the majority of what they read online.
Using these numbers, it can be explained why misinformation spreads so easily, and why we see such a diversity in false, misleading, or extreme information. There are too many unqualified or misinformed people expressing their opinions or views, and too many unbothered people blankly accepting it.
One of the biggest reasons for false information is a political motive. This can be either by a ruling party or a running party which is supported by news outlets and people.
Different governments and political orientations will want their agendas and politics to be pushed through. While some parties will be rather honest and transparent, others are filled with corruption, lies and bad intentions. For these parties to stay in power, it is crucial that the public thinks highly of them, which for many parties can only be achieved through deliberately false information.
In one party systems, like North Korea, this becomes even more apparent where sometimes all outsider information is banned, including the entire internet, to make sure no one and nothing can disprove any information given.
Sources: Graph from ourworldindata.org, data from Freedom House
But of course, it will often also be linked to money.
Today, there will be a quite substantial number of people having a specific point of view, even if it is absurd. News outlets and social media can support their ideas and get that group of people to follow them, providing the business with many views and large amounts of ad revenue.
The same motive is also often the reason for exaggerations or even made-up stories, another type of fake news.
Can you prevent being misinformed?
Although it will be a big challenge to be completely true, here are some ways you can more easily prevent or identity misinformation:
- Read more than one source. Getting both perspectives and sides of a story, helps you make up your own mind and be sure that you received the majority of needed information.
- Check the reputation of the source using fact and bias checks, for example “mediabiasfactcheck.com”. Search for a source with a high factual rating and low bias, as well as a source that is not owned by any extremist group.
- Don’t fall for Satire, for example “The Onion”.
- Don’t fall for every eye-catching photo or believe them. Use reverse image search engines, such as “tineye.com”, to search for the source of the photo and possibly previous uses.
The photo below was used to show how social distancing wasn’t respected, but look at the picture on the right (different angle) and it’s a whole different story.
- Realise that you might have your own bias and opinions. Sometimes the other side might have a point; it is important to acknowledge it and accept it.
- Make sure the article has facts, not just opinions and claims. However, facts do not mean they are right, they might be incomplete or plain wrong.
By Vadim Audy and Daniel Veldman