Identifying Misinformation and Disinformation When Researching

We live in a time where there is a wealth of information at our fingertips. My parents and grandparents did not grow up able to Google how to change a tire, watch YouTube performances at the Sydney Opera House, or get lost researching the internet phenomenon that is Snape Wives. I feel incredibly privileged to have these opportunities.

However, at the same time that I can find just about anything on the Internet, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to separate fact from fiction. Misinformation–unintentionally false information–and disinformation–deliberately misleading information–are on the rise.

Many of us know a conspiracy theorist, or have a family member that will believe everything they read on Facebook. But even highly educated people, like PhD Historians, are falling prey to deepfakes and doctored news articles. Fortunately, research shows that a little bit of training goes a long way in helping to protect yourself from misinformation and disinformation.

How can you arm you and your loved ones with the knowledge to combat fake news?

Mental Heuristics
First, it is important to acknowledge our own biases and beliefs. The human brain saves energy by relying on a series of heuristics (also known as mental shortcuts) to make decisions. But these heuristics, such as the anchoring bias and confirmation bias, can lead to the wrong conclusions.

Anchoring bias is when we give the first piece of information we receive outsized weight. Think of the importance of first impressions; My best friend was having a terrible day the first time I met her, and I thought she hated me for a month. Eight years later, and it is impossible to imagine not having her in my life.

Confirmation bias is when we seek out information that confirms our previous beliefs. For example, I hate Wallace & Grommit with all my heart and soul, and tend to only look up articles that justify my hatred, even if that’s not objective.

More sinisterly, algorithms like to feed off of confirmation bias, and can even radicalize people’s beliefs. Many individuals that start off with mundane searches–often fueled by loneliness or depression–can quickly fall down an extremist pipeline.

We can’t “turn off” our biases, but by acknowledging them when we do research, we can minimize their impacts and question the narrative that social media might be feeding us.

Lateral Reading
When doing your own research, how do you know that you’re looking in the right places? Lateral reading, or “running a background check” can be a good place to start. Lateral reading involves checking whether your sources are reliable by seeing what other people have to say about them.

In the article linked above, Lauren notes that a seemingly reputable website on climate change was actually funded by oil and coal companies. How did she find out? By checking Wikipedia. Media bias charts and donor lookups can also be helpful resources in determining the reputability of a website, company, or public figure. When reading a research article, looking up what universities an academic is affiliated with, or what other pieces they’ve published can also be helpful.

Once you’ve determined that a website or author is credible, you can do a deep dive into what specific claims they are making.

Fact Check
Are the claims an author makes supported by evidence? Sometimes it can be hard to tell if information is correct, even if it seems to be scientifically backed. It can be very easy for authors to misunderstand or misrepresent data, either intentionally or unintentionally.

If you’ve ever taken a social science or statistics course, you’ve probably heard the mantra “correlation does not equal causation” at least a dozen times. But it’s an easy mistake to make; when two values relate to each other, we want to assume that they’re connected in some way.

A great example of this is that ice cream sales and murder rates are highly positively correlated with each other–when more people buy ice cream, more people are victims of homicide. But does this mean that Rocky Road is fueling a killing spree? Certainly not. The underlying connection is temperature–ice cream sales go up in the summer, and high heat is associated with increased aggression. The website Spurious Correlations has an entire list of bizarre statistics that are highly correlated with each other.

It might be easy to dismiss silly correlations such as these, but implying correlation equals causation can have quite dire consequences, such as in the case of the anti-vaxx movement.

Researchers can also lie. The replication crisis of the 2010s found that many published articles in psychological science had used exaggerated, faked, or outlying data. Positively, the discovery that scholars were faking data so that they could be published has since led to more open data practices, where anyone reading an article can take the raw data and run statistical tests themselves.

But you shouldn’t have to be an expert in data science to figure out if an article is telling the truth. What do you do if the thought of running multiple linear regressions makes you want to scream?

Fortunately, the world is full of many experts, and if there are multiple published studies in reputable journals that are making the same claims, it is much more likely that data is not being faked. Metastudies are also your friends; these are published studies that sum up the results of dozens or even hundreds of studies that are looking at the same topic.

Tools for everyone
Relying on the above tactics, you should have a much better idea of how to identify misinformation and disinformation. But don’t stop here!

Below are links to websites and games that can help further educate you and your loved ones (regardless of age!) on how to spot misinformation and disinformation.

For Adults
DPL’s Spotting Misinformation
DPL’s Research Blog
Calling Bullshit
Civic Online Reasoning
Misinformation in Health

For Teens and Tweens
Media Monsters
Teen Fact Checking Network
Fake News Games
PBS Fake News

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Written by abenz on