May 13 2024

Spotting Misinformation

There is an interesting disconnect in our culture recently. About 90% of people claim that they verify information they encounter in the news and on social media, and 96% of Americans say that we need to limit the spread of misinformation online. And yet, the spread of misinformation is rampant. Most people, 74%, report that that they have seen information online labeled as false. Only about 60% of people report regularly checking information before sharing it. And a relatively small number of users spread a disproportionate amount of misinformation.

Of course, what is considered “misinformation” is often is the eyes of the beholder. We tend to silo ourselves in information ecosystems that share our worldview, and define misinformation relative to our chosen outlets. Republicans and Democrats, for example, trust completely different sources of news, with no overlap (in the most trusted sources). What’s fake news on Fox, is mainstream news on MSNBC, and vice versa. There is not only a difference in what is considered real vs fake news, but how the news is curated. Choosing certain stories to amplify over others can greatly distort one’s view of reality.

Misinformation is not new, but the networks of how it is created and shared is changing fairly quickly. If we all agree we need to stem the tide of misinformation, how do we do it? As is often the case with big social or systemic questions like this, we can take a top-down or bottom-up approach. The top-down approach is for social media platforms and news outlets to take responsibility for the quality of the information being spread on their watch. Clear misinformation can be identified and then nipped in the bud. AI algorithms backed up by human evaluators can kill a lot of misinformation, if the platform wants. Also, they can choose algorithms that favor quality and reliability over sensationalism and maximizing clicks and eyeballs. In addition, government regulations can influence the incentives for platforms and outlets to favor reliability over sensationalism.

The top-down methods are clearly most effective, but they also can be tricky because they put a lot of power in the hands of a few people. Whenever the government is involved, that can also trigger first amendment issues. The top down method can certainly help make the environment less misinformation toxic, and add some transparency and accountability, but is not likely to solve the problem entirely. We are always going to need some bottom-up mechanisms to spot misinformation.

The bottom-up approach essentially means each individual needs to be responsible for their own consumption, creation, and spreading of information. People need to have at least basic critical thinking skills, scientific literacy, and media savvy to survive in our current age of massive information – including the entire spectrum from reliable useful information to toxic deadly misinformation. Unfortunately, there is no “one simple trick” to spotting misinformation. This is a set of skills that we should develop throughout our lives. But there are some helpful guides.

One method is the SIFT method, developed by Mike Caulfield, who is a digital literacy expert. It’s a good start, so I will quickly summarize this method and then add to it.

The “S” in SIFT stands for stop – when you read a juicy piece of information online, or encounter it in any venue (even just a friend telling you), first just stop. Don’t act on the information immediately. Don’t retweet it, share it, post it, or make a Tik Tok video where you just point at the misinformation approvingly. Stop and think about the information, how reliable it is, how likely to be true, and essentially go through the next three steps first.

“I” is for “investigate the source”. Is the source reliable, neutral, and authoritative? Or, is the source dubious, anonymous, or obviously biased? Are they trying to sell you something? This leads to “F”, which is to find other sources. Multiple sources are more likely to be reliable than a single source. You should also seek better sources if possible.

Finally, trace the source back to its origin – where did it come from? It’s always a good idea to track back to the primary or original source of information. Most sources are likely just repeating that source, so it may seem like there is a lot of independent verification of a claim, but it all traces back to the same origin, which may be biased or dubious.

This is all good, but far from sufficient. I was hoping to make my own acronym (perhaps SKEPTIC), and maybe I will get there, but for now let me just lay out some additional steps that are highly useful. When seeing out other sources, specifically look for critical sources, or those with a different opinion or a counter claim. Who is saying what, and why? What do the most objective or reliable sources say? Who seems to have the best claim?

Check your own biases. Be more skeptical of information that fits comfortably into your existing belief system, ideology, or tribe. In fact, seek information specifically that counters what you want to believe. Try to prove yourself wrong.

Be charitable to other perspectives. Don’t assume anyone who disagrees with what you want to believe is evil, wants to destroy America, or is a shill. Give the best interpretation of the other side and deal with that.

Don’t forget to assess plausibility. Does the claim even make sense? Does it violate the laws of physics? Would it require an entirely new phenomenon not yet demonstrated by science or accepted by the world’s experts? Is it just one person making the claim, and are they in line with the mainstream? If they are an outlier, why? This does not necessarily mean they are wrong, but should give you pause. Does the claim require accepting  highly unlikely scenarios, extraordinary claims, dismissing lots of counter evidence, or a string of special pleading?

I could go on – in fact I wrote an entire book of going on – but this is a good place to start. Again – it’s not easy. But having some basic process is better than having no process, and just accepting whatever feels right. Misinformation is not going away anytime soon, so we all need to protect ourselves, and make sure we are not part of the problem. Which leads to a good closing point – be open to correcting yourself when you do make a mistake. Don’t double down on misinformation just because you don’t want to admit error or accept the fact that not every single fact lines up with your ideology.

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