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Real or fake news? These tips can help readers decide

Posted at 5:00 AM, Jan 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-19 11:06:13-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There has been an avalanche of political and COVID-19 pandemic news to keep up with over the past few weeks.

With so much shared on social media, it can be difficult to figure out what's actually true.

A 2019 Ipsos survey of 25,000 people found that 86% believed they had been exposed to "fake news."

The proliferation of false stories shared on social media ahead of the 2016 presidential election shined a new light on the issue, according to Jacob Montgomery, a political science professors at Washington University in St. Louis.

"It was a wake-up moment for many observers and many researchers to realize that this was very widespread," Montgomery said.

Montgomery studies the intersection of politics and social media. He is one of the authors of a recent study investigating a method Facebook uses to fight misinformation.

In 2017, the company briefly posted a link to Tips to Spot False News at the top of users' newsfeeds.

There were 10 pointers, including:

  • Be skeptical of headlines, especially those with shocking claims and strange punctuation, like exclamation points.
  • Consider the photos used, and run a reverse search for an image to see where it came from.
  • Check the evidence and see what sources are cited.
  • Look at other reports to see if multiple outlets are reporting the same information.

To determine if the tips were effective, Montgomery and fellow researchers showed them to a study group. The participants were then asked to evaluate the accuracy of a series of headlines as they would appear in a Facebook timeline.

Compared to people who didn't see the tips, the study showed that those who did were better at identifying stories that were fake.

Furthermore, the effect seemed to last at least several weeks, as the respondents were interviewed a second time three weeks later.

"What the study showed is that giving people rules and tips to help them navigate the world of social media, where we have to make judgments all the time about whether this post is true or that post is false, can help people do that task better," Montgomery said.

Recently, Facebook and Twitter have taken more aggressive actions to stop the spread of bad information about COVID-19 and the 2020 election. The social media giants also were among those that suspended President Donald Trump's accounts.

RELATED: Social media fuels misinformation that stoked Capitol riots

Although studies have shown flagging individual posts is effective, it can also be difficult and expensive.

"From the perspective of Facebook, the problem is that they have millions or billions of pieces of content being added to the platform," Montgomery said.

That's why it's important for users to have digital media literacy.

"We can all have different opinions, and everyone should have different opinions," Montgomery said, "But it's hard to reach any kind of consensus when we disagree about basic facts or how basic facts are established."

There are a lot of resources out there to hone digital media literacy skills.

Among the resources to help hone digital media literacy skills is Clemson University's Spot the Troll quiz, where users can test their ability to identify fake accounts.

Another option is the Bad News game, which puts users in the shoes of a content creator to show how quickly disinformation can spread.

Finally, the Poynter Institute's MediaWise project has free online digital literacy courses, including ones created for seniors.

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