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SUNY Geneseo Fraser Hall Library Subject Guides


Elections and Politics Information: Ways to Avoid the Spread of False Info on Social Media

This guide is intended to provide best practices for doing politics and activism on campus, as well as information on how to get involved in the elections.

How to Cut the False Information Loop

Propaganda, misinformation, deep and cheapfakes, and other attempts at manipulation are prevalent on social media. This page contains some information and strategies that you can use to avoid spreading them yourself.

False information can often spread through the following path:

  1. A propagandist, fanatic, or scammer makes up a piece of information or story and posts it as fact on a show, social media post, or editorial outlet.
  2. Followers of the initial poster repost, retweet, or otherwise spread the information on their own channels.
  3. Other outlets report that "people are talking about" the issue.
  4. Mainstream news sources may report on the issue as fact, especially if they have not fully done their fact checking in an effort to get a scoop.
  5. Those outlets post retractions or apologies, but by that point large numbers of people may believe the false fact because it came from a trustworthy source.

Steps to Take to Insulate Yourself from Misinformation

The most important step to take is to interrupt your own reflex of sharing posts that outrage you or resonate with your beliefs. Scammers capitalize on that instinct by tailoring their stories to fit the beliefs of their targets so they will slip under their defenses.

  • Never share a post on social media without fact checking
    • This is especially true if it comes from a source you trust. If you want to spread truth, you need to assume that other people aren't perfect and may make mistakes.
  • Look for the sources
    • Mainstream news is only as good as the sources they rely on. Anonymous sources, or stories coming from only a single source are more suspect than stories with multiple sources of confirmation. This doesn't mean that they are false; many important leaks and stories have come from single anonymous sources. But don't assume they are true, especially if they are sensational, until there is confirmation.
  • Consider the story's agenda
    • Stories are colored by the agendas of their writers.
      • News organizations typically operate for money, and part of their brand (and thus their profits) lies in their accuracy. However, many news groups tailor their content to particular segments of customers, and thus are more likely to cover stories with a particular perspective. This can skew their accuracy, turning it into affinity with the preconceptions of their target audience.
      • Political organizations exist to get their candidates elected and agenda passed, and thus any stories from a campaign or candidate are more suspect because they will always be intended to persuade. This does not make them automatically false, but watch for emotional appeals, arguments that disaster is just around the corner unless you act, or other measures designed to make you fearful or anxious.
  • Don't discount stories that play to emotions, but view them with caution
    • Injustices and corruption are things that make any ethical person upset or angry. A story that promotes emotion is not automatically false just because it provokes strong feelings.
    • Unfortunately, scammers and propagandists know the power of emotion and use that tool in their work. Therefore, fact check before you share.

How to Spot Fake News on Social Media

What kinds of fake news exist?

There are four broad categories of fake news, according to media professor Melissa Zimdars of Merrimack College.

CATEGORY 1: Fake, false, or regularly misleading websites that are shared on Facebook and social media. Some of these websites may rely on “outrage” by using distorted headlines and decontextualized or dubious information in order to generate likes, shares, and profits.

CATEGORY 2: Websites that may circulate misleading and/or potentially unreliable information

CATEGORY 3: Websites which sometimes use clickbait-y headlines and social media descriptions

CATEGORY 4: Satire/comedy sites, which can offer important critical commentary on politics and society, but have the potential to be shared as actual/literal news

No single topic falls under a single category - for example, false or misleading medical news may be entirely fabricated (Category 1), may intentionally misinterpret facts or misrepresent data (Category 2), may be accurate or partially accurate but use an alarmist title to get your attention (Category 3) or may be a critique on modern medical practice (Category 4.)  Some articles fall under more than one category.  Assessing the quality of the content is crucial to understanding whether what you are viewing is true or not.   It is up to you to do the legwork to make sure your information is good.

Borrowed with permission from Indiana University East.