by John Nicholas

Election season is heating up, and we are all searching for truth in the sea of information that is at our fingertips. It is not easy. 

Disinformation, or deliberately misleading information; misinformation, or accidentally misleading information; and even propaganda, both foreign and domestic, flood our social media feeds, email inboxes, and subsequently, our conversations. “Deepfake” videos and manipulated pictures and audio files making the truth even harder to identify. Fake news propagators use real photos out of context, attaching them to sensational headlines and tagging them with a sensational caption.  

Read more:

Unencrypted | Identifying bots and slowing misinformation

It is important to arm yourself with the knowledge of how to identify “fake news” stories and “deepfakes.”

To combat “fake news:”

1) Be aware of your own political biases when trying to spot “fake news”.

Seeking only those news stories that reflect your current point of view is called confirmation bias. This practice leaves us susceptible to “fake news” stories. You should be aware that social media outlets, including Twitter, Facebook, Google News and Apple News, are serving you a custom plate of news based on what you already read and react to — meaning that plate is likely to contain items that support and reinforce your current views. Expand your reading outside of your feed.

2) Check the history and reputation of the author and publication. Even the most reputable organizations commit errors — look at how they correct them. 

Many social media outlets now put a little information icon on the news story. This will tell you how long the news source has been in operation and other information. Be leery of politically biased outlets. 

When you click on a story, look for the byline, which includes the name of the author. (Mine says “by John Nicholas.”) If there is no byline, be wary. If there is, do a thorough search for other works by the author and read them.

True journalism filters out the nonsense, but doesn’t always get it right. In today’s rapid news cycles, it is easy to get too far ahead of the story or to misrepresent a statement inadvertently. A true journalistic news outlet will correct what is wrong as soon as they learn the story is flawed.

The sites that spread fake news, on the other hand, tend to double down and provide links to other sites that are promoting the same story.

3) Determine whether other outlets are reporting the same news.

This does not mean go to outlets that have the same bias as the site where you read the story. Verify what you read through mainstream media outlets. The best sources of verification are the Associated Press and Reuters.

4) Make sure the story isn’t intended to be humorous.

Satire sites such as The Onion post a lot of “news” that is nothing more than a joke. There are also a lot of pranksters and wisenheimers out there who find humor in creating misdirection and may claim their work is “satire,” despite not identifying it as such. Again, verify against a reliable source like the Associated Press. 

5) Be leery of sensational headlines.

As mentioned above, the extremists from both sides use real photos out of context by attaching them to sensational headlines and tagging them with a sensational caption. Others use images or videos that are years old and claim they show present-day events. If a headline that says “Mayor Horrigan sells City to Tallmadge,” verify before you share — even if there is a picture with it.

6) Consider the reasons why this person is sharing this news with you at this time.

Timing is everything. If there is a major event going on? Did you recently have a conversation with this person and they want to prove you wrong? Are they trying to sway your vote?

It is overwhelming at times to sift through the barrage of chatter on social media, but it can be done. A little research and some common sense will serve you well. When in doubt, do not share a story or meme.

Dr. John B. Nicholas is a Professor of Computer Information Systems and Co-Founder of the Cybersecurity Degree Track at The University of Akron. Dr. Nicholas has over 30 years experience in the technology field in both the private sector and higher education. Reach him with questions and concerns for future articles at jbnicholasphd@gmail.com.

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