How to Fact Check Social Media
by Sydney Steidl, age 14
In such a divisive time, it becomes especially difficult for us to come together if we aren’t even looking at the same facts.
The internet and social media have given the average person a new opportunity to share any information they wish and this opportunity has been abused with the spread of misinformation. While most people seem to be aware of this issue, realistically, people aren’t going to spend their time checking the sources and facts for every new piece of information they encounter.
However, you’re bound to come across a post that you already know is incorrect, and you should know why it’s important to call it out and correct its mistakes properly.
Why is it important to call out misinformation?
Misinformation is important to call out because of the detrimental impacts it can have. One example is the recently circulated claim that only 6% of reported COVID-19 deaths are actually due to the virus. While this idea has been disproven multiple times, the widespread and appealing nature of the claim made many people susceptible to believing it. This misinformation is extremely reckless as it encourages people to act irresponsibly and disregard warning signs even when it comes to critical safety precautions for serious issues such as COVID-19. The spread of misinformation undermines the experts who are continuously trying to convey the severity of the virus. Additionally, misinformation is also used as a political weapon, succeeding in its goal to sway voters with false claims and ignite distrust. This can be seen through events such as the election and its results or posts across social media platforms as a whole.
Lewis Friedland, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison says, “The degree of the crisis can hardly be overstated. I’m usually somebody who looks for positive solutions rather than talking about the sky falling in, but we’re starting to get to a point as a society where, at least from the standpoint of shared knowledge and facts — and the shared trust that comes from those things — the sky is starting to fall in.”
What to do about it
Before deciding to tell someone they’re spreading misinformation, check to make sure your information is factually accurate. This is best done by finding a credible person or organization to cite or by using a fact-checking website such as snopes.com to review your thoughts. Having a source to back up your claim will help make your argument more credible. You should also ask yourself if their statement is simply an opinion that you do not agree with or if it is actually false. Everyone has a right to an opinion and calling an opinion wrong over another will be unproductive and create unneeded tension or anger, especially when both sides may have strong evidence to back up their claims.
In the case that a statement is confirmed to be completely false and not simply an opinion, you have two routes that you can take to approach the situation: a private message or a public callout. Nora Benavidez with PEN America says that the best time to use a private message is when “something is super fresh and new.”
In such a case, if few people have seen the post, less damage has been caused and you can hopefully convince them to take it down before more people see the information.
In other situations, it may be best to “call them out in public because otherwise, people are going to think that the misinformation is true, and you have an opportunity to show everyone else that it’s not,” says Leticia Bode, a researcher at Georgetown University.
“If you imagine a random person scrolling through their social media feed, they have no idea that what they’re seeing is misinformation,” she added. “If they immediately see a comment saying that it’s not true, that can prevent them from believing it in the first place.”
Your friend or family member probably won’t like being called out in public, but it’s helpful for the goal of shutting down the spread of false information.
It can be tricky to figure out how to do this correctly, as these corrections are often more impactful coming from a close friend over a stranger; you don’t want to damage relationships with people you care about. To be most effective, make your corrections civil. They most likely had pure intentions and no idea it was false.
Don’t stoop to personal attacks rather than focusing on the facts of their argument. Not only does this make your side less valid, it will hurt your relationship with the person. You’re not looking for a heated debate, as people are less likely to listen to the other side once emotions get involved. Access what you have in common and try to reach a middle ground that is supported through factual evidence.
Now that you know why and how to call out friends and family for spreading false information, it is also important to know when to stop. Unfortunately, you can do everything correctly and still never be able to reach an agreement. Some people are not interested in being educated. It’s not worth your time and energy to continue engaging in that discussion once you realize they simply will not listen. All you can do is make your attempt to inform them; how they receive that is up to them.
You have to remember, however, that the people who see your counter-argument in either the comments or a response post are much less likely to believe the original post. Even if you didn’t help the original poster, and continuously calling out misinformation feels discouraging and repetitive, that callout helped somebody and you should keep doing the best that you can to ensure factual information is spread.