Staying informed is imperative for every U.S. citizen. However, a lot of the information circulating the internet is not as factual as you may think. How can you tell what is misinformation and disinformation and are you able to avoid it?
This year’s election has stressed the importance of voting. However, as the election brings voters a renowned sense of patriotism, it has also brought a slew of misinformation and disinformation to the forefront on media platforms.
First, it is important to define the difference between misinformation and disinformation. Disinformation is false information that is meant to cause harm or change a person’s opinion or perspective. An example of this was the information spread by Russian operatives to disrupt the 2016 election. Misinformation is incorrect information unintentionally spread by someone that does not know that what they are spreading is false. This could be a friend sharing a meme or a picture featuring false information on social media, unaware that the information is false.
In recent weeks several different groups have become the targets of misinformation. Most recently, Spanish-speaking voters have become the victims of disinformation campaigns, because they are expected to be the largest group of voters of color. However, as in 2016, African American voters are one of the biggest targets of disinformation spread by the Internet Research Agency, an organization of Russian trolls known for spreading pro-Kremlin disinformation. However, Russia is not the only country guilty of spreading disinformation to disrupt elections. In 2016, Donald Trump’s campaign launched an effort that they called “deterrence” that targeted Black voters in parts of Florida in order to suppress their votes.
Misinformation and disinformation come in many different forms, and the most effective kinds typically try to cause a sort of emotional response. One of the most ubiquitous and dangerous forms of disinformation being spread throughout the internet are memes. Memes are easy to create and can spread misinformation in very few words, and they are also very easy to share through social media. With modern technology video editing software has become easy for individuals to use and to manipulate media, and make it nearly identical to the original footage.
The most common misinformation that is circulating the internet is typically about voting. There is a lot of false information about how to vote, which is one of the oldest forms of voter suppression. It is spreading false information about the time and place to vote or about the process of voting. There is also false information spreading about voting integrity such as claims by Trump that vote-by-mail will lead to voter fraud. Yet it has been proven to be very rare in the U.S.
But, far-right news outlets like Breitbart and The Washington Examiner are still publishing articles amplifying these false claims. False information spreading about the safety at polling places has been circulating for years, and the fear of poll safety has been magnified by Trump’s calls for his supporters to watch the polls. There is also false information about the election results, particularly, about whether the polls can be trusted after they incorrectly projected the outcome of the 2016 election.
As the election will soon be over, false information about the election will drift to the back of our minds until four years from now. But that does not mean that misinformation and disinformation is something that citizens and voters will no longer have to worry about between now and then. With small local-news outlets shutting down, more and more of them are being bought by political groups and PR firms in order to spread pro-Republican misinformation. These are not outright lies, but rather misleading information aimed to smear political rivals.
It is important that every article you read, that does not come from a source you know you can trust, is taken with a grain of salt. You must determine if the content is overly sensationalized or if the claims are overtly outlandish. In particular, pay attention to the information that provokes an intense emotional response. If it does, there is a good chance that it is misinformation or disinformation, and you may need to do some research to determine if the information is valid.
If you come across any information that you are unsure about, it is important that you verify it through a misinformation directory like the one located on Factcheck.org, Snopes, or Politifact. You should also check this list of fake news sites. If you come across an article from a site you have never heard of, look for their “about us” page, and research what kind of publication they are. You should be able to see if they are legitimate by reading their mission statement. You should verify the author by doing a Google search on their byline.
Because so much disinformation is spread with the intention of affecting us emotionally, it is important to not let your emotions dictate what information you deem to be true. If you come across any misinformation or disinformation it is important that you do not spread it around, and that you discourage others from spreading it as well. As the saying goes scientia potentia est—meaning “knowledge is power”—and indeed, information is very powerful. But the spreading of false information may prove to be detrimental to our democracy.