Our News Literacy Project colleague Dan Evon is taking over Get Smart About News for this special issue. Dan tracks and writes about misinformation trends and tactics for RumorGuard, NLP’s fact-checking site. You may also be familiar with his work from the RumorGuard Rundown section of the regular newsletter. His journalism background includes nearly a decade as a fact-check reporter at Snopes. We asked Dan to share tips to help you spot falsehoods online.
And now, handing it off to Dan. Enjoy!
— The Get Smart About News team
Top trending misinformation tactics you should know
Although misinformation topics and trends may change day by day or even minute by minute, methods of manipulating have mostly stayed the same. Image credit: News Literacy Project.
I’ve seen my share of falsehoods during my career as a professional fact-checker and let me tell you something: I. Am. Exhausted. A flood of falsehoods washes over social media every day and there aren’t enough fact-checkers in the world to hold back the waters. Which is why news literacy is so essential! By understanding how misinformation is made and why it spreads, and having a few basic fact-checking skills, more people will be able to critically examine viral claims in their feeds and prevent themselves and people they know from being misled. (On a side note, it also means less work for me. 😉)
Every day new falsehoods are created and spread online. But while the topics change from day to day, the methods of manipulation have mostly stayed the same. Images and media are presented out of context, photos and videos are digitally manipulated (including a growing trend of altering audio tracks) and there are baseless, fabricated claims that gain traction simply because they’re attributed to a credible source.
It is important for us to push back against misinformation because these deceptive practices distort our view of the world. Misinformation influences our politics, our health decisions and even how we view our neighbors. And here’s the kicker: it has this effect even when we don’t fall for it — because it influences others who live, work and vote in our communities.
So what can we do? To start, we can learn how these falsehoods are created and which emotional biases they repeatedly attempt to exploit. Here are three of the most common tactics I’ve observed being used to spread misinformation online these days.
Recognizing genuine imagery presented out of context
Nearly every image and video that we come across on social media is presented to us alongside a piece of text — supposedly describing what it shows or expressing some kind of opinion on the alleged subject. This format — some descriptive text paired with a piece of media — is very easy to manipulate. Bad actors, or people posting with the intention to deceive, can quickly and easily use genuine images out of context to create a convincing piece of misinformation.
This tactic is used by bad actors to spread false rumors about everything from genetically modified mosquitoes to so-called immigrant “invasions” to book bans, but this method of manipulation is especially prevalent during breaking news about mass casualty events. Whether it relates to destruction from a natural disaster or a deadly international conflict, bad actors seek to capitalize on the public’s curiosity about these highly emotional events by sharing out-of-context images that mislead people about current events. This leaves the public confused about what is and what isn’t authentic.
This is a genuine photo taken at the Salzburg airport in Austria, but it does not depict a help desk for people who thought they were flying to Australia. Can you guess the original context of this photo, which was changed to spread misinformation?
While they take a little bit longer to produce and require a little more effort and skill, manipulated media can be just as deceptive as out-of-context media. Altered photos and videos often appear genuine at first glance, especially when the edits are subtle, such as adding a few extra pounds to a political figure or changing the text on a sign.
But altering the visuals tends to leave behind cues that careful observers are likely to catch. Which is likely one reason why altering the audio of videos is becoming a more common tactic used to spread false claims. With generative AI tools that can alter a person’s movements and mimic their voices, bad actors can make it seem as if political figures are making statements that they never did. Adding crowd noise, such as people heckling a political candidate, into a viral video is another popular iteration of this tactic. And since this alteration happens “off-screen,” it is more difficult to detect and requires people to carefully consider the source of the content — and sometimes to track down its original — to make a determination about its authenticity.
Digital editing tools have made it difficult to distinguish between genuine and doctored content with the naked eye. But looking at the surrounding context of a piece of media can still sometimes reveal clues about authenticity. Which of the following are clues that may indicate that this video of a dancing drone skeleton is a fake?
Impostor content works by presenting false information in the costume of credibility. The damage this type of misinformation causes is twofold: By presenting a fabricated news report alongside all of the logos and chyrons you’d expect to see from a credible news outlet, bad actors can not only make a fictitious item seem plausible but they can also disparage credible news outlets and exacerbate distrust in credible news sources. Fabricating social media posts is another popular form of impostor content that can fly under our radar when it plays into our pre-existing biases. Both fake news headlines and fabricated posts tend to circulate solely in the form of a screenshot — which is a red flag to watch out for.
Impostor content can also hijack the reputations of well-liked celebrities to launder political opinions that would otherwise be unpalatable. By pretending that a popular person wore a T-shirt expressing a polarizing viewpoint or by presenting a meme containing a fabricated quote, purveyors of disinformation can make it seem as if a particular point of view has more support than it really does, which in turn can influence the opinions of others.
Misinformation is designed to influence our understanding of the world so that it can influence our opinions. When we know the tactics that these propaganda peddlers use, we dramatically increase our ability to spot this content, slow its spread and prevent ourselves from being duped.