Five steps to avoid election misinformation

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Nothing is more fundamental to democracy than information. It’s what we use to understand which issues are most important, and to assess which policies and political candidates are best suited to address those concerns.

A democracy thrives when its citizens are informed and can wither when they are misled and deceived — especially in an election year, when political messaging appears nonstop in our social-media feeds and foreign agents amp up their campaigns to divide and polarize us.

As the 2020 presidential campaign heats up, here are five ways that you can protect yourself from being misled by political misinformation.

1. Keep an eye on your emotions

Despite what we may think, our relationship to information is more emotional than rational. Purveyors of misinformation know this. They try to trigger strong emotional reactions, such as fear, outrage, and hope, to override our rational defenses. Be aware of your emotions — particularly when you’re reacting to a piece of unknown origin or one that isn’t backed up by credible evidence.

2. Don’t “like” or share an article you haven’t read

Yes, we’ve all done it, but it’s not a good idea to share a link if you’ve read only the headline. When you do, you risk amplifying unreliable and divisive content. No matter how urgent a piece of information may appear, be sure to read it carefully and skeptically before you send it onward; if you don’t, you risk your own credibility and may be polluting the feeds of your friends and family members.

3. Learn to spot misinformation patterns

Elections inspire all kinds of viral rumors, hoaxes, and misleading memes, and many of them tend to focus on a few overarching themes. Be particularly wary of posts that seem to discourage voting — describing long lines at polling places or broken voting machines. Accusations of voter fraud, a known Russian disinformation tactic, seek to cast doubt on the electoral process and undermine the very idea of democracy.

Posts that promote alternative ways to cast your vote (for example, by text message or through social media) could be trying to trick you into not showing up at the polls. Also, be skeptical of posts in which celebrities are depicted making highly partisan statements or endorsing a candidate. You can learn to spot these and other misinformation patterns by following fact-checking organizations on social media and using tools like FactStream from the Duke Reporters’ Lab.

4. Don’t fall for deepfakes or cheapfakes.

We used to be able to trust what we saw with our own eyes. No more. Artificial intelligence is now capable of producing incredibly lifelike fabrications, such as artificially constructed images of “people” and deepfake videos in which real people can be made to “say” anything. But not all misinformation is so sophisticated; many experts are just as concerned about “cheapfakes,” relatively easy-to-produce video edits that can make people appear to speak or act in a way that they actually didn’t. So if an incendiary video emerges this campaign season that seems to show a candidate saying something outrageous, especially close to Election Day, verify that it’s authentic before sharing it (or letting it influence your vote).

5. Be skeptical, not cynical

With so much misinformation circulating, it’s tempting to give in to cynicism and confusion — to embrace the belief that the other political party can’t be trusted, that nothing you see online is credible, and that there’s therefore no sense in paying attention to any of it. But this cynicism plays right into the hands of the propagandists who strive to divide us, and casts a fog over the very notion of truth — because a public that has given up on knowing what is true is one that will accept almost anything.

Facts still exist, as do reputable news outlets that are focused on gathering and reporting them. Remember: Credible information doesn’t ask for your trust; it earns it by being transparent, fair, and accurate. As the political content in your social-media feeds intensifies in the coming months, keep these tips in mind to stop bad actors from exploiting your values and beliefs to sneak their manipulative fictions into your worldview.

If you see something online that’s fake, false, or misleading, do something: Share it with fact-checkers and news outlets, warn others with a comment or a reply, post accurate information, and report false content and malicious accounts when they violate platforms’ community standards. Democracy requires nothing less.

For the latest examples of misinformation and ways to identify and challenge them, please subscribe to our free weekly newsletter, The Sift.

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