2022, the year in misinformation: News literacy takeaways

Updates


2022 Misinformation Year in Review

In 2022, misinformation continued to spread on social media and make its mark on the news cycle. From “cheap fakes” to miscaptioned videos to conspiratorial claims and rumors made entirely out of whole cloth, we review some of the biggest misinformation claims of the year and offer tips on how to better navigate social media in the new year.

1. Breaking news rumors

Even during the earliest stages of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, propagandists swarmed social media to muddy the waters and alter the narrative. The driving focus behind many of these rumors was to downplay the severity of the attack by claiming the war was somehow faked or staged. Social media posts used miscaptioned news footage and altered news reporting, and behind-the-scenes movie footage that had nothing to do with the war to support the false claims.

Other purveyors of misinformation took a different approach, connecting the conflict to a wide range of conspiracy theories, including that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was related to billionaire George Soros and that the United States was operating secret biolabs across Ukraine. Video game footage was also passed off as “shocking” evidence of military attacks, and a spate of rumors amplified Russian disinformation narratives, including false claims that the Ukrainian resistance is made up of Nazis.

NewsLit takeaway: Breaking news events — especially those that occur in foreign countries and during chaotic times in which information is scarce and the situation is in flux — provide ample opportunities for purveyors of misinformation to spread false claims. Russia, arguably the world’s leading producer of disinformation, has a strong interest in manufacturing confusion and doubt about its invasion. Be cautious about sharing information during breaking news cycles before it has been confirmed by credible sources.

2. Anti-vaccination falsehoods

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a rise of anti-vaccination sentiments that persisted in 2022. Vaccine denialist narratives that were prominent in 2020 and 2021 gained more mainstream traction as they were amplified by celebrities and repackaged into slick pseudo-documentary films. While many of the anti-vaccine rumors that circulated in 2022 were simply rehashed versions of previously debunked claims — a nonexistent increase in athletes collapsing, bogus claims about vaccines altering DNA, misattributed celebrity deaths and a false depopulation theory — their prevalence and proliferation meant that health misinformation continued to spread.

NewsLit takeaway: Anti-vaccination rumors infected a wide range of communities, from alternative health and wellness groups seeking “natural” remedies to anti-government followers opposed to regulations and mandates. These false rumors (like many conspiracy theories) appeal to people because they seem to provide answers during times of uncertainty, but they merely shelter people from the truth. Seek out health information from credible sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

3. Election fraud allegations

Ripples from the “Big Lie” of the 2020 presidential election continued to reverberate into the 2022 midterm contests. Some social media users repackaged familiar tropes — exaggerating mundane technical problems, misrepresenting the actions of poll workers, and spreading baseless lies about election laws — to cast doubt on the process and results.

NewsLit takeaway: Despite the false claims, very few cases of voter fraud occurred during the midterms. And election fraud falsehoods didn’t have the same impact as in 2020. One reason for this may be the rise of “prebunking” — or identifying examples of rumors that users are likely to encounter as an event approaches. The News Literacy Project produced this infographic to alert people about the types of rumors they would likely see during the midterms.

4. Economic conspiracies

The world in 2022 continued to experience interruptions in the supply chain that contributed to food and product shortages and inflation, while demand and supply imbalances led to higher gas prices. The effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic rippled throughout the global economy as well. Some social media users exploited the issues by catastrophizing their impact and spreading falsehoods about their causes. Alarmist falsehoods politicizing shortages in infant formula circulated, as did baseless claims that the U.S. was on the brink of running out of diesel fuel. Conspiracy theorists also pushed absurd claims that a government cabal was intentionally causing shortages — by representing videos of crops being burned or cows dying in a heat wave to contend these resulted from deliberate state actions.

NewsLit takeaway: Partisans and conspiracy theory communities often spin and exaggerate real world events to fit their own agendas. Following standards-based news organizations on social media can help mitigate the spread of these misleading takes. Practicing lateral reading also helps avoid conspiratorial rabbit holes.

5. Altered audio

One popular form of misinformation in 2022 involved genuine video clips with unrelated pieces of audio added to them. Anti-Biden chants and jeers were added to videos of first lady Jill Biden at a football game, former President Barack Obama at a rally, and President Joe Biden during a visit to London for Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral. Digital software capable of impersonating celebrity voices was also used to spread misinformation, such as this doctored video of former President Donald Trump appearing to praise Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, shortly after West showed support for Nazis, and this video of Elon Musk seeming to mock “crybaby liberals” shortly after taking over Twitter.

NewsLit takeaway: Deepfakes tend to attract attention, but purveyors of misinformation also can create quick and convincing videographic fakes with simple manipulations of context, or by merely swapping out the audio. These altered videos can be detected by tracking down the authentic source footage, but it’s a step few people take as they scroll through their feeds, especially when the message resonates with their existing views and biases.

6. Fake litter boxes and anti-transgender claims

One of the biggest stories of the year never happened. A baseless, transphobic internet falsehood about (nonexistent) schools accommodating (nonexistent) students who “identify as cats” made its way into school board meetings as secondhand anecdotes, then were amplified by right-wing podcasters and pundits. Influential podcast host Joe Rogan, for example, shared a claim on his show that his friend’s wife worked at a school that was forced to install such a litter box to accommodate a student; he later retracted the story because there was no evidence that it was real. Litter boxes quickly became a modern-day urban legend.

NewsLit takeaway: Confirmation bias can be incredibly powerful. The right-wing media ecosystem regularly highlighted controversies over transgender people using bathrooms, competing in sports and choosing their own pronouns. Anger and fear over this issue intensified in some partisan circles and paved the way for implausible scenarios (a school installing a litter box for a child to use instead of a bathroom) to be credulously believed and repeated as a political talking point. Be sure to check other sources of credible information before sharing a viral or controversial post.

7. Flat Earth and climate-change lies

Even as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope captured images of distant galaxies, social media users were busy spreading rumors that the Earth was flat. Even more disconcerting, there was a general rise in climate misinformation in 2022, including false claims maligning electric cars, a fabricated magazine cover that indicated climate change is a hoax and accusations that the media was doctoring weather maps to sow panic.

NewsLit takeaway: Misinformation relies on the rejection of credible and authoritative sources. This is exemplified in the flat Earth conspiracy theory and, more importantly, in the rejection of overwhelming evidence of Earth’s changing climate. To follow climate change developments, seek out information from standards-based news organizations and credible science sources.

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