Be Informed – Know Your Sources. Verify the Facts!
By Julia B
Julia is a 2018 Graduate Hinsdale Central High School and a DGTDO summer intern
We are living in an unprecedented age of unlimited digital content. With social media, it is really easy to put things on the internet and have an instant audience. This is great for genuine grassroots political organizations and so many other good things, but it does render a lot of the content immediately uncheckable.
In other words, there’s so much out there that it can be difficult for people to discern fact from farce. And while this is the natural progression of the internet, it does make us viewers susceptible to manipulation. We’ve seen this manipulation most notably in the spread of fake news by Russian groups that used fake social media accounts, “bots,” to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential election by promoting conspiracy theories and extreme opinions through Facebook activity. This amplified division in America, and gave users a false impression of what was really going on – a slick, modern kind of propaganda.
More recently, Russian bots were tied to the #WalkAway hashtag, a grassroots social media movement that bills itself as a forum for former Democrats to explain why they left the party. According to Hamilton 86, a website from the Alliance for Securing Democracy which tracks Russian influence on Twitter, #WalkAway was the seventh most popular hashtag in Russia.
In order to not become subject to manipulation like this as you engage with social media and the internet, you need to both be conscious of the information you’re consuming, and take steps to discern whether something is accurate as you read it, rather than mindlessly reposting.
When looking at media, it is so important to look at the source. What kind of group produced it? Does the organization have an established domain name? Most reliable organizations will. Does the website look professional (make sure the organization isn’t just a company trying to sell you something)? Does the site have an “About Us” section that can tell you more? It should. Who is the author? If it is an opinion piece, is the author involved in the subject, or an expert? There should be a shown reason to believe them.
Next, we must understand the type of content that we are reading, to differentiate news story from opinion piece from advertisement. Does the source present hard news with an obvious political leaning? Be very aware of this, as that is not reliable. If the article is a real opinion piece, it should still have lots of credible sources, quotes from experts, and research backing the arguments present. There’s a difference between a credible opinion piece and an article by Joe Schmoe spouting baseless claims. Needless to say, hard news articles should have reliable, quotes, sources as well. They should also precisely satiate the questions of who, what, when, where, and why as they relate to the subject of the article, without involving the author’s opinion.
Make sure that the headline reflects the rest of the article, and isn’t just grabbing “clickbait” intended to shock. There should be a point to any article — to relay an event, opinion, something, that is clearly backed by proven evidence, and for opinion pieces, logical reasoning.
In May, Facebook announced that it had disabled 1.3 billion fake accounts in the past two quarters, and in early July, Twitter announced a similar crackdown on accounts perpetrating the spread of false information and spam. While the division and spread of misinformation is largely irreversible, this is a very good step. But it surely won’t stop all fake news from flowing, and strategic meddlers will certainly find new ways to feed us mistruth. So it remains imperative that we consume our news and social media consciously and responsibly.