By Laura de Boer
Disinformation. We all know that it exists, and we all encounter it online on an (almost) daily basis. The Covid crisis, the war in Ukraine, elitist lizards ruling over the lower classes… sometimes you don’t know what to believe anymore. Luckily, more and more people are becoming aware of the dangers of disinformation. But being aware is one thing, becoming resistant is another. Here are 10 tips on how to avoid, spot, and recognise disinformation, so you can avoid the traps of disinformation and improve your online experience.
But first, what is disinformation?
Disinformation is typically defined as false information that is deliberately created and shared online to deceive the public. The writer of disinformation knows that what they share is wrong, and they hope that you don’t. This makes it different from ‘misinformation’ that is created or shared without the user knowing that it is false. In practice, disinformation can turn into misinformation if it is picked up and shared by internet users who truly believe what they read.
10. Use reliable sources
Alright, alright. I realise that this sounds pretty obvious. Who would have thought that reliable sources would have reliable information? But in reality, it might be trickier than you think. Not everyone who presents themselves as an expert is one, and having expertise in one field does not mean that it carries over into other departments. In addition, not all journalists are as thorough in their research as others. A lecturer once told me that the best information is the information you pay for because your money will finance the time it takes to do proper research. Of course, as poor students, we don’t really have the funds for a newspaper subscription. But sharing is caring! If you are interested in a certain newspaper, chances are you aren’t the only one. So maybe it is a good idea to ask around if people want to share an account with you. It’s like Netflix, but it actually enriches your mind. Split costs. Gain knowledge. Avoid disinformation.
9. When in doubt, verify
Even if you find a nice, interesting, and (most importantly) expensive news source, it sadly still doesn’t mean that it is always right. All humans have flaws, and so do journalists. Therefore, if you are reading about a particular topic that just… seems off, follow your gut and check it out. I am not saying that your research is better than an expert’s, but not taking anything for granted is still a good characteristic to have. Fact-checking websites such as EUvsDisinfo or Politifact are a good place to start. Or you can always follow accounts on social media that fact-check, like the Blue Pencil Project, which is set up and run by Euroculture students. However, fact-checking websites might not always have what you are looking for. So always remember to check other new sources that can provide some different points of view.
8. Ask yourself: who benefits from this story?
It is important to keep in mind that disinformation exists because it has a clear purpose. Someone has invented falsehoods or twisted the truth because it will benefit them. Of course, just because a news story or social media post is beneficial to someone, doesn’t mean that it is automatically false — but if someone or something is put on a pedestal and is seen as the saviour of humanity, chances are that your source might be a teeny-tiny bit biased. In general, the news is not supposed to take sides, it is there to report the facts. Biases exist, even in good journalists, but what sets a good journalist apart from a dishonest one is that the former will be led by the facts, not by whom they would want to ‘win’.
7. Think with your head, not your heart
Humans are emotional beings. We can get pretty worked up about the smallest of things and throw all reason out of the window. Those who spread disinformation know this. And they love to take advantage of it. They will use language to make you feel angry, afraid, or attacked. And once this happens, you will be less inclined to listen to facts, because emotions will be clouding your thoughts. Getting upset at the news is fairly common, especially seeing how depressing it can be sometimes. But just don’t share any information with others without having gone past that initial stage of delirious excitement if you might regret it once you calm down.
6. Think twice before you share
This point builds a lot upon the last one, but it is important to make this clear. Be careful that you don’t accidentally become a spreader of disinformation yourself. News that is shared by friends or family often seems already more reliable than news shared by a stranger, even if that might not be true. But that is the power of word-to-mouth sharing: we respect the opinions of those who are close to us. So, if you share false news with your relatives, it becomes possible that they don’t scrutinize it, because they respect you so much. Which is very sweet of them, but not very helpful.
5. Look from all sides if you can
This point mostly speaks for itself. It can never hurt to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, so give it a try every now and then. It also helps to read more than just the headline, as the real nuance and context are often found in the article itself. The worst enemy of disinformation is accurate information, so keep looking for it.
4. Quantity is not the same as quality
One of the strategies used by spreaders of disinformation is to spread as much as they can. This strategy is often done by so-called “troll farms” that share the same nonsense repeatedly. Because if you encounter the story the first time, you may still think that it is silly. But if you see it three times in a row, you might be more inclined to believe it. Being aware of this will help you become more resistant to it.
3. Become a pro at reverse image searching
Photos are powerful tools for sharing information since they always seem so realistic. But they can be easily copied, edited, and taken out of context. A quick reverse image search can help you figure out where the image comes from and if it is edited. There are two easy ways to do it. If you are using Google Chrome as your browser, you can just right-click on the image itself and select the option ‘search image with Google Lens’. Chrome will open a little box at the side where you can see where the image comes from. If you use a different browser, you can go to Google, and click on the little icon of a photo camera on the right side of the search bar.
Now, it tells you to either upload an image or paste one from the internet. Both image searches will give you a load of different pictures that will look similar to the one you uploaded, but more importantly, they will give you other places where your image shows up. You can even select which parts of the image Google should look for. Easy right?
Extra tip: Reverse image searching can also help you if you are looking to rent a room. Scammers will often take pictures of other (hotel)rooms from the internet and present them as their own. A reverse image search can help you check if the offer is legit.
2. Don’t get SWAMPED
Alright, some of this may be repeating what I said before, but as you browse, keep the ‘S.W.A.M.P.E.D ’acronym in mind. I have taken this idea from the EUvsDisinfo website, where they have an entire article dedicated to this. The term is specifically used to decipher Kremlin disinformation on the war in Ukraine, but it can be applied to many more cases. SWAMPED stands for
- Strawmen (attacking opinions that the target never said)
- Whataboutism (deflecting by saying, ‘but what about x?’)
- Attack (using mean or brutal language for intimidation)
- Mockery (making fun of the target)
- Provocation (making someone deliberately angry)
- Exhaust (giving many details, figures, and technicalities to make people uninterested in finding out the truth)
- Denial (denying any evidence that challenges their story)
If you notice that people or organisations are using these tactics, it is likely that the truth is not that central to their narrative.
1. Be willing to recognise when you’ve made a mistake
It is pretty embarrassing to admit when you’ve fallen for fake news, but it has probably happened to all of us. If someone tells you that you’ve believed or shared disinformation (and they have the evidence to prove it) you have two options. You can either be stubborn and say that they’re wrong, that their evidence is wrong, and that they should woe the day they ever dared to oppose you. Or you can just admit that you’ve done something bad and learn from it.
If you know what you are susceptible to, you can become more resistant to it. So take these moments as opportunities to become an absolute pro at avoiding disinformation.