1. Did a post spark anger, disgust or fear?
If something you see online causes intense feelings – especially if that emotion is outrage – that should be a red flag not to share it, at least not right away. Chances are it was intended to short-circuit your critical thinking by playing on your emotions. Don’t fall for it.
During these unprecedented times we have to be careful about not contributing to emotional contagions. Ultimately, you are not in charge of alerting the public to breaking news, and you’re not in any race to share things before other people do.
2. Did it make you feel good?
A new tactic being adopted by misinformation warriors is to post feel-good stories that people will want to share. Those pieces may be true or may have as much truth as urban legends. But if lots of people share those posts, it lends legitimacy and credibility to the fake source accounts that originally post the items. Then those accounts are well positioned to share more malicious messages when they judge the time is right.
These same agents use other feel-good ploys as well, including attempts to play on your vanity or inflated self-image. You’ve probably seen posts saying “Only 1% of people are brave enough to share this” or “take this test to see if you are a genius.” Those aren’t benign clickbait – they’re often helping a fraudulent source get shares, build an audience, or in the case of those “personality quizzes” or “intelligence tests” they are trying to get access to your social media profile.
If you encounter a piece like this, if you can’t avoid clicking then just enjoy the good feeling it gives you and move on. Share your own stories rather than those of others.
3. Is it hard to believe?
What you read may make some extraordinary claim – like the pope endorsing a U.S. presidential candidate when he has never endorsed a candidate before. Astronomer and author Carl Sagan advocated for the response you should have to such claims: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” which is a longstanding philosophical premise. Consider whether the claim you’re seeing was supported by any evidence at all – and then check that the quality of that evidence out.
Also, remember that a quirk of human psychology means that people only need to hear something three times before the brain starts to think it’s true – even if it’s false.
4. Did it confirm what you already thought?
If you’re reading something that matches so well with what you had already thought, you might be inclined to say “Yep, that’s true” and share it widely.
Meanwhile, differing perspectives get ignored.
We are strongly motivated to confirm what we already believe and avoid unpleasant feelings associated with challenges to our beliefs – especially strongly held beliefs.
It is important to identify and acknowledge your biases, and take care to be extra critical of articles you agree with. Try seeking to prove them false rather than looking for confirmation they’re true. Be on the lookout because the algorithms are still set up to show you things they think you will like. Don’t be easy prey. Check out other perspectives.
5. Am it heard too reed?
Posts that are riddled with spelling and grammatical errors are prime suspects for inaccuracies. If the person who wrote it couldn’t be bothered to spell-check it, they likely didn’t fact-check it either. In fact, they may be using those errors to get your attention.
6. Was the post a meme?
Memes are usually one or more images or short videos, often with text overlaid, that quickly convey a single idea.
While we may all enjoy a good laugh with a new “Ermahgerd” meme, memes – particularly those sowing political discord – have actually been identified as one of the emerging mediums for propaganda. In recent years, the practice of using memes to incite divisiveness has rapidly escalated, and extremist groups are using them with increasing effectiveness.
Their origins as benign, humorous images about grumpy cats, cats who want cheeseburgers or calls to “keep calm and carry on” have led our brains to classify memes as enjoyable or, at worse, harmless. Our guards are down. Plus their short nature further subverts critical thinking. Stay alert.
7. What’s the source?
Was the post from an unreliable media outlet? The Media Bias/Fact Check website is one place to look to find out whether a particular news source has a partisan bias. You can also assess the source yourself. Use research-based criteria to judge the quality and balance of the evidence presented. For instance, if an article expresses an opinion, it may present facts slanted in a way favorable to that opinion, rather than fairly presenting all the evidence and drawing a conclusion.
If you find that you’re looking at a suspect site, but the specific article seems accurate, my strong suggestion is to find another credible source for the same information, and share that link instead. When you share something, social media and search-engine algorithms count your sharing as a vote for the overall site’s credibility. So don’t help misinformation sites take advantage of your reputation as a cautious and careful sharer of reliable information.
8. Who said it?
It may be surprising, but politicians and other public figures don’t always tell the truth. It may be accurate that a particular person said a particular sentence, but that doesn’t mean the sentence is correct. You can double-check the alleged fact, of course, but you can also see how truthful particular people are.
If you’re hearing information from a friend, of course, there’s no website. You’ll have to rely on old-fashioned critical thinking to evaluate what she says. Is she credible? Does she even have sources? If so, how reliable are those sources? If evaluating the message is too much work, maybe just stick with the “like” button and skip the “share.”
9. Is there a hidden agenda?
If you find something that seems compelling and true, check out what nonpartisan sources say on the subject. For a view of media outlets’ perspectives, take a look at the Media Bias Chart.
Finding no mention of the topic in nonpartisan media may suggest the statement or anecdote is just a talking point for one side or the other. At minimum, ask yourself why the source chose to write or share that piece. Was it an effort to report and explain things as they were happening, or an attempt to influence your thinking or actions – or your vote?
10. Have you checked the facts?
There are a lot of reputable fact-checking organizations, like Snopes and FactCheck. There is even a dedicated meme-checking site. It doesn’t take long to click over to one of those sites and take a look.
But it can take a very long time to undo the harm of sharing misinformation, which can reduce people’s ability to trust evidence and their fellow humans.
To protect yourself – and those in your social and professional networks – be vigilant. Don’t share anything unless you’re sure it’s true. Misinformation warriors are trying to divide American society. Don’t help them. Share wisely.
I was in high school when the school got it's first computers. One of the biggest things they cautioned us on, was not to believe everything on the internet. Anyone can write or say anything. It's important that we fact check what we are reading. I think, especially if we are going to spread that information. I like to check bias for any website I am reading and bias of the author of what I am reading.
I have taught computer classes to people at the local library along with my cousin who writes computer programs and has been involved computer/internet business for 30 years, and one of the big things we try to get through to people is to know your source. Especially when you are sharing things on FB. You may know your friend who shared the meme first, but if you don't know where it came from (the source), sometimes it could actually infect your computer with a virus. When you do a group share to your friends, you are not only sharing and attaching your info, but theirs as well. Sometimes it's just harmless ways for people to get info on you, but also, the original author/maker can actually go in and change that harmless photo of a kitten to something else at some point once they have so many shares.
Here is a recent post my cousin shared on her FB:
Ok friends, in this time of crisis, there are many people out there spreading viruses, and it doesn't just mean Coronavirus! Facebook Spam can result in a Virus!
Please remember ANY message that asks you to forward it to your friends is SPAM! If you are forwarding ANYTHING to one of your friends, the minute you forward it the spammer has access to both your information and your friends!. If you find a picture too funny not to share, make a copy of it and share it, or rewrite a post in your own words, and do NOT ask people to copy and paste your stuff. Make sure you know the privacy level of your posts, if is is something you want to share publicly versus something that should stay private.
For example, this post is share with my Friends, I did not copy it, and if you are reading it, then you are my friend. It is ok to share this post, because someone you knew created it, but if I was someone you didn't know then you should not copy paste this, you can share this to be available for the public, but check your permissions.
So just wanted to caution friends about things/info you share.