How to spot misleading info online and what to do about it

October 23, 2018

With all the information that’s available online, it’s inevitable that some of it will be wrong. Sometimes it’s a case of inaccurate facts, sometimes it’s opinion, satire or parody, and other times, it’s a case of deliberate attempts to mislead or influence public opinion through alternative media.

Either way, people are becoming less sure of the information they see online and elsewhere. According to a recent Ipsos Poll, on behalf of Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), Canadians are less likely to trust traditional news media, with only 65% declaring some level of trust, and only 11% trusting the media “a great deal.” In the same poll, 68% of Canadians claimed they can always tell the difference between a news story and an opinion or commentary piece, but 24% admit they’re not so sure.

While “click-bait” is an internet concept, publishing less than truthful headlines to increase publication sales has been around for a while. You see examples every time you pass the tabloids in the checkout line at the grocery store. But now, false or misleading articles and memes are circulated on social media with the intention of getting us to buy a certain thing, or even vote for a certain candidate in an election.

Now, more than ever, we need to educate ourselves and our children about how to take a more critical look at information and articles shared online. Here are some starting points:

  1. Read beyond the headline

    Consider the evidence in the article before believing it. Sometimes, a well-researched news article will be shared by a third party with a misleading headline or conclusion. Other times, the headline was written by an editor, not the journalist, and provides an oversimplified description of a more nuanced take on an issue. Either way, it’s worth your time to read the whole thing before commenting or sharing. If you’re really skeptical, just ignore it.

  2. Consider the source

    Do you recognize the name of the source? Is it a national media outlet that you’ve heard of and known for years? Is the author trying to get you to buy something? Or vote for someone? Is it trying to provoke an emotional reaction, especially outrage at a person or organization?

  3. Investigate

    Is this the only news source reporting on this story? Searching for “News” related to the article topic in your search engine should pull up similar stories for other news sources.

  4. Say Something

    If you go through the steps above and conclude that an article you’ve seen is less than truthful, what should you do?

    Resist the urge to comment or react to it through social media. These interactions will make the article more popular and it will be shared more by the social network. If you do want to alert the person that shared it to your thoughts, do so through a private message, or by phone or text.

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