How to Recognize Misinformation and Stop Its Spread
The Information Age is decaying.
With our current trajectory, we are transitioning into an Age of Misinformation.
People are exploiting and extrapolating fake news and “alternative facts” to manipulate others for their own personal gain. We don’t have to go very far back in our history to see the truth of this. Take a look at Pizzagate, climate change, or COVID-19 to see a variety of false claims, some absurd, yet still hold danger if believed (injecting bleach anyone?)
Recently, I came across The Misinformation Age by Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall. Published in January 2019, O’Connor and Weatherall do an excellent job at raising awareness of the prevalence of misinformation due to the easy access we have to new information. We are in a community that no longer values respecting facts. Instead, we strive to create our own reality by providing truth that best suits our needs.
In New York Times’s review of The Misinformation Age, they warn that “Such pretensions to reality-creating grandeur amounts to little more than a vulgar, self-defeating cynicism.”
As writers, it can be tempting to create our own reality by bending facts to fit our needs. You see how well fake news circulates on social media (research states roughly 63% of BuzzFeed’s articles are clickbait and social media is the epicenter for misinformation). Anyone can post anything without being held accountable for fact-checking, and misinformation typically gets farther than fact. Researchers at Indiana University found that misinformation often goes viral because “information overload and finite attention span of users limit the capacity of social media to discriminate information on the basis of quality.”
I’m going to assume that you are not writing just to make a quick buck. Trust me, there are much easier ways to do that. If you are serious about becoming a professional writer, you need to be able to measure the validity of your sources and provide the most accurate information possible to your readers.
Writers can have a very valuable position in the lives of their readers because they are willing to do the research for them. Essentially, you are sifting through all of the garbage out there to find facts and present them to your readers in a format that is easy to understand.
This can be hard to do because of the vast amounts of information you have to sort through in order to discern what is true. I have found that I typically spend more time researching for an article than I do actually writing it. If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you need to establish your credibility. Here is a quick list of what I do to ensure that my information is credible, and by extension, my own writing remains credible.
Always Use Multiple Sources
Because of the prevalence of misinformation, it is important that you ensure that multiple people are saying the same thing. In any given article, I typically will try to find five sources that I could potentially pull from before I start writing. These sources typically come in the form of accredited news companies, books, or peer-reviewed research.
In most cases, this doesn’t take me long. One way to find multiple sources quickly is to look at what your other sources site as their sources. If the first source is credible, it will lead you to other credible sources. I have often found the article or research that I site the most from following someone else to that source.
Truthfully, I usually don’t end up using all of the sources that I find in the final product of my writing. That’s okay. The purpose of doing extensive research is not to directly quote it all in your writing. It is so you can ensure that you are becoming a credible source.
Look at the Website Itself
You can usually tell the credibility of a website without digging too deeply. Look at the author and any other information displayed about an article. If you can’t find a ton there or aren’t sure, I’ve found it helpful to go to the home page of the website it’s published on. Now that I’ve been around the block a few times, there are websites that I know I can rely on.
Another thing I like to look at is the author. I have a list of writers that I trust as people that do their homework. If they have written on similar topics in the past, I’ll often follow their sources at the start of my research.
On the flip side, there are sources that I have completely blacklisted. I never use articles I find on social media or clickbait websites. I wouldn’t say that you should completely dismiss them, but the news there is much more questionable, and I don’t always give myself time to sift through it.
Try to Find Contradicting Websites
If you still aren’t sure if the information is true or not, try to find an article written from an opposing point of view. For example, if I’m looking at a political topic, I will try to find sources from both a Democratic and a Republican standpoint.
The truth is, humans suck at being unbiased. We can’t keep our opinions out of what we write. Even your history books are jaded by opinions. If you are worried that someone’s opinion is keeping them from sharing the full story with you, don’t be afraid to look for someone with the opposite point of view.
When in Doubt, Don’t Use It
In the end, don’t use a source if you are still questioning its value. I wouldn’t recommend forming your opinion around it, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend using it in your writing. There are plenty of credible sources that deserve to be distributed, and these are the facts that we should be seeking out.
We Can Stop the Spread
As writers, we have a responsibility to our readers to provide accurate, honest information. Misinformation is everywhere. If you want to create a genuine following, you need to prove your credibility. Clickbait articles might get you more views, but it won’t generate trust in your readers that is essential to get them to stay.
Together, we can stop the spread of misinformation.
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