You’ve Definitely Shared Misinformation on Social Media
It’s time to up our digital literacy, people.
By: Kelsey Bourgeois in collaboration with Russell Weiss
Social media is where many people get most of their news. In my mind, this is both a good and bad thing. It’s obvious to most of us that mainstream media being owned by a small group of people means that only certain stories or versions of stories are told there. The advent of the internet sparked the hope that the way information spreads would be broadly democratized. The truth would rise to the top. The way this has played out, however, is a bit more complicated. My goal here is to outline a strategy for examining information based on substance, motives, and tactics. I am not interested in gatekeeping information based on things like the education or position of the person sharing it. The failure to critically evaluate the pages, articles, and graphics we share daily has led to an epidemic of misinformation (false information) and disinformation (the intentional spread of misinformation) online. So I’d like to give you some ways to think about evaluating information on social media to be sure you’re not inadvertently helping people or causes you don’t mean to.
Since the murder of George Floyd and the following uprisings, I’ve seen an astounding amount of misinformation regarding Black Lives Matter circulating among friends that I respect and consider to be relatively internet savvy. Now we’re moving into election season and I’m seeing even more. We know that Russia meddled in our 2016 election by spreading disinformation and now our intelligence agencies are telling us they’re doing it again to try to help Trump. What this means is that we need to get much better at digital literacy if we don’t want to be pawns in this operation. But misinformation shows up everywhere from Wellness Instagram to Self Help Facebook groups to pseudo-news or quasi-nonprofit groups on all platforms.
You may be thinking there is no way you’d fall for disinformation or misinformation! You’re well informed! You’re well meaning! Maybe you’re educated and politically active! You’re progressive! Unfortunately, disinformation has gotten extremely sophisticated and your education and intelligence may or may not be able to insulate you from it. Also, let’s drop the classism and ableism and engage with critical thinking and lived experience regardless of pieces of paper and standardized testing, yeah? Not all disinformation takes the form of obvious lies with a clear agenda, nor as completely detached hyperbolic power fantasies like you see with the Qanon conspiracy gibberish.
More often, disinformation is deployed as subtle inaccuracies slipped into beliefs and ideas we already agree with. The goal could be to confuse us, redirect our energy, control us, make money off us, or all of the above. That means that even if a graphic or organization supports an idea you believe in or uses the politically correct language, it may still be harming that cause. I have seen dozens of my well meaning, well educated and politically savvy friends share information that turned out to be straight up false. It can happen to the best of us! Which is why we all have to up our digital literacy game.
I also want to urge you to do this kindly. There is no reason to make someone feel bad for falling for misinformation. All of us, myself included, have been duped. If none of us had, it wouldn’t be such an effective marketing and power aggregating strategy! But we do have to check one another. First, I want to be open about who I am and why I’m doing this because that’s one of the questions you should always ask: who is telling me this information and can I trust their motives?
I’m Kelsey, I work in digital advocacy for progressive nonprofits. For this reason, I’m well versed in what it takes to get someone to take action online. My goal in writing this is to elevate our skepticism to disrupt harmful misinformation. I am making no money on this post, the only way it could possibly benefit me personally is if someone likes my writing and I get a gig from it (which is not my goal, though I’m open to opportunities). I am also not the ultimate arbiter of truth or expert on this topic. But I do know enough to walk you through my thought process and hopefully give you some insight and tools to evaluate things that come your way. I’m going to talk a lot about Instagram as that is kind of my internet home, but I’ll mention other platforms as these lessons are applicable elsewhere, too.
First, a list of questions to ask yourself when you see things on social media.
- Who created this graphic or story or action? Are they a legitimate voice or organization that is transparent about their goals and clear about who is speaking? Do they have lived experience, evidence based information or other first hand knowledge? Do other organizations and people support them? How did this information come onto my feed?
- What is this trying to get me to do, think or feel? How is it doing that?
- Why are they trying to get me to do, think or feel something? Is someone making money from this and if so, who? What will they do with that money? What is this group or person’s overall agenda?
- Does the information seem sound and accurate? Can I easily verify it?
- If I am wrong, what are the possible negative implications of me sharing this information?
1. Who created this graphic or story or action? Are they a legitimate voice or organization that is transparent about their goals and clear about who is speaking? Do they have lived experience or other first hand knowledge? Do other organizations and people support them?
When you see information on social media that you believe and/or want to reshare, you need to get into the habit of taking the extra time to figure out who made it. By the time you’re seeing it, it could have passed through many hands. Look for a handle watermarked on an infographic or an attribution in a caption. You can’t evaluate information if you have no idea who put it out there. Once you figure out who made it or put it out there, figure out the basics of what they’re about.
If it’s a group, read their bio, go to their website and just take a minute to make sure no weird red flags come up. Notice if anyone you know is also following them. Scroll through their feed, make sure there isn’t questionable information being spread. All this can be done in 2–3 minutes. Same thing if it’s an individual — there may be no website to visit, but you can still go through their content and see what they’re about. You don’t need to do a deep dive, often a quick scan will tell you quite a lot.
For example, maybe they posted a graphic about the racial “achievement gap” in education and you know that’s real so you share. Then you go to their caption on the graphic or their page and you learn that they actually believe that that achievement gap has to do with inherent differences in intelligence between white kids and kids of color. Is this really an account or person you want to give more views? Extra tip: if you want to post about the achievement gap, take a few minutes and find someone legit talking about how it’s actually a difference in resources and support, not innate intelligence, and share that. Boom. You took a few extra minutes and put solid, good information out there. Also, finding the original creator of a graphic and then sharing from them is the most ethical act anyway. They deserve credit for their work!
How did this information come onto my feed?
Ok, now say you don’t have time to do this background research and so you’re going to just trust someone you know or a group you trust. That can be a good strategy if you’re really confident in that person or group’s ability to check things, but here are some extra considerations, examples and questions to ask.
“I saw it on a friend or public figure’s personal page.”
Here’s a place I think this gets particularly tricky. It’s tempting to reshare anything someone you respect and whose values are similar to yours does. However, it’s not always a smart choice. Just because they generally do a good job of vetting content, doesn’t mean they always will or that they know everything about how to vet that particular content.
Here’s an example. Right after George Floyd was murdered, I saw a big deal (in my circles) abolitionist radical thinker and activist with nearly 20k followers share a screen grab on Instagram from Twitter of someone shitting on the Minnesota Freedom Fund — a bail fund group who was bailing out protesters in Minneapolis. The argument against them was that they got 35 million in donations and only spent 200k on bail funds in those first 10 days or so. Their added text was that we should all be mad at them and try to get back any donations we sent their way. I couldn’t believe it. A self identified police and prison abolitionist undercutting a *bail fund* because they saw a screen grab of someone saying this on Twitter.
Had they taken three extra minutes to do research, they would have learned that the screen grab they shared was actually a Twitter complaint from a right wing activist blatantly trying to undercut a bail fund helping protesters get out of jail. Slightly more research on the issue at hand and they would have learned MNFF got that 35 million in a matter of days. Also in a matter of days, they shut down the ability to give them money and asked folks to redirect to other groups on the ground in Minneapolis. That’s because the purpose stated for those donations was bail. Legally, they couldn’t spend that money on anything else, so when their numbers suddenly skyrocketed into the millions, they realized they were funded well into the future and moved to divert donations away from their organization to people who could use it now. Additionally, they are a super small group and an influx of 35 million was overwhelming to them. And, you can’t spend more on bail than the amount set by the state as bail for those who are jailed. So there was literally nothing the MNFF could have done with the rest of that money during that period.
It was extremely disheartening to see someone who talks about revolution just totally miss these points and then promote a very obviously planted idea to undermine this movement. Hastily canceling a *bail fund* without further research at the beginning of a revolution is so obviously not it. I don’t share this to discredit this particular person, who I actually think highly of generally (which is why I’m not naming them). I share the example to highlight that just because someone you respect shared it, doesn’t mean they have done their due diligence on it.
“I saw it from a respected group or in an advertisement”
Getting information from a well respected and established group *can* be more trustworthy because when a group doesn’t check their facts or collaborates with a sketchy group and that comes out later, that’s a big problem for them. But even long established groups get it wrong sometimes, so approaching with some level of skepticism is best practice.
You also may want to ask yourself why you think they are respected? Have you just heard of them? Are they saying what you want to hear (see: confirmation bias)? Have other people you know and respect vetted them or have they worked with other groups?
If you see it in an advertisement, always take it with a grain of salt and do more thorough vetting if that’s the only place you’ve seen it. Anyone can pay to put something in front of your eyes and as we all know, major social media sites do a piss poor job of fact checking. I’ll talk later about a new technique of sneaky marketing to watch out for.
2. What is this trying to get me to do, think or feel? How is it doing that?
When you see a call to action, meaning someone asking you to do something like sign a petition, share an image, participate in a boycott or protest or some digital action, you need to find out more before agreeing. Who is calling for this? Are they transparent about who their leadership is? What does the group believe? For this specific action, what is the goal? Legitimate groups will have specific goals and make them extremely clear. You should be able to ascertain within minutes what the action is and how the group thinks your help in the action will aid in the ultimate purported goal of the action.
I just really hope we all learned something from the black square debacle, but I’m concerned we did not. Ultimately what happened is two or three different industries with different but related issues around racism planned digital activism for the same time period, but as the information propagated, the nuance of each effort was diluted and homogenized into us all posting black squares on Instagram for absolutely no reason. Then people on the ground protesting lost their ability to share vital protest information because all the Black Lives Matters hashtags were flooded with pointless black squares of virtue signaling. I want to be honest: I posted a black square. Then I took it down when I realized I actually didn’t know who asked me to or what purpose it served. You live and you learn.
Another example that the wonderful Eve Ewing debunked really well here is the economic black out around the fourth of July. I first saw the idea of an economic black out to support BLM circulating on Tik Tok, but it really seemed to pick up steam on Instagram when someone was posting flyers about it IRL and there was a website and everything. Well, spend another 3 minutes reading the website, investigating the Instagram that shared it and you see that they were literally pretending to be BLM, but were not affiliated and that actually it was started by a random guy with a YouTube channel. On top of that, the boycott action had no specific asks or goals. He also had some problematic beliefs about how Black people need to be saved from themselves. No reputable groups supported this action and again, it didn’t have an aim or an ask. I can’t say whether this person meant well or not or even if he was the original idea haver, but I do know this is a great example of a distraction and a useless action that a lot of us spent time and energy trying to support and share.
So when there is a petition, a boycott, a protest, etc., you should be able to tell very quickly what the group’s goals for that action are and how your support would help. If you can’t find that information, move on.
In terms of how someone tries to convince you, be aware of good graphic design. Most of us actually make choices based on how something looks. If the graphic design looks like it’s from the early aughts, we will automatically distrust it, but if it’s a neat slide deck made in Canva with nice colors, we will assume the information is real and trustworthy. This absolutely does not reflect reality. All that good graphic design tells you is that the creator has graphic design skills or that they have the money to pay someone who does.
3. Why are they trying to get me to do, think or feel something? Is someone making money from this and if so, who? What will they do with that money? What is this group or person’s overall agenda?
When you notice someone is trying to appeal to your emotional reactions to get something from you, it’s really worth asking why. Is this group an advocacy group just sharing information? Advocacy groups and nonprofits need money to keep functioning. That’s not necessarily nefarious. But they can be guilty of dressing up or simplifying an issue in order to pull at your heart strings to get support and donations. That’s all fine, but you need to be aware of it so that you don’t accidentally get sucked in to support a group you don’t actually align with. So, money is always going to a primary motivator, that’s just capitalism.
Another motivator might be for this person or group to look a certain way, without having to have any substance. Everyone wants to be respected by their peers, even more so if you exist in social justice circles or have a large following on social media. But sometimes those big voices’ primary motivation is actually clout. Which could be fine if the action or information they are sharing is good. But beware of people just painting with broad strokes that aren’t thought provoking, don’t inspire actual action or introspection and ultimately don’t do much for a given cause. This is what can be called performative activism and it’s everywhere. So before you reshare a celebrity quote or graphic, consider whether doing so would actually benefit your network or just aim to make you look good.
Another thing to know is that your information is literally worth money. So if a group seems good, but they want your information, know they can and likely will make money off of it. Maybe that’s fine, I’m not advocating that you get spooked about giving out your email address. I’m just telling you this so you understand the value of your info and give it out selectively to groups who you actually support. Depending on the source, an email address can be worth $15 in donations over time on average.
Ok, next. There is a sneaky new way of advertising that I find particularly distasteful going on on Instagram, which is paying bots to DM people seemingly personalized messages in order to get page views and followers. Advertising on Instagram can be expensive, bots are cheap. Clearly people have done the calculus and realized that even though this tactic is against Instagram’s guidelines, it’s worth the risk. So they purchase bot accounts that aren’t tied to the account the bots are promoting.
In general, it’s good to be wary of these fake account/bot DMs. The way they work is that even if you don’t end up following the account they’re promoting, you might still go look at it. Each visit to a page benefits that page by extending their reach. Clearly people who do this have realized that if they can get a few followers and a ton of page visits, it’s worth spending the money on bots and risking getting in trouble from Instagram. Something to note is that in addition to reporting the bot account as spam, you can and should report the account it was promoting because that’s who paid for the bot.
The main reason I dislike this form of marketing and distrust anyone who uses it is that they are trying to trick you into thinking it’s not marketing. They often use very personal and emotional language to make it seem like you are very special and that because you’re so thoughtful/passionate/educated whatever, you’ll want to follow the page. Not everyone is social media savvy enough to understand this is advertising, so I find the emotional manipulation of it to be particularly gross. I’ll share two examples I’ve experienced lately and what I ultimately learned about the person and group who did them.
First off, the “High Performance Mindset Coach”. I got this DM recently from a fake account, likely a bot. I know this because the account had no photos besides the profile pic, wasn’t following anyone and no one was following it. It wasn’t even a good enough cover to follow the account they claim to be promoting.
This person isn’t a real person and they don’t know me. Lots of us would immediately know this was marketing. But some of us might visit the page anyway. And there are plenty of people who may truly think someone has seen something in them and that they’re finding a new person to help save them. Also, this “our boss babe Jennifer” language reads as very cult-y to me, and I was raised in one, so I know. Ultimately, it’s just emotionally manipulative and predatory.
So I called her out on it. I put this on my story and tagged her and commented on her page that I don’t appreciate her predatory marketing. She chose to play dumb and make a whole 20 minute video about how anyone who criticizes you is actually criticizing themselves. What’s really dangerous about this brand of pseudo-spiritual/wellness/motivational speaker is just that: inaccurate and harmful psychological tips. Does she have a point that people project often? Definitely. But is teaching her nearly 20k followers to simply wave off pointed and specific critiques of their behavior as projection helping the world? NO. I had a specific critique: emotionally manipulative and sneaky marketing is gross, please don’t do it. She never engaged with my critique, she just offered me banalities, denialism and self protection. It looked kind of like this:
Me: “Your behavior is predatory and manipulative.” Her: “Love and Light!”
The whole thing ended when she reshared one of my slides critiquing her and linked to me saying “this woman is so angry, please send her love and peace”. Within 3 minutes, she deleted it and blocked me, I assume because she realized sending her followers to me to view my stories would be a bad look for her.
In the end, whatever. She is one among hundreds of this brand of self help lifestyle coach and I personally dislike most of them. But I share it because it’s a good example of why this marketing style is so effective and also so distasteful. Legitimate organizations and speakers use actual Instagram ads or rely on their solid content being shared by people who actually connect to it, they don’t pay bots to emotionally manipulate you by pretending to be actual humans who see something special in you.
Second example, The Doe. I got my first DM from a bot for them in early June, when I was rapidly following a lot of social justice accounts. I failed to screenshot the original, but it was similar to the second one I got in the middle of August, which is posted below.
The original did not have the explainer on why I was getting a DM, and it had more language about how I am clearly a passionate and thoughtful person based on who else I’m following, so I should check it out. This DM, though, clearly shows that they’re learning. They’re learning that if they don’t explain, they’ll get reported. Problem is, they’re still lying. Instagram doesn’t limit who you can market to “relevant perspectives”. I know this because it’s part of my day job to do marketing on Instagram. So they could easily market to all different types of groups if they are trying to cultivate a more well rounded conversation among people with different perspectives. But even if this lie were true, it still doesn’t justify this gross tactic simply because this group shares “narratives” that are all across the political spectrum. They have everything from decriminalizing sex work, to denying police brutality against Black people is real. So they could target virtually anyone using the normal channels and I can only assume the bots are more effective and/or cheaper.
OK, off to a bad start, violating Instagram’s terms and lying about why. But then what’s the group about?
Well, originally, I went to their page and the graphic design seemed good, which made me think they were legit and their stated purpose of “promoting civil discourse” also seemed great. So I followed. A few days later a post popped up that was purportedly written by a Black man about how police brutality against Black people is a myth. First red flag. Yes, I know there are Black people who feel this way, but it’s a tiny minority and it’s also just not backed up by the numbers, so I had some questions about why this group would choose to share this voice.
I dug in a little bit and started commenting on that post and quickly found another seemingly fake profile with the same pseudonym as the supposed author hyping the post up, also claiming to be a Black man. A little weird, but could be an actual person trying to stay anonymous. But then I started looking at other posts and seeing a similar pattern: a controversial post with a seemingly fake account in the comment section hyping it up that repeats things in the article or has a similar screen name. Now, I can’t prove those aren’t real people and I’m not interested in trying, but this whole thing started to seem sketchy.
So I start asking more questions in the comments. Soon I’m in contact with someone who went to college with the founder and also has some suspicions about what’s happening here, but as soon as the founder’s name is mentioned, the person who identified him is blocked. Why wouldn’t the founder want their name associated with a group they founded? I go to their website and there is still no information on who this group is, how they are funded and who is behind them. Their whole game is to look like they’re promoting civil discourse, but as soon as I start asking questions like: do you pay your contributors? How much do you donate to charity? Who provided your seed funding? They move our conversation to a private DM — they clearly don’t want to answer publicly.
Here’s what they told me via DM: they are a corporation, not a nonprofit. But, they assure me after admitting they are a corporation, they donate 2k per month to charities that are chosen communally. So I asked them what percentage of their revenue that 2k represented and they told me they don’t have or make much money. But the level of graphic design, SEO, and bots they have would all be extremely expensive. They also wouldn’t tell me who provided their seed funding. Without this information, it’s very hard to tell what someone’s aim is. They have over 235k followers at the time of this writing, many of whom were likely purchased through this bot method. With this level of engagement, they have a real brand that could be sold for quite a lot of money and they are also likely getting significant donations by now.
One of the most interesting and telling things about this group for me is that for months, I would periodically go back to see if anyone I knew was following. Or I would go in the comments, which are full of people complaining about their spam DMs and I’d share my thoughts there. They allowed me to do this for months. They finally blocked me only when I began telling people that 1) I knew who their founder was (it’s this guy who says he started it to have an anonymous place to share opinions without putting his name on the line) and 2) I knew a few things about their financials and 3) I intended to use them as an example in this article. Lastly, their editor in chief is this guy, a self proclaimed joke maker and marketer who writes about restaurants on the side. Why should we trust this guy to curate a civil discourse? They also sold $75 Pride T-shirts for a while…
Ultimately, I spent way too much time looking into this group and my takeaway was that at best they are siphoning off attention and donations from legitimate publications, groups and people during a particularly politically divisive moment in this country by using unethical, manipulative and misleading marketing. Just because a group says they are promoting civil discourse, providing a voice to marginalized communities and are “free of assumptions and affiliations”, doesn’t make it true. But even if you disagree with me about this particular group, my hope is that walking through my rabbit hole on them can help you develop some healthy skepticism.
4. Does the information seem sound and accurate? Can I easily verify it?
So, in general, if someone is citing a fact, they should be able to supply a source. If they say a statistic, they should tell you where it came from, that way you can easily go see if it’s true and also how they got that number. In my previous article about anti-trafficking orgs, I noted that two of the main numbers cited to prove child sex trafficking is a big problem have been thoroughly debunked.
You may or may not always have time to do a thorough fact checking but the really egregious numbers coming out of some discussions have often been disproven and you can learn that through one quick google. Here’s a tip: if the claim is extraordinary and all encompassing, it’s likely fake. For example: there is an effort to shut down PornHub and then abolish porn called TraffickingHub which claims that research shows all porn is inherently exploitative and is fueling trafficking. So that’s not true. Here is more on the danger in believing the trafficking part. And here is some information on the group pushing this lie (hint: they are homophobic religious zealots literally trying to abolish all porn and sex work).
But before doing research on the actual claim, there is an obvious and major red flag that automatically discredits it. It is extraordinary and all-encompassing. They say that all porn is exploitative and fuels trafficking and harms society. Think about what it would take to prove this claim… it doesn’t distinguish between types of porn, types of consumers of porn or porn consumption habits. It’s a blanket statement and it’s a massive one. Even if you know nothing about this topic, this type of claim should immediately raise suspicion in your mind.
There is no meta analysis (critical look at a body of research to find overall large patterns) that supports the claim that any and all porn is exploitative and harmful to society. There just isn’t. There are some singular studies that find things about porn. And the good news is, you can actually read some of the primary research on this. Go to Pubmed and type in some key words and see what we do and do not know about porn if you’re interested.
Here’s another easy example that actually comes from people and efforts I personally support but is not accurate: half the world menstruates. So, the goal behind sharing this is to advocate for universal free sanitary items, normalization of periods, etc. I’m for all of that. But half the world does not menstruate, many women and some men and nonbinary people menstruate between the ages of roughly 12–45 do — that is not half the world. In the end, is that misinformation dangerous? Probably not. But you should look closely at people who can’t think through simple claims like this and extend some skepticism to other things they are saying.
In general, when you see really big numbers or really fantastical claims, try to keep some perspective. Something I’ve tried to cultivate is a list of people who I trust who I can run things by. For example, I have a friend who works in biopharm, and when I have a question about COVID, I ask her who is talking about this that she trusts. I do not have the background to understand who is trustworthy, but she does. I have another friend with a PhD in climate science and that’s where I go for those questions. It’s important not to abuse those relationships or assume they know it all. The better way to approach it is “I have this question, who do you know who studies this” or “I saw this, is this real and where can I read more”.
I recognize it’s a pretty privileged position to just personally know these people, but you can also cultivate this by wading into various Twitter communities and looking for what most people with experience or knowledge in a field agree is a good take or solid information. I also recognize this takes time and my intention is not to tell anyone they need to be an expert or be able to evaluate all information, or that they are failures if they don’t. But I have found that experts in any given topic are actually really generous with their knowledge and as one of my favorite podcasters, Ali Ward says “ask smart people stupid questions!”
Ok, so what if you can’t figure out if it’s real and it seems real? That leads us to the most important question:
5. If I am wrong, what are the possible negative implications of me sharing this information?
Although I’ve listed this one last, I actually think it’s the most important question to ask. In many cases, sharing information that’s a little wrong or that gives views to a disingenuous group isn’t the end of the world. In other cases, you could be actively harming people or the cause you purport to care about. Hopefully the myriad examples above have shown you some potential harm and convinced you you need to be more careful about what you share. But there is more.
In early August, police shot a 20-year-old in Englewood, Chicago. Reportedly he had a gun and he survived. But very quickly a rumor started circling that CPD had shot and killed an unarmed 15-year-old and that rumor got tens of thousands of shares on Facebook. Now, I’m of the opinion that both are unacceptable. But in terms of community outrage, one is very different from the other. As a result, we saw very intense rioting and looting that night. Now, I’m also someone who thinks those are valid forms of protest and that both scenarios are things that warrant outrage.
However, that misinformation actually ended up causing a few different problems. One, it harmed the credibility of folks who shared it and potentially the movement to end police brutality generally. Two, it caused really intense and uncoordinated responses. So again, I’m with the rage and revolt. But this is a good example of information that you shouldn’t reshare until it’s been confirmed.
Now one from just the last few days. This photo of a phone is circulating and the comment on it is horrifying. It purports to show people planning to go “undercover” as BLM protestors to attack people with hotshots of heroin or syringes filled with poison. This is genuinely scary. But is it real? And if it’s not, will harm come from me sharing it?
Despite the fact that it sounds like an Incel/Proud Boy power fantasy bot, I decided to try to verify it. I reached out to everyone I saw who had posted it and none knew who took the original photo of the phone, even though they shared. Ok, then I tried to find the user on Facebook and there is no “Tatiana Desheveled” that is publicly available. So is it real? I can’t say. What I can comment on is the potential effects of sharing it. One, it could help people be more prepared. Unfortunately, if someone is out there with needles, there aren’t a lot of outfits that will protect you against this. Two, it could scare people away from protesting. This seems much more likely to me. I do think folks need to be eyes up at protests, I see way too many people in shorts with no goggles, helmets or any other safety gear. However, this strikes me as a scare tactic to dissuade protest. Ultimately, I decided sharing this was irresponsible.
So if a stat or argument or extraordinary claim doesn’t sit quite right with you or is shocking, get used to asking questions. I’ve started just asking people I know whether they’ve fact checked something. I think we should normalize this behavior. We are all going to mess up sometimes and share misinformation on accident, so keeping each other in check is great.
Recently, a few people who I really respect, see as media literate and committed to similar causes as me, shared some misinformation. They shared that the USPS only gets funds from stamps if something is mailed using them. I thought that seemed weird so I asked a few of them whether they’d fact checked that and they said no. So I checked it. It isn’t true. Buying postage is a great way to support the post office (though this bake sale approach to saving it is not going to be enough on its own).
Now this may seem innocuous but I could think of at least two reasons right off the bat about how this could actually be disinformation (as in, misinformation shared with the goal of confusing people or harming a cause). First, most of us are not in the habit of sending letters via snail mail, so if we believe that buying stamps only helps if you mail something but you’re not likely to mail something, you are then dissuaded from buying stamps. Second, if there is a sudden large increase in letters being sent, it is possible that could compound the service delays we’ve seen with the post office recently. While I don’t know where this information came from, I believe it is exactly the kind of sophisticated misinformation we should be keeping an eye out for. It’s totally possible that entities who want to privatize mail in this country for financial gain or knee cap the USPS for other political reasons (i.e. to cheat in an election) are planting info that would serve them.
Increased service delays have the potential of causing real harm to vulnerable people. Because of the way the postmaster general has decided to prioritize mail (Amazon first), people are not getting critical items like medication. Did you know that some insurance companies actually require you to get scripts by mail because it saves them money? Now cancer patients and other disabled or chronically ill people aren’t getting their medication and may suffer or even die as a result. So pushing people to clog up the system isn’t helpful right now, in fact it is actively harmful. Again, bake sale efforts are not going to save the post office and I’m not naive enough to think the people who saw that would have such a massive impact that it would matter. However, had it gotten picked up in the press or by some influencers, it actually could have had a negative impact.
Another similar thing has to do with government food assistance programs like SNAP and WIC. Towards the beginning of the pandemic, well meaning liberals and leftists were sharing that people get their food stamps on the first day of the month, so the rest of us needed to not grocery shop on the first few days of the month because of supply shortages and the fact that some of those programs only allow you to buy certain things. It sounds right and it sounds like if you follow that advice, you’d be helping people. The problem is that that’s not true. Not everyone who receives food stamps gets them on the first of the month. Different states and cities do it differently, and they intentionally space out when people get those benefits for this exact reason. In some places it’s by where you live, your birth date or your last name, others it’s random. The only part of those posts that went around that was true and helpful is that WIC food assistance (Women, Infants and Children) is really restrictive on what you can buy. So when you’re at the store and you see items marked WIC, it’s best to buy other brands when possible since if the accepted brands run out, that is a real problem for WIC recipients. And during the pandemic with shortages, this is actually something small you can try to do when possible that might help someone.
But what’s the harm in the misinformation around which days to shop? Well, if everyone thinks that they should avoid shopping on the first few days of the month, that will result in a bunch of people going to the store on the 4th or 5th. But we know there are people who get their food stamps those days, so now you’ve created an unnecessary crowding in grocery stores and potentially caused shortages of the food people can buy with food stamps. I doubt this one was started with malicious intent, but only because I can’t think of whose purpose it would serve to share that misinformation. I think this one was just started by a well meaning person who actually is super removed from poverty and didn’t understand how these systems work. So they took their clues from a common misunderstanding or from TV, where it seems like everyone gets food stamps on the first of the month.
As someone who is kind of a shut in, but follows protests and current events extremely closely, the following has been a great gut check for sharing protest information. I wish I knew who created this because it’s truly such good information.
Resharing random things, especially if you’re not actually there, is such a fast way to clog social media and bury potentially critical information during a protest. We also know that there are bots and agitators that are intentionally confusing people by posting on social media — try perusing the Chicago Scanner hash on Twitter to see just how wild it can get. If you don’t have the chops for this, do not clog up a hashtag or topic during a protest. Additionally, consider who follows you. Are there actually people who could use this information or are you just caught up in the excitement and wanting to be involved? I’ve been guilty of all of this, which is why I’m sharing.
Ok, last thing. I want to spend some time hammering something into your head: there is already and will continue to be rampant disinformation about this election in the U.S. and it’s up to each and every one of us to not share it. The only reliable place to get election information is from the local election officials in your area. Full stop. There has always been mass voter suppression in this country and our electoral system has not evolved to address this, by design. But it’s very clear to me that we are headed full steam ahead into an actual autocracy. One of the things we can do to stop that is be better at evaluating information related to voting and making sure all the people around us have accurate info, too.
A couple days ago Trump told people to vote twice, which is felony voter fraud. I saw dozens of headlines about this that didn’t include that it was illegal in the headline — I think that’s journalistic malpractice, honestly. So I couldn’t tell you how many people already knew that this was a felony offense, but just a reminder that a person was sentenced to jail for 5 years for voting after being incarcerated because she didn’t know that stripped her of her right to vote.
Now I want to be crystal clear here: the rules and laws around voting actually vary quite widely from state to state. Formerly incarcerated people are not barred from voting everywhere, for example. It’s also critical that you don’t share voting information that you personally have not fact checked. Recently, dozens of my friends shared that people could return their vote-by-mail ballot at any polling place to relieve the pressure on the USPS. This is not true everywhere but it circulated amongst my liberal and leftist friends unchecked anyway. Cut. It. Out. If you have not personally gone to the local board of elections website to figure out if something is true, do not share it.
The following is an example of planted disinformation. The poster has a check mark, which will trick people. But actually he’s a part of the Heritage Foundation, which is a right wing group that claims voter fraud is a huge problem. By their own data, voter fraud is vanishingly rare. This person is very clearly trying to undermine the election and it got over 29k reshares and climbing. If you didn’t take the time to figure out who this was and just went by the check mark, you would be spreading disinformation.
The exception to sharing without fact checking carefully would be well established, long trusted groups that you or someone very savvy has personally vetted thoroughly. At this point, there are only four groups from which I would take election information out of hand: Chicago Votes, ACLU and Vote Save America and obviously the Chicago Board of Elections Commission because I live in Chicago. That’s not to say there aren’t other reputable groups, but if info came from anywhere else, I would not share it without personally confirming it with the actual board of elections. Also, you need to be aware that there are increasingly more copycat accounts of all the legit organizations. BLM has about a dozen chapters, for example, but there are many more accounts and groups and people saying they are BLM. So you need to get in the habit of making sure the info is actually coming from the group it claims to be coming from.
There are also all kinds of new “civic groups” popping up right now. This isn’t necessarily bad, but you need to be super careful with them. For example, this graphic made the rounds a while back:
It seems legit, it cites a source that you can check, good sign. But I wanted to figure out more about the people who did this because they got about 20k followers overnight with this graphic and that’s actually a commodity that’s worth some money. Their website seems good, it does actually link to official state election sites in some, but not all cases. But what are they about? What are they adding? There are many other aggregators like this that offer more tools like Vote Save America “be a voter” tool, which does this same thing. The group says nothing about who runs it or whether they are a nonprofit. I tried commenting and asking if they were a nonprofit and who ran them and they just ignored me. My suspicion is that this is a group trying to build a list of emails to sell to candidates or other organizations. Now, I didn’t find any misinformation on their site for the 5 minutes I was on it, but I also have no reason to trust this group, particularly because there is no transparency about who they are, who runs them, who funds them and why they are doing this. So I unfollowed.
This is what I mean. If you can’t tell who is doing it and why super easily, move on. There is so much information out there, we cannot get distracted.
Phew. OK. That was more or less just me telling you all the annoying things I’ve seen over the summer. Proud of you for hanging in there. If you’ve gotten anything from this article, I hope it’s that we need to be more careful collectively about evaluating the information in front of us. You just have to be curious enough and slightly skeptical to figure this stuff out. For everything I used as an example here, I was able to figure it out in fewer than 10 minutes, sometimes it only took 2 minutes. And then in some cases, I went down a rabbit hole to prove myself right. But it wasn’t necessary. I recognize it won’t be that quick for everyone to start and some misinformation takes more time to untangle, but practice makes perfect! And if you can’t figure out whether it’s real or not, do not share or act on it. Disrupting misinformation is an act of political resistance and activism. By doing your due diligence, you are helping your community.