Fighting Fake News on Social Media

black typewriter with "fake news" written on white paper
black typewriter with "fake news" written on white paper

There is no doubt that social media has greatly impacted the way that we connect and communicate with one another, but social media platforms have become a source of news and information that people consume regularly. Forbes found that more Americans are getting their news from platforms like Twitter and Facebook than traditional media, with Twitter serving as a regular news source for at least 15% of U.S. citizens

However, in more recent times, we've seen stories gaining much exposure and momentum online, providing users with continuous access to almost real-time conversations from each other, as well as news outlets. Whether it is political or climate change topics to trending social media challenges, as more people use social media, many are getting their news online but how often is that news factually correct? 

In a Statista study, consumers believe that out of all the news, 40% of it is somewhat fake news or made up. For all the good that social media can bring, there is a dark side to it as well and much of it has to do with the amount of misinformation that can influence and manipulate opinions, and what people consider to be true. However, there are ways to fight fake news. Let's explore them.

Table of Contents

What is misinformation?

You might hear the words "fake news" floating around these days, which usually is a reference for the term "misinformation". This is defined as "false information that is spread, regardless of intent to mislead." 

Misinformation is spread on a daily basis. Given the imperfect nature of human beings, mistakes will naturally happen and we won't always remember the full details of the things we see, hear or read about in the media. So, if you happen to share content with information that is wrong, without you knowing that it is wrong, then you are spreading misinformation. Why? Because, by definition, misinformation can be spread regardless of the intent. 

woman holding phone with fake news on screen

If, for example, you receive a meeting invitation for 10AM but you mistakenly misread it as 10PM and tell your colleagues about the the misread time, you are, in effect, sharing misinformation. This may seem like a minor example, compared to what happens on social media, but the point being made here is that you shared misinformation by mistake and with no intention to do so.

When it comes to social media, on the other hand, we know that misinformation can spread incredibly quickly, thanks to technology and the power of internet speed and accessibility. From out-of-context videos to news articles on cures for the coronavirus, social media users have shared stories without checking to see if they're true. This has given rise to conversations around who should be responsible for fact-checking information, and what big tech companies are doing to prevent the spread of misinformation and fake news. 

What is disinformation?

While one letter might be the differentiator between the two, disinformation greatly differs to misinformation because of intent. By definition, "disinformation" is "deliberately misleading or biased information." If we go back to our above example, if you intentionally tell your colleagues that the meeting is at 10PM because you want to be the only one there to have more time talking to the Managing Director and sabotage everyone else, this would be considered as disinformation because you are spreading false information on purpose. 

Perhaps more so than misinformation, disinformation can be powerful and destructive, and is often what causes divisions when spread on social media. For journalists in particular, it can be can be difficult for them to identify which news is being spread with good or bad intent, which often leads to sitting in the hot seats as PR Week shared in an article. 

So, when distinguishing between misinformation and disinformation, intent really is what separates the two. Even though both terms refer to the types of false information that can spread on social media, disinformation is dangerously damaging because it was intended to be spread unethically.

Predominant types of misinformation on social media 

1. Clickbait

Clickbait is a "a sensationalised headline that encourages you to click a link to an article, image, or video." From news stories and blog posts to videos and and interviews, clickbait is often packaged to attract as many clicks as possible or to go viral on social media. 

man hugging a wild lion for clickbait

While clickbait is great for increasing page views, driving traffic to your website or generating more social shares for your content, its misleading nature can tarnish the reputation of reputable news sources that share content with a misleading headline. When people click on a piece of content on social media, there is an expectation to view content that meets the expectation set by the headline. If you don't deliver on this, people may begin to question the credibility of the content which can cause damage to your brand

2. Propaganda

Propaganda is the deliberate spread of information, ideas or rumours that help or harm an individual, a group of people, an institution or a country. 

According to NBC News, more governments are using social media to promote propaganda as this seems to work better than censorship (which is the suppression of speech or writing). Research by the Oxford Internet Institute found that social media propaganda is far from improving as more governments and political parties are making use of social media algorithms, automation and big data to influence the vast majority of public opinion.  

A culmination of political propaganda was evident when Capitol Hill was raided earlier this year. Unchecked information, a lack of meaningful regulation from social media companies and propaganda being used on digital platforms resulted in former President Donald Trump being banned from social media due to spreading false information, promoting propaganda and inciting crowds, as The Guardian shared. 

Why Fake Content is a Problem

There is a fake content problem, not just in the news we read and headlines we come across, but in the accounts and comments found on digital platforms today. While there are overlapping issues surrounding the fake content problem that exists, here are 3 that you should be aware of. 

Fake accounts exist on social media

More people are creating profiles on social media platforms. Some people may have thousands of followers spread across multiple online profiles, however, the oversaturation of social media platforms with fake accounts has become increasingly common these days. Fake accounts, or bots, tend to spam legitimate social media users by posting inappropriate or irrelevant content. You can often spot a bot by: 

  • a default avatar or low-quality profile picture
  • a username with numbers in it
  • an incomplete bio
  • a suspicious link in the bio
  • a lack of engaging content on their profile 
  • a low amount of followers but following a high amount of people

Social media platforms, and even some news outlets, do have their own ways of avoiding fake accounts or bots these days. There is a reason why you see a ‘captcha’ form on certain websites; it is to help detect whether you are a bot or not. It may be tedious to keep selecting all of the taxis you see in those nine squares but trust us, it helps to do this. 

Fake engagement is no engagement

Fake social engagements across various platforms can be quite the thorn for social media and community managers. For one, they aren't real and fake engagement does nothing to enhance a brand's presence online or to add to the genuine social media engagement that comes from followers. 

Fake engagements have a tendency of skewing the social data of genuine engagement received on a social media post, which can make it harder to decipher if online content is getting authentic comments from real followers or not. While the great beauty of social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram is that they provide a platform to say what they want, it also creates a space where fake engagement can occur. Regulation strategies to counter this need to be put in place to protect brands and other consumers.

Policing fake content is difficult

The content that gets posted on social media platforms - from links to video clips and memes - has the potential to contain misinformation or misleading content, which makes it difficult to police. But even the debate around who should police this content is still complex because we haven't established who the responsibility predominantly lies with.

Around the time of the 2020 U.S. Presidential elections, the NPR found that more than 80% of Americans believed they would read misleading information on social media during the election campaigns. This encouraged Twitter to create a new feature aimed at combating misleading content on the platform by adding blue exclamation points and the phrase “manipulated media” beneath certain content.

Twitter was one of several social media platforms that changed their policies in an attempt to fight the fake content and misinformation that was circulating exponentially. While there is still a long way to go towards minimising this risk on social media, strides have been made by various online platforms. Now the question is how can we all contribute positively?

How to Fight Fake News and Misinformation

In order to fight fake news and misinformation on social media, you need to be able to recognise it first. You will know that you are dealing with fake news when you can see the clear bias that the content piece has, or how it tries to invoke feelings of anger and mistrust in a particular person, group of people or cause. Sometimes, this content may come from a news outlet that sounds unfamiliar, is unknown or has no markers of credibility. 

large green outdoor bin with white words spray painted

In these cases, it is best to analyse and fact-check first before you decide to share with your own followers. Are the author names real? Can you validate the sources mentioned in the article? Do the claims sound suspicious? If these are the questions you can't seem to find an accurate answer to, then chances are, you have a piece of false information in your hands. Things to look out for when identifying fake news include: 

  • the credibility of the website
  • whether the author is known
  • if there are a number of spelling and grammatical errors
  • if claims made don't make sense
  • if there are no accurate sources being cited

Code for Africa, an NGO, is the continent's largest network of civic technology and data journalism labs, and they build digital democracy solutions that give citizens access to  factual and actionable information that empowers them to make informed decisions. This is especially true in moments when misinformation is being spread online and on social media. Using the Meltwater tool, Code for Africa debunk claims and fact check trending topical conversations to ensure that the general public has accurate information delivered to them in a timely manner to refute any misleading claims. Since using Meltwater, Code for Africa have been able to combat disinformation in Niger, misinformation regarding the Uganda elections and political trolls in Kenya

Uganda In Crisis: The Documented Misinformation

Not all social media platforms have a clear guideline on how you can fight fake news, however, if you do come across misinformation, you can (and should) report it. Each platform has a way of doing this, which is specified below: 

Facebook

  1. When you spot content with misinformation that is intentionally harmful, click on the 3 dots on the top-right corner of the post.
  2. On the drop-down menu, click on “Find Support or Report Post.”
  3. Select “False Information” when prompted to choose a problem to report, then click “Next” to report the post.
  4. In a similar way, if you come across a Facebook page that contains harmful misinformation, you can click on the 3 dots at the top of the page and select “Find Support or Report Page.” Select “Scams and Fake Pages,” then click “Next” to report the Facebook page.

Instagram

  1. Click on the 3 dots at the top-right corner of the post.
  2. Select “Report...” on a mobile phone or “Report inappropriate” on desktop.
  3. Select "False information" or "Scam or fraud" to report the post.
  4. If you want to report the actual account that is spreading fake news, go to their profile page and click on the 3 dots next to their name.
  5. Click “Report...” From here, you will either have the option to report a post, message or comment that the account shared, or report the entire account.

Twitter

  1. Click on the 3 dots that appear at the top-right corner of a tweet and select "Report Tweet."
  2. Select “It’s abusive or harmful” to report a tweet containing harmful misinformation.
  3. The above steps apply when you want to report a Twitter list, account and direct message.

LinkedIn

  1. Click the dropdown menu at the top-right corner of a LinkedIn post.
  2. Click "Report this post" and select "Suspicious or fake."
  3. Click "Misinformation" from the list of reporting reasons (or "Fake account" if you want to report the actual account).
  4. Submit to report the post.

The battle of fake news continues and there is some work to be done, on both the part of online platforms and users, to play their part in preventing the spread of misinformation. The problem that fake news presents may not be solved overnight nor completely avoided but with the power that social media has, it's wise to exercise caution and to take what we see on our feeds with a pinch of salt before hitting the retweet button.

If you want to learn more about how Meltwater can fight fake news, fill in the form below and we'll get in touch with you.

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