With the constant swirl of information circulating on social media and in the news, sometimes it can be hard to discern what can be taken as truth.
Last week, for example, conspiracies were spread on social media following the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Following several social media posts claiming that the Supreme Court justice had died two years earlier and that reports of her death over the weekend were false, USA Today reported on the claims by fact-checking Ginsburg’s appearances over the last two years and determining the falsity of the claims.
Similarly, the Tennesseean.com recently fact-checked an article by Nashville Fox 17 — which was later retracted — for a newscast alleging Nashville Mayor John Cooper attempted to keep the number of coronavirus infections linked to bars in the city a secret.
The trouble with misinformation today is even those claiming to uphold truth and those fact-checking can, at times, contribute to the spread of misinformation.
Take for instance the several misleading back-and-forth reports from varying news outlets in early September in response to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention update about death rates from COVID-19.
Sound statistical information produced through the diligent work of those working with the CDC was taken and twisted or interpreted a dozen different ways in a matter of hours with each differing interpretation being presented as fact. In how many cases was the data presented in its full scientific and mathematical context? Not as many as one would hope.
As was noted by the Deseret News editorial on Sept. 2, “Sadly, the misinformation appears to be another convincing illustration of how some people on social media are quick to spread falsehoods that fit their biases.” And sadly, the same can be said of even respectable media outlets if they don’t take the time to verify information from original sources and look at statements and reports in context.
While media outlets have an obligation to fact-check their sources and paraphrase reports as closely as possible to the original source as a fundamental part of journalistic integrity, even they get things wrong from time to time. In such cases, corrections are added to misleading reports or articles bearing false information will be retracted.
Elected officials also have a responsibility to uphold the standards of integrity associated with their offices. More often than not, they have teams of people available to help them do so. And yet, even the current president regularly displays a blatant disregard for facts and the analysis of experts in their proper fields by spreading inaccurate claims via daily Twitter storms.
The problem is that for many people, social media is the main source from which they get their news and information. And as the somewhat controversial Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” warns, social media is an information tool that is all too easily misused.
Although bots and falsely generated users are the most common spreaders of false information on social media, according to a recent study and report by Crest Research in the U.K., individuals contribute to the spread of disinformation within their own social networks by sharing and increasing the reach of such posts.
The question, then, is: To what extent can we control the spread of false information we see and should we be held accountable for spreading it?
To hold every individual accountable for every mistake they make online would seem a bit harsh in my view, but at the very least, I would argue that individuals sharing information on social media should be willing to admit when they are wrong or when they are repurposing information for their own agenda.
Because we live in an age where information and technology is dispersed faster than ever before and a plethora of information is readily available at a person’s fingertips, truth and facts should be easier than ever before to access and verify. But finding truth will always require a bit of work on the individual’s part.
When reading or sharing information on social media, a few best practices I have found useful for discerning truth are:
Look at where the information is coming from and ask critical questions such as: Is the account a reliable source and when was it created? Is the same content being covered elsewhere or is this the original source? Is the information being contradicted on any other platforms? What is the purpose of the information?
Taking the time to evaluate the reliability of a source as well as critically reading the information being shared and searching for differing viewpoints to compare and contrast is, in my experience, the surest way to determine the truth of information as well as determine whether it is worthy of sharing. And if you find out later that something you shared was inaccurate, don’t be afraid own up to it. You are accountable for fact-checking yourself because when you share things online, your integrity, character and reputation are at your fingertips.