Tips For Spotting Misinformation On Social Media

August 2, 2021 Topic: Health Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: DisinformationSocial MediaCoronavirusPandemicVaccine

Tips For Spotting Misinformation On Social Media

Human nature is to simply turn away when things get confusing. If the government is telling you to get vaccinated, and social media is telling you that vaccines and the coronavirus are a hoax, the easiest thing to do is ignore all of it. That leads to tremendous public health risks. 


William V. Pelfrey, Jr., Ph.D., professor in the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. 

Bad information comes in two flavors: unintentional and intentional. The latter, intentional disinformation, is far more dangerous. There are many people who purposefully distribute inaccurate information in an attempt to influence outcomes, such as an election. Undermining social confidence during a time of the coronavirus can disrupt the economy, influence employment, and negatively impact public health. Some countries, including Russia and China, have sophisticated disinformation organizations, which work hard to undermine the United States, thereby elevating other countries.

Human nature is to simply turn away when things get confusing. If the government is telling you to get vaccinated, and social media is telling you that vaccines and the coronavirus are a hoax, the easiest thing to do is ignore all of it. That leads to tremendous public health risks. 

The smart thing to do is assess the source. What data support the assertion? Is this fact based on published, peer-reviewed research or is it, instead, an opinion? An opinion is often hard to differentiate from fact as many portray opinion as fact—especially those soliciting attention, votes, or trying to make money off of their opinions. 

How does a person check to see if the information is accurate? 

A classic sociologist, Robert Merton, advocated for Organized Skepticism. This principle advises that all ideas should be viewed through a skeptical lens. A person should always be looking for the limitations of a study.

Medical research is known for using very small populations. I was considering a minor elbow surgery so I could get back into racquetball. The most cited study on the procedure found it was very successful. When I read the study, the sample was twelve young athletes. That doesn’t describe me—a middle-aged man who is a fairly fit former athlete. Extrapolating those findings beyond the sample population is a dubious enterprise. 

Checking the accuracy of information is simple—find the source. If the source of the info is reputable, such as an unbiased government agency (like the CDC, the NSF, the FDA) or a peer-reviewed journal (like the Journal of the American Medical Association, the New England Journal of Medicine, the Lancet), then a person can be confident in the assertions. 

If the information comes from a single person, then it is opinion—not fact. My wife saw a friend’s post which sounded scientific and was written by someone claiming to be an expert, who turned out to be a part-time pharmacy employee. Not a scientist. 

The trappings of expertise are easily fabricated—be skeptical when reading anything and consider the author’s motivation. Is the author relaying the findings of scientists or are they trying to push you towards an ideological position? 

Dr. Donna Gregory, Senior Lecturer within the School of Nursing at Regis College. 

There are many things a person can look at to spot disinformation, but there are three that I rely on as my “go-to” disinformation tactics when running quick checks for patients. Who is posting it? What information are they sharing? What is their intent? In terms of who is posting it, a person wants to look at the qualifications and potential for bias. This is true for both individuals and organizations. For the information to be credible, the individual or organization should have credentials that are related to the field. For example, an infectious disease provider or a healthcare organization that specializes in infectious disease would be credible sources. The second is what information are they sharing? Is the information data based on recent studies or information from science? Or is it a post about one specific case or anecdotal story? Finally, what is the intent of the person or group posting? Is the intent to share information based on current research and science? Is that person trying to sell something? Does the post generate fear or distrust? Disinformation is more likely to want to push you in one direction or another, instead of just sharing information. While it isn’t foolproof, considering these questions together can help you determine if the information is meant to spread disinformation. 

How does a person check to see if the information is accurate?

The main way to check accuracy is to review multiple sources for the same information. If a person finds information about the Delta Variant on a news site, then can the person find this same information on the CDC website? What about other health care organizations such as the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease? If someone shares information about the vaccines, then is it possible to find the same information on the FDA website or other organizations such as the World Health Organization? If the information is consistent across multiple, credible sources, then it is likely reliable information based on evidence.

Peter Suciu is a defense writer and journalist for the National Interest

Image: Reuters