One of my biggest fears is having any of my loved ones, especially my children, succumb to misinformation or worse—disinformation. The former is false but not intentionally so. The latter is an outright lie and politically misleading. Both are bad for your health.
But there are several steps each of us can take to avoid, investigate, and ultimate correct misinformation. They are as follows:
- Apply the brakes before believing and sharing. Misinformation thrives on heightened emotion. Being the social creatures that we are, we understandably want to share strong feelings with our peers, especially things that are too good to be true or really scary sounding. So before you believe or share anything, try to personally vouch for the news you just heard. Often times a 30 second Google search can quickly clear things up or lead to skepticism, which helps us avoid spreading misinformation. You don’t even need to dig so deep to get the truth. If half a dozen or more major headlines are reporting the same thing, you can believe them for the time being while the news further develops. As a bonus, it also helps to know that statistically speaking, the world is a much better place than ever before, even if it still has its problems. That can go a long way in prevent conspiracy theories or misinformation.
- Check the source. I’m going to let you in on a little secret. While mainstream media is certainly biased and sadly resorts to some fear mongering which leads to more eyeballs and higher ad revenue (i.e. “if it bleeds it leads,” regardless if it’s a statistical anomaly), the vast majority of news rooms are really truth seekers that want to report the fact. CNN isn’t out to get you or your favorite candidate. Neither is MSNBC or Fox, even thought they’re obviously less impartial than The Associated Press, USA Today, or the New York Times. Overall you can trust these sources, especially when they back each other up, which they usually do. Since trying to evaluate facts can be difficult and time-consuming, we must all rely on the reputation of established truth seekers. While some personal friends, YouTubers, or family members can sometimes get things right and are well informed, they’re a lot less reliable than mainstream news overall. It’s a simple law of numbers and large sample sizes, so stay away from fringe facts and reporting.
- Don’t trust cute things. Like step one, misinformers use cute or clever memes, images, and slogans almost as much as strong emotions to spread viral ideas, however wrong or right. That’s why misinformation spreads so fast online. If it’s cute, funny, out of context, or over or understated, it’s quickly shared. So if something like that piques your curiosity, do a quick Google search to verify its accuracy before spreading. Exercise deliberation and skepticism before believing and sharing anything.
- When you find misinformation, correct it. If you shared something that is no longer truth, own it and apologize for it. Everyone makes mistakes and no one will fault you for it. In fact, they’ll respect you for it and relate better to you since they too are a mistake-prone human. Secondly, if someone close to you is spreading false information, talk to them privately or calmly tell them, “I don’t think that’s accurate” or “I’ve heard differently.” Rather than delete misinformation, research shows it’s better to correct it, however embarrassing that might feel.
- Believe the world is good. As hard as it might seem, the world is statistically a better place than ever before. You can confidently admit that and still fight injustice. But it’s unhelpful to overstate things or buy into conspiracy theories. There’s no master plan or secret organization pulling all the strings. Yes corruption exists and we should continue to fight it. But statically speaking, it’s not as corrupt or sinister as you may think. The sooner you accept this the less likely you are to spread fearful, emotional charge, or otherwise clever misinformation. The sooner you do that, the smarter and more satisfied you’ll actually be.