How to deal with fake news on your timeline

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Isobel Thomas-Horton

What to do to challenge fake news on social media.

“Fake News” always seemed to me to be something distinctly American, like spray cheese or high school doping scandals. Their independence and constitutionally entrenched distrust of authority struck me as the perfect breeding ground for what Kellyanne Conway memorably coined “alternative facts”. Glasgow University, with its abundance of critically trained thinkers and myriad of student newspapers, seemed miles out of the reach of Russian troll farms. So I was surprised to find a post shared by a friend of mine about the Coronavirus, or, perhaps more accurately, not about the Coronavirus, since the post claimed that though “a lot of people are dying…almost every story coming from these hotspots is saying, ‘it’s not what you think it is’”. Though the article never explains who exactly has been saying this, the post suggests, in short, that something other than Covid is killing us, and that someone doesn’t want us to know what. Aside from the odd premise, this surprised me, considering that she is an English student like myself, trained to read and analyse words.

Firstly, the post was written in numbers as well as English. Words like “Coronavirus” became “C0r0n@v¡rus”, “Doctors and nurses” became “D0ct0rs and nurs3s” and “medical staff” became “m3d!c@l st@ff”. They claimed this was because they were “being gagged”. It’s difficult to see how. The campaign group Avaaz discovered that over 40% of posts containing misinformation (and shown to contain misinformation by fact-checking organisations working with Facebook) stayed up on the site. Far from being “gagged”, misinformation was being allowed to proliferate.

The original poster had also attached screenshots (nearly 200 of them) of tweets where people described deaths being misattributed. The issue with using tweets as evidence is that there’s little accountability; anyone can make as many twitter accounts as they have burner emails. This wouldn’t have been too bad if they were merely first-hand accounts to catch our interest for the articles below, but the articles below were a striking example of how odd this post truth era can be. One of the links led to a video suggesting that the Olympics opening ceremony predicted the Coronavirus, thus proving that it was planned and a hoax. And no, I had not accidently stumbled upon an Onion article.

The poster’s first words were “[d]isclaimer: I’m not posting this for debate”. Suggesting that those working in our hospitals might be involved in something insidious is always going to incite questions, but the text was carefully designed to make anyone who disagreed look argumentative. “I can’t force you to accept anything, but it’s not an invitation to argue with people’s experiences”, the post says. My father, who has worked as a field medic in the Gulf, and later in Haiti after the earthquake, had called me a few days before to talk about his experiences. He told me that the Coronavirus was the worst thing he had ever seen. So many people were dying, and there was so little he could do to help them. This is a man who has worked in war and in the aftermath of a natural disaster and there he was, through a screen where I couldn’t reach him, crying. The hospital where he works did and does have the highest mortality rate in the country. 

This was the point when I decided to message the young woman who had shared the post. After reacting angrily at first, she admitted that she hadn’t read the links before sharing. The post was never deleted, so it reached an unknown number of people through her timeline.

How to spot Fake News…

  1. 1. The author claims not to want to start a debate or argument. People with solid sources will provide them if asked to. This isn’t suggesting that you start an argument every time you see a number, but if something looks off, see if anyone else has reported it. Newspapers can have spin, but they have to be confident that any facts and figures they reproduce are accurate.
  3. 2. Hearsay evidence. This story starts off with talking about hearsay evidence —  you have no proof that the woman I talk about exists (though she does), and even if I were to provide you with screenshots there would be no proof that they weren’t doctored (they weren’t).
  5. 3. Claims that the author is at risk for speaking out against “Them”. This goes hand in hand with the above points — they claim that their lack of sources is because their sources are being silenced.
  7. 4. Just doesn’t sound right. If your gut says it’s not true, have a Google. Double check any research cited and reverse image search pictures and graphs. It’s easy to take something away from research which isn’t substantiated or controlled for if you’re aiming to push a particular point of view. Simple correlation can appear to be causation if you’re looking for it.
  9. 5. Lots of links (or even just one, to a company you haven’t heard of). One of the key propellants of fake news is money. You see something unbelievable, so you click the link and share it. Each click gets the company money, and each share spreads the story. Like a virus, the more contact it has with people, the more it grows.

… And what should you do if you spot it.

  1. 1. Check yourself mentally. You do not have to fight the world. Are you prepared to discuss this with someone you may not know well, or perhaps know well and so don’t want to lose? It’s fine just to go to step 5.
  2. 2. Check yourself factually. Find out where they’re wrong, and come up with a few reliable sources which back you up. Don’t ignore reliable reportage that supports them. We’re all vulnerable to fake news.
  3. 3. Don’t thumbs down, angry face or comment. Interacting with posts means more people will see them. It also starts an argumentative tone with the poster, who will now be forced to defend their point in public. Sure, you might look cool to your friends, but it will make them less likely to take down the post.
  4. 4. Send a polite message. However angry you are, stay polite, and ask them to take down the post. Explain why it’s potentially dangerous information and provide your sources. If they get personal, ignore the message. If they get very defensive, ignore the message. If they have genuine questions or can provide counter-sources, and you feel like debating then that’s ok, but don’t feel like you have to. Sending one message is fine, but harassing someone isn’t. If they continue to post fake news consider unfriending them. Not every battle is yours to fight.
  5. 5. Report. There are a lot of issues with Facebook’s reporting, but if enough people report the original post and keep doing so, it will be removed (possibly, FB are fairly shady about their parameters for what deserves to be removed. If the original fake news is coming from Trump himself you may be out of luck).


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