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How to spot misinformation and disinformation online

Misinformation and disinformation online wreak havoc on people across the globe. Here in San Diego, we're not immune.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — Misinformation and disinformation online wreak havoc on people across the globe.

Here in San Diego, we're not immune.

When information - real or not - is so readily accessible and at your fingertips, how do you know if what you're seeing online can be trusted? It's a problem we all face and trusting the wrong information could hurt you. 

Let’s start with an example.

You're scrolling through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or any other social media site and a friend shares a news post. They ask you if you think it's real or not. It doesn't take a journalism degree to figure out if something is legitimate online. It does, however, take a little know how.

Here's what you need to know:

  • First, verify the posts legitimacy. Go to their homepage on social media and check to see if they are verified online. If you see a blue checkmark with a circle around it, which is most common, this is a good start. But beware, this doesn’t mean that their posts are accurate or unbiased.
  • After this, check their website address for a clearly identified name and corresponding website address. On their website, check out the “about” section and their mission. If they’re a news outlet, you should also be able to see their reporters and how long they've been in business.
  • Watch out for websites that mimic or simply look like news sites.
  • Also beware of product or cause affiliations. An example of this is a gun rights page, talking about gun deaths. Their information could be biased or slanted in favor of their opinion.

A lot of people use social media and not everyone will send a post to a friend to check its’ veracity, so we brought in experts for their tips on how you can protect yourself from bad information online.

Dean Nelson is the Director of Journalism at Point Loma Nazarene University. He says to question and verify everything.

"Skepticism is a virtue. A skeptic is someone who says, ‘I wonder if that's true?’ and then tries to follow it a little bit to get after the truth,” said Nelson.

Nelson also advises having a myriad of sources for information.

"You want to have multiple points of view and that's going to give you, what I think, is the most obtainable version of the truth," said Nelson,

He advises against forming opinions after receiving information from celebrities and friends. He also said, to make sure what you’re seeing online passes a reasonability smell check.

Nelson asks, "Why would you trust a quarterback in the NFL to give us advice about science?”

Claire Wardle is the Director of First Draft, a non-profit that helps organizations, like newsrooms, to tackle misinformation.

“You have to have your antennae's up and say, 'Okay, I'm probably going to encounter information that's not true (when online),'" Wardle said.

She says, it’s okay to have your go-to trusted news outlets but it’s an even better idea to get several sources for one piece of information, especially if you have doubts.

"There’s never one source that all of us can trust,” said Wardle. “It's about how can you do a little bit more digging to find that there's only one person on YouTube who's saying one thing and everyone else is saying something different."

Brandon Lewis is a national host for Verify, a fact-checking organization within TEGNA, News 8’s parent company.

It's their mission to debunk false information online.

"It can be really hard to spot misinformation and disinformation and that's kind of the point," said Lewis.

Lewis adds, where you get your information matters.

"At Verify, we go straight to the sources,” said Lewis. “And we're transparent about who it is that we talk to. We're going straight to the people that authored the post or authored the study that was cited in the post or link that may have been shared."

Now that you know how important it is to have a myriad of trustworthy sources, let's dive deeper.

If you see a questionable picture online in a news story that you vetted to ensure its veracity, you can double check the photo with a reverse image search.

You can do this by right clicking on the photo, save it to your desktop, open Google Images and drag the photo into the search bar.

If you find several websites or articles related to the photo from various occasions, it’s likely not original.

If nothing comes up related to the photo, it’s chances of being an original photo increase dramatically and it’s passed the reverse image test.

Some question, why would anyone put something online that wasn't real in the first place? The answers vary just like the possible motives.

Some of them are trying to hoax you, they're trying to scam you and make money,” said Claire Wardle from First Draft. “Others are trying to build their brand so that they can become a bigger personality online and hope they get a book deal. Some people are doing it just to see if they can get away with it, just to see if they can cause some trouble."

Why does misinformation and disinformation spread faster than the truth?

Wardle says that answer is easier.

"As humans we've always liked to gossip, we've always liked the tv spoiler, we've always liked the 'Have you heard?' but the internet has taken that human response and taken it to the next level."

And if you're wondering if the truth even matters, Dean Nelson at Point Loma Nazarene University says, "The only way democracy works is if you have an informed citizenry. If you don't have a truthful society, a truthful government and a truthful news media, what you get is chaos and out of chaos, I'm not sure that's a society any of us want to live in."

We tried to make spotting misinformation and disinformation online easy for you but if you still need help, we're here for you.

If you have something you've seen online that you want to Verify, email it to us at verify@kfmb.com.

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