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How To Spot Misinformation In An Election Year

Jan 18, 2020
Originally published on January 18, 2020 9:00 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And as you just heard, it's another presidential election year. Over the next 11 months, it might feel like you're getting information overload - TV ads, stump speeches, news organization fact checks, social media posts about those fact checks. At the same time, there's more bad information, fake or incorrect information floating around than ever before. All hope is not lost, however. NPR's Miles Parks from our Life Kit podcast says there are tried and true methods to finding good, true information, even online.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Caitlin Dickerson covers immigration issues for The New York Times. It's a topic that is flooded with false information.

CAITLIN DICKERSON: It's frustrating. You know, it's something that both Democratic and Republican politicians do.

PARKS: So I wanted to hear Caitlin's No. 1 tip for seeing through all this wrong and fake stuff - the thing you should bring with you every time you go online or pick up something to read. After all, it's her job to sift through all this junk and come out with the truth.

DICKERSON: I think the most important thing when you pick up a news story is to read it with skepticism. And I don't view that as a judgment of the reporter who wrote the story or of the outlet that published the story. I just think that's a smart way to read the news. It's the way that I've always done it. It's the way that I hope people do it, including when they're reading my stories.

PARKS: But some topics - like immigration, for instance - seem to attract more misinformation than others. Why is that? Caitlin's clearly thought about that question a lot, and she breaks it down into two key factors.

DICKERSON: One is that immigration is incredibly complicated. You know, lawyers who study it compare it to the tax code. People don't have time. You know, people have lives. They have jobs. They don't have time to familiarize themselves with the nuances of immigration law, and I don't begrudge that. But I think it's - becomes easy then for activists to capitalize on the lack of information and boil it down in ways that aren't fully accurate.

PARKS: This is broader than just immigration, too. It's true for any topic with complicated policies. Voting, for instance, is something that's a little different in every single state, so it leaves open the door for lots of misinformation.

DICKERSON: The other thing is that immigration is just this incredibly emotional issue. It relates to race. It relates to demographics. It relates to religion. It relates to people's feelings about the national identity as well as their personal identity. And so it's this emotional hot-button issue that people get really excited about on every side of the political spectrum.

PARKS: And that emotional response should be a red flag. I talked about that with Peter Adams. He's the senior vice president of the News Literacy Project, and he says anger should be a signal to check the information, not to share it.

PETER ADAMS: A lot of misinformation exploits our values. It exploits our patriotism. It exploits our religious faith. It exploits our dedication to ideals like equality.

PARKS: This sort of outrage content spreads like wildfire on social media, says the University of Washington's Carl Bergstrom. He teaches a class called Calling BS, and he says platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are driven by a desire to keep people on their platforms, not by any sort of obligation to the truth.

CARL BERGSTROM: The content that we're delivered is - has been curated and selected by a set of machine learning algorithms that are basically running large-scale experiments on all of the users of the platform to see what keeps people clicking, what keeps people on the site.

PARKS: So this election year, one resolution might be double-checking the memes you see before you share them, especially if they make you angry or upset and especially if they're about complicated subjects. Another might be just cutting back on your social media usage altogether.

Miles Parks, NPR News, Washington.

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MARTIN: For more useful information on topics ranging from health to budgeting to parenting and more, search for NPR Life Kit, where you will find helpful podcasts and news stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMADOU AND MARIAM'S "M'IBIFE BALAFON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.