In 1993, The New Yorker magazine published a cartoon with the caption, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
Almost 30 years later, that line might be rewritten: “On the internet, nobody knows who you are or that what you are saying is true.” Figuring out what’s real and what’s not is getting even harder in cyberspace, especially when artificial intelligence (AI) and visual effects are used to make fake photos and videos look authentic.
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More than 6 of 10 adults in a Google-supported global survey think they see false or misleading information online every week. The three youngest generations that aren’t young children — Generation Z, millennials and Gen X — feel “slightly more confident” in identifying false or misleading information than baby boomers, who are ages 58 to 76, or the Silent Generation, ages 77 to 93, according to the study that the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and the YouGov market research firm released this month.
“I think, as someone who works in this field and who spends a lot of time with fact-checkers, that [misinformation online] is worse” today, says Alex Mahadevan, director of Poynter’s MediaWise media literacy initiative.
Mahadevan cites political polarization and advances in technology as chief factors behind the increase in misinformation. The amplification of falsehoods through social media has exacerbated the problem.
Do you know how to verify what you see?
Worldwide, just over half (54 percent) of the respondents to another survey say they worry about identifying the difference between real news and fake on the internet, according to a recent report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. But 61 percent of people who say they mainly use social media as a source of news are worried, while only 48 percent of those who don’t use social media at all share that concern.
“We’re all vulnerable to misinformation,” says Hannah Covington, senior manager of education design at the nonpartisan News Literacy Project in Washington, D.C. The program provides free resources, including quizzes, to teach people how to identify credible news.
“We know that young people struggle to identify misinformation. We know that older folks have also struggled to identify misinformation,” she says. “Misinformation targets people on the political right, on the left. It comes from foreign sources, domestic sources.”
MediaWise also offers free online courses that may help folks spot misinformation. In 2020, AARP partnered with MediaWise on a MediaWise for Seniors initiative that includes free self-guided online courses with journalists Christiane Amanpour of CNN and Joan Lunden.
With smartphone technology and social media, people have a wealth of information right at their fingertips.
But as we spend more time online, we’re exposed to more conspiracies, scams, and misinformation. And it can be hard to know what’s true and what isn’t.
Today, we’ll discuss some tips and resources for determining fact from fiction online. That’s coming up next.
Hi, I’m Mike Ellison, with An AARP Take on Today
Raise your hand if you’re spending at least a little more time on social media these days.
With coronavirus and the election, false information online -- and being able to identify it -- is a matter of life, death and democracy, right now.
Americans are online more than ever before nowadays -- especially older Americans. According to an AARP survey, over 75% of adults ages 50 and older use social media on a regular basis.
We realized there's going to be a lot of misinformation that could be a matter of life and death, for an extremely vulnerable population.
Alex Mahadevan is a senior reporter for MediaWise, which is a non-profit, non-partisan initiative created by The Poynter Institute to help people of all ages spot fact from fiction online.
While MediaWise has primarily focused on teenagers, they have now launched a program called “MediaWise for Seniors” to equip people 50 and older with the skills to navigate misinformation about politics, health and other critical topics.
Misinformation often comes in the form of widely-shared social media posts. You might’ve come across one and didn’t even notice -- or maybe it made your blood boil a bit.
If you see a post that makes you anxious, or disgusted, surprised, even something that really just makes you laugh out loud, and you feel that deep emotional ping, that's a red flag that you might want to stop and check it out.
To give you a sense of what he’s talking about, here’s a clip from a MediaWise and AARP webinar called Sorting Fact From Fiction. It’s a free, 30-minute course that Mahadevan co-hosted that’ll help you stay one step ahead of misinformation like “Tom Hanks hates cake.” You’ll see what I mean in a minute. You can find the course at AARP dot org slash Fact Tracker.
Ever wonder how misleading information spreads on the internet? Hanks hates cakes! Let’s boycott his movies. Let’s boycott cake! Hank hates cakes? It’s silly and not true -- that we know -- but misinformation is not always quite so harmless.
And unfortunately, because we are humans, we're also less likely to actually check it out because we feel that emotion and then boom, I want to share it. And-.
I'm plenty guilty of sharing before checking it out. So, that's the red flags. One really specific one that I actually see a lot of older Americans fall for, from time to time, are social media posts that are screenshotted and shared across different platforms. That's another red flag, because-
... tweet and post it on Facebook, and vice versa. So those are the big red flags.
So how does misinformation typically circulate among adults who are 50 and older?
So there are lots of ways. And I think that's been one of the challenges is really trying to identify the main sources of misinformation. And really what you're seeing is not just chain emails, I think a lot of people had thought about these chain emails that older Americans are getting. That's part of it. That's definitely a part of it. I've seen voicemails and text messages that contain false information, but really the bulk of it now is you're seeing a generation that was used to getting news from the newspaper in the morning and the evening broadcast, and now they're all on social media. There's way more older Americans on Facebook and on social media and than I thought before starting this project. And so really that's where I think they're seeing the bulk of this misinformation because one, things can spread so fast on social media, and two, because of the way the algorithms surface posts that make us feel surprised, disgusted, anxious. So you see a lot of this content spread a lot faster on social media.
Beyond recognizing that a post makes you emotional, what can people do to find out if something they’re reading is false?
When we started out with the whole project, we had partnered with a Stanford history education group and they basically studied fact checkers and found out why fact checkers are so good at identifying false information, a hundred percent of the time. They're better than PhD students. They're better than Stanford professors. It really just comes down to answering three questions. One, who's behind the information? Think about which profile posted it. Think about what group posted it, who sits on the board of directors of this group. Is it trustworthy. Two, what is the evidence? Does the post actually cite any evidence? Are there any links to any sources? That's also a red flag, if you see a post with no sources cited, or evidence, or anything, that really should make you stop for a second.
And finally, and I think most importantly, is what are other sources saying? I think we're increasingly spending a lot of time online, and I think humans have a tendency to, when they read something, read it and then just move on, accept what it is and move on. You're spending all this time online anyways, you might as well open a new window and search for more information about what you just read.
Why do people create misinformation in the first place? What's the intention?
Alex Mahadevan: Why it's created? There are a lot of reasons. One, it might be a politician, whether domestic or a foreign government, trying to create false information to influence the way someone feels about an issue.
The same people might be creating disinformation to cause chaos, to increasingly push us towards being more polarized, unable to have civil discussions. We saw that during the 2016 election, there's plenty of evidence that Russia was creating these Facebook pages that were basically designed to stoke our anger. And they were both sides. They were creating two different sides. They actually, at one point, got a protest to happen, in real life, based on a fake Facebook page. So to sow discord and create chaos, but then, really anything, I think nowadays, is money, it can come down to money.
So there are people who create fake videos on YouTube. There was a funny YouTube video that came out that I'm sure you probably remember, pizza rat. It was a rat that was filmed carrying a slice of pizza in New York, and it was actually, it was a fake video, but it racked up millions and millions of views, which means it sold lots and lots of advertisements. So the person who- [crosstalk].
... made a lot of money. So there's that. There are people who have created false local news websites, that they just literally just put false news on, and it makes you hit click it. The things circulate on Facebook really quick and generate a lot of quick clicks that are generating more money for advertisers. So those are really the main reasons people create miss or disinformation-
What is considered a reputable source?
For example, when it comes to coronavirus information. Whenever we do a fact check or something, whenever we identify a false claim going around, the first thing we do is tell people to go to the world health organization's website on coronavirus. Go to the CDC's dashboard on coronavirus. Ultimately, you want to go straight to the source, but also traditional media outlets, the Washington post, New York times, your local paper, I think people don't really understand the plight of local papers right now. I'm sure you do. They are disappearing like crazy, but your local newspaper. So here in St. Petersburg, our local paper is the Tampa Bay times, that's what I would say is a really reputable source. The key though is reading across sources. So when I want to catch up on the latest coronavirus data, that's out there, I'll go to the Tampa Bay times first. I'll go to the Washington post. I'll go to the New York times. I might go to NBC news, see what's going on there. The trick is reading a variety of sources.
Where can we find media literacy training online?
In term of where to find media literacy training online, honestly the best place is poynter.org/mediawise-for-seniors. And if you go there you’ll find a really cool course that will help you fact check everything you see on the internet. It’ll take you about an hour or so and it’s totally free thanks to funding from Facebook. Now, we also when we originally launched MediaWise partnered with Stanford History Education Group to launch the civic online reasoning curriculuum. So if you just head to cor.stanford.edu you can check out the civic online reasoning ciricuulum.
What do you do if you have friends or family members who were sharing misinformation on social media? Because as you said in most cases we’re not doing knowing that we’re spreading this information.
Yeah. And that's actually a big piece of this too, because I think really, I think the sharing of misinformation and the polarization right now has really made it some family gatherings tense. I know we're not going to be at the Thanksgiving dinner table, physically for most people this year, but remotely there are some great ways to talk to people when you know they're sharing misinformation. One, don't do it in public, do it in private. You want to think about whether or not it's worth it, is the misinformation they're sharing harmful, or is it totally harmless and whatever.
You want- [crosstalk 00:00:27:51].
You don't want to call them out in the comment section.
Yeah. Definitely not. You want to approach it with humility and assume best intentions, because the big thing that I want to get across today too, is that, if someone shares misinformation they're not a bad person. Many times they're sharing... 99% of the times they're sharing misinformation is because they are good people, they want to help, they're sharing something that they think is true and will be helpful. So going in with assuming good intentions, and then doing some of the things that we talked about today, and just telling them, Hey, you just shared this meme about coronavirus, here's what I did. I went ahead and I did a Google search and I found this article from the CDC that says that's actually incorrect. Walking them through the fact checking process. And cutting your losses, being prepared to let go and say, someone's going to believe what they're going to believe, and you can only do your best.
Thank you for your efforts in what you're doing and working to empower all of us, really appreciate it.
Well, thanks for having me. And I hope everyone listening learned some great fact checking tools.
Alex Mahadevan is a senior multimedia report for the Poynter Institute’s MediaWise project. You can find more information and free online courses at Poynter dot org slash MediaWise and AARP dot org slash fact tracker.
If you liked this episode, please comment on our podcast page at AARP dot Org slash Podcasts, or email us at NewsPodcast at AARP dot Org.
Thanks to our news team, Producers Colby Nelson and Danny Alarcon.
Production Assistant, Brigid Lowney.
Engineer, Julio Gonzalez.
Executive Producer, Jason Young.
And of course my Co-Hosts, Bob Edwards and Wilma Consul.
For an AARP Take on Today, I'm Mike Ellison. Thanks for listening. Stay safe, and be encouraged.
Here are recommendations from experts that may help you recognize falsehoods online.
React to facts. Don't give in to outrage
1. Pay attention. “Research shows when people are paying attention to whether something is credible or not, they’re much better at detecting misinformation than when they’re not paying attention,” says Matt Groh, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Media Lab. Asking yourself whether something is true will lead you to examine the source as well as that source’s motivation.
2. Don’t let your emotions get the best of you. Did something you came across online or on social media anger you? Did it make you sad or afraid? It’s a good idea to pause and not respond immediately, Covington says. Don’t amplify anything you can’t verify by sharing it.
3. Don’t equate likes with truth. “Likes and shares do not equal credibility,” Covington says. Instead, she recommends examining the comments associated with a social media post to see whether people have debunked the post, called information into question or replied with a fact-check.
Suss out when you’re being manipulated
4. Be on alert for deepfakes. Seeing is not always believing. Deepfakes are media that appear to show a person doing or saying something that in actuality they haven’t done or said. Such videos have been doctored, often by swapping one person’s face for another’s.
Look for red flags. A face swap may alter a face but not a subject’s neck, fingers, ears, hair or body, Groh explains. For instance, some deepfakes of Tom Cruise showed the actor with unattached earlobes; his are attached. “I point it out as a single example of showing an inconsistency,” Groh says. You may see other subtle signs that a video has been altered.
Body movements may look unnatural, or a normally animated subject may barely move. You may see blurred video or funky scene cuts. Skin may appear too smooth or too wrinkly compared to the age of the eyes and hair.
Still, Groh cautions that just because a video is grainy or blurry doesn’t mean it’s a deepfake. “One of the really sinister things about deepfakes is they get people questioning whether any real video is actually real,” he says. Through AI and ever-more-sophisticated visual effects artists, deepfakes may become even harder to detect.
If you understand how such deepfakes are produced, you may begin to notice the stuff that’s somehow off. MIT Media Lab built a Detect Fakes website where you can check out a variety of audio, transcripts and video of presidents Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Half of these media snippets are real; half are fabricated. You can take a stab at determining which are which, and via a slider indicate your level of confidence that you got it right.
5. Be wary of screenshots. Doctored screenshots of web pages from major news organizations are out there, too. If you see screenshots without a link to the original story, that’s a red flag, Covington says. Always seek out the live story in its original context.
6. Search using a photo. Employ a reverse image search to learn more about a picture’s origin. Visit images.google.com, click the camera icon 📷, and either drag or upload an image or paste its URL. If you have an Android phone or tablet, open the Google app or Chrome app, go to the website with the image, touch and hold on the image, and tap Search image with Google Lens. Reverse image searching is also available on such third-party websites as TinEye.com.
By taking advantage of reverse image search tools, you might learn what credible news outlets or a site such as factcheck.org can tell you about an image. You also may discover the age of the picture and be able to tell if it was manipulated.
Find the best source
7. Check out the information’s origin. If you come across an unfamiliar source in your search results, perhaps a less well-known news organization or medical website, and want to confirm that it’s trustworthy, do a quick search to see what other credible sources say about that site. This skill is called lateral reading.
8. Consult other Google search tools. Descriptive Featured snippets that highlight a piece of information about your query, including its source, often accompany Google search results.
Google recently announced that by using its latest AI models, it can now understand the notion of consensus: when multiple high-quality sources on the web all agree on the same fact. This promises to improve the quality of featured snippets.
The AI models also help Google understand when a featured snippet might not be the most helpful way to present information. For example, the query “When did Snoopy assassinate Abraham Lincoln” correctly provided a snippet identifying John Wilkes Booth as Lincoln’s assassin. But Google has determined that answering questions with a false premise accurately is not the best way to surface results and is now training its systems to detect these faulty searches.
Google is also improving its About This Result tool, which provides context to search results. You can summon About This Result by clicking or tapping on the three vertical dots ⋮ next to a search result or by swiping up in the Google app on your phone. About This Result now will reveal how widely a source is circulated, online reviews about a source or company, whether a company is owned by another entity, and even when Google’s systems cannot get much information about a source.
Let news develop
9. Practice patience. Sometimes news travels faster than the known facts about an ongoing event. Google has started to issue what it calls content advisories that indicate you might be better off checking back later when it has a higher level of confidence in search results.
“This doesn’t mean that no helpful information is available, or that a particular result is low quality,” Pandu Nayak, Google vice president of search, wrote on a Google blog. “These notices provide context about the whole set of results on the page, and you can always see the results for your query, even when the advisory is present.”
10. Ask three simple questions. To avoid the trap of misinformation, start with three questions from the Stanford History Education Group, says Mahadevan of MediaWise.
- Who is behind the information?
- What’s the evidence?
- What are other sources saying?
Ask those, and “there is a very good chance that you will not be fooled, whether it is a phishing attempt [or] a doctored video of Joe Biden,” he says.
This story, originally published Aug. 17, 2022, was updated to correct the age ranges for baby boomers and the Silent Generation.
Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA Today, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and Fortune, and is author of Macs for Dummies and coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.
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