In February of 2020, a viral internet challenge circulated on social media. It started with a Tweet that claimed that, according to NASA, February 10th is the only day of the year a broom can stand on its own due to earth’s gravitational pull. Pictures and videos flooded YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok as thousands of users balanced broomsticks. But the next day, NASA put out their own tweet that said, “Astronaut Alvin Drew and scientist Sarah Noble respond to the #BroomstickChallenge, showing that basic physics works every day of the year — not just February 10th.” While the original Tweet was liked, shared, and viewed more than 6 million times, there was no factual basis for the claim.
Not everything on the internet is true, but a lot of false information looks pretty convincing. In this module, we’ll learn how to think critically about what we take in so we can determine what information we can trust.
In 2018, a team of researchers from MIT investigated what causes misinformation to spread on Twitter. Unlike disinformation, misinformation isn’t always spread with bad intentions, so they were curious about what made it so tempting to share. Here are a few things the team found:
The majority of the rumors being shared online are shared by regular people, not big organizations or celebrities. In fact, people who spread misinformation generally have fewer followers, follow fewer people, and are significantly less active than users who share true stories on social media platforms.
The researchers found that falsehoods spread farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in every category of story, from urban legends to natural disasters, despite being shared by less popular users.
In their paper, they suggested that novel news is valuable from an information perspective - it gives us the most up-to-date facts to base decisions off of - but also from a social perspective. People who share novel information are valuable in online spaces because they have facts other people don’t, making them seem more in the know.
The spread of misinformation isn’t always intentional. While the initial sources may be created to deceive, the false information spreads quickly and deeply because normal people don’t always question what they read or hear. Luckily, there are ways you can avoid sharing misinformation yourself. The researchers in the study found that sites like Snopes, Politifact, and factcheck.org were over 95% in agreement on which online rumors were true, false, or somewhere in between. Since fact-checking sites don’t always have every story you see or hear, it’s important to learn to think critically as well. Regardless, they are still a helpful resource. Before you share that REALLY SHOCKING story on social media, you can visit one of the sites below to see if it’s based on fact or just a rumor.
Disinformation is designed to become misinformation - the more novel and shocking it is, the more likely we are to share what we read. In the next activity, see if you can maximize clicks by creating tempting misinformation.
Since the majority of misinformation is designed to feel real, it can often be based on real news. Can you take a news story from a popular source and turn it into something biased and maybe a little deceptive?
Do you remember the broomstick challenge? The creator claimed that NASA was behind the viral trend of making brooms stand up, when she had really made it up herself. If you thought it was real, you’re not the only one - more than 6 million people engaged with the Tweet. It was uniquely convincing because it claimed to cite NASA, a respected authority in the field, and the creator was able to show it worked, even if the reason it worked was flawed. Because false information can be so hard to recognize, it’s important that we use critical thinking strategies to try to recognize the fakes before we pass them on.
Remember that not all sources are created equal. Articles and studies from peer-reviewed journals have to pass rigorous checks to get published, like being written by someone qualified in the field and having any data and experiments checked for flaws by other experts. Primary sources and eyewitness accounts provide information directly. Make sure the content you’re evaluating has relied on facts and evidence, and not just the opinions of others.
Here are a few tips for evaluating sources, especially those you see online.
Misinformation tends to be most successful when it invokes powerful feelings like fear or anger. It works especially well when that fear or anger is aligned with feelings we already have. When evaluating a source, always remember to put your feelings aside until you determine if it’s true.
While tweets like the one about the broomstick challenge make claims they attribute to NASA, the original tweet didn’t come from NASA itself. Consider how many degrees of separation there are between what you’re seeing or hearing and the original source. Be especially mindful if the information is in a format where you can’t click on links, like a photo shared on social media. If you’re suspicious about a piece of news, see if you can find the original story, article, or study.
When looking at sources, there are a few things you should consider before taking it at face value. Does the author intend it as a serious story, or is it meant to be satire? Do other news outlets report the story? What do they add to the picture? Who is providing the information? Is an interested party, like a corporation or a political party, funding the research cited in the study? By asking questions about the context of the information, you can uncover new details that might affect how you see the situation.