How to spot misinformation online



Why and how are we subject to so much misinformation these days, and is there a way to spot fakes?

Watch out for fakes: how to spot misinformation online

One of the best things about the Internet is that it is a vast repository of knowledge – and this wealth of knowledge is almost never more than a few clicks away. This unlimited access to information, however, comes with its share of challenges. In today’s information age, we are bombarded with so much information that effectively identifying and filtering out fabricated, manipulated, or otherwise false and misleading content is an increasingly daunting task.

Indeed, it has become commonplace to say that you cannot and should not take everything you find online at face value – this includes random articles, social media posts, even commentaries. Self-proclaimed “experts.” The waters get even murkier once you add deepfake content Added to this is the fact that AI-enabled fake audio, images and video clips can easily boost disinformation campaigns.

Speaking of AI-powered trickery, don’t count on ChatGPT and other AI-powered tools major language models and trained on massive datasets from the internet to always tell the truth or refute false narratives. He was shown that they have an uncanny ability to accept lies and validate misconceptions, particularly if asked questions laden with misinformation, and that ultimately their power could be exploited to creating false narratives on a dramatic scale. Another concern is that chatbots “hallucinate,” meaning they spit out fabricated answers and references. In other words, their responses must also be examined – and for good reason.

Poisoning the story

Currently, you may notice a tendency to distort, misinform, twist the truth in creative ways – most often to cause polarization among certain groups of people for political purposes or to attract people’s attention for other negative purposes, all of which occurs primarily online. Essentially, online information may no longer flow freely, as it will be filtered and poisoned, to exert control over a narrative or to create a functional narrative in its favor, whichever works best.

Bad actors have chosen to use this technique as a weapon to control and modify certain information, distilling facts by inserting false data or fake news into online discussions and social media, which can then influence the real world.

For example, some forms of cyberbullying use online misinformation, with the subjects of this bullying experiencing real psychological and physical trauma. With social media, false rumors can spread outside of schools, involving many more people and causing even more pain for the recipients. Likewise, instances of racism and intolerance seeping into the psyche of the general population from online discourse is a trend that everyone can notice, especially during election time, when disparate groups try to politicize certain subjects.

Sources of disinformation

Fake news and information can be spread through various means. As the examples above suggest, online speech is a major source, thanks to forums and social media, where anyone, whether an ordinary person or a robot, can share anything.

Indeed, bots spreading disinformation have become a little worrying in recent years, with a 2018 study confirming that Americans, for example, largely agree with the negative effects of bots spreading misinformation on social media. Actually, according to another reportaround 47% of internet traffic can be attributed to bots, a figure that grows year on year, with social media accounting for a huge number: you’re more likely to encounter a bot on Twitter (now X) than a real one user, as per a study by Washington University in St. Louis.

A photo of a fake account called Dyan Nations spreading Russian propaganda

Example of an identified bot spreading disinformation.
(Source: Samuel C. Woolley & Douglas Guilbeault. 2017)IT Propaganda in the United States of America: Consensus on Online Manufacturing” Oxford Internet Institute, page 7.)

Bots don’t need convincing to spread misinformation, and the more a questionable article or piece of data is shared and made visible to real people, the more likely it is to enter regular offline discourse. During Russian aggression against Ukraine, for example, many false narratives emerged, such as troll factories stammered and broadcast their arguments online, apparently trying to dissuade people from supporting Ukraine, distort reality using fake fact-checkers or releasing images and footage out of context.

Tweet crossed out with a video of Zelensky

An account spreading misinformation based on an out-of-context quote.
(Source: AFP fact-checking)

When taken up by political representatives, this fake news can have even more devastating effects and, in itself, it can also have very real consequences, such as January 6 insurrection against the US Capitolattributed to a rise in politicization, disinformation and polarization in American society, motivated by online activity further emboldened by political extremism.

Forms of infringement

False information can spread in many forms and in different places:

  • Articles/Reports: Depending on where you get your information from, some people prefer subjective (more biased media) or real truths. fake sites set up by malicious actors who spread false information.
  • Social networks: Here, misinformation can be spread in the form of articles shared from various sources like fake news sites, commenters spreading fake news or pages/groups created to contain this fake information in order to spread it among their members, who then share them beyond the group. Users are also interesting posing as influential members of societylike politicians or scientists, to be more convincing with their lies.
  • Forums and comment sections: As with social media, it’s all about sharing links to articles, creating threads touting false information, or publishing posts doing the same. Polarizing comments in online communities like 4chan may be causing real world extremism.
  • Videos/Images: Any platform used to share video or image content can be used to spread false information in the form of false reports, malicious event summaries, propaganda hidden in memesaltered images and biased documentaries, as well as through online personalities who thrive on societal polarization to promote their content.

A worrying form is also the use of images, videos or audio fakes, which can be even more difficult to spot as fakes, as evidenced by our recent article on audio deepfakes and their potential misuse in scams. Although created for research purposes, the deepfake highlights the dangers of encountering “stolen voices”, as it is very convincing, and shows how free AI tools like this can use people’s images in any form for criminal purposes.

How to deal with misinformation or fake news

Thinking about what we see and read online is the best method to counter the influence of fake news. Unfortunately, critical thinking is often not taught well in school, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be self-taught at home.

But how exactly do you differentiate a real story from a fabricated one? Some easy-to-spot clues can help.

  • First of all, Stop and think on the information you encounter. Blindly believing what a “doctor” says online about the effects of a vaccine or treatment just because they are wearing a white coat in a video is incorrect, because anyone could play a doctor by line. Likewise, think about what kind of miracle it would really be if a three eyed baby was really born this year.
  • Secondly, examine and verify everything you encounter. Social media is often used to spread lies and hoaxes, like invented products. army project papers, calling the election results fraudulent, turning movie scenes into real events, claiming that all vaccines cause death, etc. The best way to counter this is to check objective information sitesand to follow fact-checking pages who investigate hoaxes.
  • Thirdly, putting each piece of data into perspective. Using various legitimate sources like those presented in the previous point, read and create your own opinion. By distilling diverse points of view, a person can create their own positions on critical topics, and through the power of the Internet, everyone can better understand something they find relevant and interesting.
  • Moreover, stay calm and try not to be provoked by a clearly biased opinion. Although debates can be heated, just like regular bullies, online trolls thrive on provocation. Do not try to legitimize their positions by “taking the bait” as they say.

And finally, we recommend reading the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) document brochure on disinformation tactics, as it is a very useful and informative compilation, containing disinformation methods, tactics and ways to spot fakes with real examples. By combining these methods, it should be easier to spot what is real and what is not.

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