• Hannah Williams

Disinformation in the Media: How to Tell the Real From the Fake


By now, we all know it’s relatively easy for false or misleading information to sneak into your daily newsfeed. The inherent real-time nature of social media has gone from quenching your thirst for breaking news, to forcing you to take a drink from a firehose of information. We live in a content-saturated world that requires critical thinking to determine the credibility of what you’re reading.


Why is this important? According to a recent report, over 70 countries have experienced disinformation campaigns. Many of which consist of a government entity hiring citizens to promote propaganda on their social platforms, trying to start country-wide disinformation campaigns. An example of this is the current protests in Hong Kong. The above report showcases that the Chinese government is not only targeting localized social platforms but beginning to influence the population using worldwide platforms including Facebook and Twitter to promote their agenda.


What is Disinformation?

Fake news has been a hot topic recently, however, research shows that less than 10 percent of Americans have shared fake news across social media. When consumers are gaining such a high intake of information online, how do you decipher what’s real and what’s a stretch from the truth? I’ll break down ways to decide if a source is credible by pointing out a few key factors you can look out for when doing your daily reading.


Disinformation is classified as unfounded information with the intention to mislead. Take a look at the political sector, for example, it’s well-known for propagating disinformation, often being blamed on bots that blast out tweets with false information and tricking social media consumers looking for campaign news.


Consumer brands are also no strangers to being targeted by disinformation tactics. In recent years, Coca-Cola and Starbucks were both the focus of disinformation campaigns aimed at hindering their business. In 2017, a tweet was shared claiming that a parasitic worm, causing many to go to the hospital, was found in the bottom of Dasani bottles nationwide. Coca-Cola had to issue a statement announcing the claims were unfounded, which prompted a response from the Food and Drug Administration confirming that there were no active recalls for the product. Claims like this have a tendency to recur, often showing up again months later to mislead consumers.


Much like Coca-Cola’s incident, 4chan users targeted Starbucks with a disinformation advertising campaign intended to stifle purchases. The anonymous users produced an advertisement claiming Starbucks would give a 40 percent discount on all beverages to undocumented immigrants on August 11th of the same year. This example of disinformation didn’t just target a brand, but it also went after its customers and the undocumented population with an alleged plan to call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Starbucks debunked the event, tweeting “Starbucks is not sponsoring any such event. Please do not spread misinformation.”


Photo by Matthew Guay


Disinformation vs. Misinformation

It is important to note that disinformation and misinformation are not the same things. While disinformation is purposeful, with the intent to mislead the reader, the key distinction is that misinformation occurs when someone unintentionally re-posts false information, which then spreads rapidly impacting search, social, and other online entities. A common example of misinformation is when a worldwide event happens, and to help, unverified information is shared. Take the recent fires in the Amazon, for example. The news was widely reported and people rapidly tweeted their support, frequently including images. But some of those images were from previous events, thus beginning the spread of misinformation.


The Reuters Institute Digital News Report states that less than half of readers trust the news sites they regularly use. As these readers are losing their trust in the media, it is imperative to find sources you trust who are putting out factual information. When looking for technology news, I typically visit trusted sources including TechCrunch, The Verge, or Ars Technica. Others get their news from reporters or industry leaders they follow on social media, and some get news from a combination of all the above examples. These outlets tend to be more trustworthy as their reporters are known to do their due diligence before reporting a story, sticking to the fact and steering away from rumors.


Disinformation in the Technology Industry

One of the current threats of disinformation in the technology industry is deepfaking: the use of an artificial intelligence program that allows advanced computer systems to create an incredibly realistic yet falsified video. A relatively well-known example of this is Jordan Peele’s deepfake Obama PSA. According to BuzzFeed News, the video was made to inform the public of the ‘future of fake news’ and the danger deepfaking poses to public information. Hours and hours of video footage is compiled for deepfaking to come to life, so the bigger the online presence the person has, the more vulnerable they are to these tactics.


This past September, Facebook announced that it is currently developing a method to detect deepfakes on the social networking site by creating its own deepfake videos. How does the creation of the very threat help to combat it? According to the company, they hope that the creation of these deepfake videos will help to build a data set that the artificial intelligence community can then use to find the altered videos online. This Deepfake Detection Challenge will offer awards and grants to those in the AI community working towards a solution to this issue.


Spreading beyond the realm of deepfakes, these last few years, Facebook has been at the helm of fake news campaigns, with millions of Americans not only reading but also sharing disinformation posted by spam news pages found on the platform. As the leading social networking site for the sharing of propaganda and fake news, Facebook pledged to share data on disinformation campaigns found on the networking site that was used during the 2016 presidential election. The company planned to share information on posts that were flagged as possibly false so that researchers could compile the data and then share that data with the public prior to the 2020 presidential election. A year after the pledge was made, it is looking grim for such information to come to light before the 2020 election. The platform has attributed this to privacy issues, though many experts believe this may not be the case.


While there is not a specific quantitative way to determine credibility, you can use your best judgment by critically thinking to assess the possibility of information being fake. The steps below provide a step-by-step method for this.

Photo by Eduardo Peralta


Determining Credibility

When looking to determine credibility, you’ll want to know the author and the site and where the information came from. Some simple actions you can take to verify the credibility of an author are:


Visit their Author Page:

  • Has the author written for the site before?

  • What are their credentials?

  • Check their LinkedIn, or Twitter bios.

  • What is the author typically covering?

  • Where else are they writing?

It’s also imperative to know the outlet that is reporting the information. Not only should you determine the author’s credibility, but you should also determine the reputability of the source.


Visit the Homepage:

  • What are the top stories?

  • Where is the information coming from and who are the sources?

  • Has the company/person that is being written about confirmed the subject of the story?

  • Is there ad space on the site? What kinds of companies are purchasing this space?

  • Is there an available media kit to view outlet readership, see viewership numbers and the audience this outlet reaches?

Lastly, if both the author and the outlet prove to be reputable, you’ll want to check the source the information came from. Whether the subject of the story comes from the comments of a company spokesperson or research a company has conducted, you’ll want to verify the validity of their claims.


Vetting the Sources:

  • Who is being credited with knowing this information?

  • Where are they working?

  • How long have they been at the company?

  • What entity is being cited for information?

  • How did they find the information?

  • Was it sourced from another company?

  • Was the data found using a diverse data group?

  • Are there proof points of where this information came from?

If the story you’re reading has passed all the above tests, it’s probably safe to call it a reputable story. However, if you’re still unsure about certain elements, or even the article as a whole, there are a couple of tools you can use to validate claims made in a piece.


Helpful Tools

If you’re looking to fact-check a statement and not an entire article, a simple tool for this is going onto Snopes.com and searching for the statement or submitting a topic for review. The site fact checks articles and statements daily and will compile comprehensive articles detailing if the statement is true or false, where the information came from and how it came to be (given that the statement is false).


Another helpful tool is the NewsGuard browser plug-in. Editors of the site rate a website based on nine criteria for credibility and transparency. Sites are then given a score out of 100, with 100 being the most reputable. These numbers are shown within your searches beside each link, helping you decide if that site is credible enough to view.


When reading any form of news, whether via the internet or social media, you should always look over the information with a fine-tooth comb. Do this by fact-checking something that seems too good to be true, and making sure to fact check statements that come across as falsified. Always remember to vet the author, the publication, and the source of information. Happy reading!

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