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Is your feed manipulating you?

Interactive showcase Friday, March 10

Join Albertsons Library’s Disinfo Squad for an interactive showcase of the students’ semester-long training as peer educators and social media influencers. The squad is working to counter the public’s vulnerability to disinformation. Each student will present a lightning talk and provide examples of their social media work, while engaging visitors in some of the games used in their training. The event will take place in room 201C from 2:00 – 3:00 p.m.

Blog series

This article is the third in a series of blogs written by the Disinfo Squad, a disinformation research unit funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Elizabeth Ramsey, associate professor/librarian at Albertsons Library and Isaac Castellano, clinical assistant professor with the School of Public Service are two of the faculty members involved with the project.

Can you spot fake news?

Most people agree that the earth is round, but for other issues, the amount of disagreement and division in our culture makes online figures have to get creative in how they persuade others. On top of that, attention and clicks are what ‘keep the lights on’ for online platforms, creating a set of incentives to exaggerate or outright lie for big stories and engagement. To top it all off, the way you were taught to spot fake news probably doesn’t cut it; you need to get creative with how you consume online news if you want to compete. 

Most are taught in school to look closely at a page for signs of professionalism, like good web design, a professional-looking author, and a reliable domain like ‘.org.’ However, anybody can make a site that passes these criteria, and countless biased lobbying groups make this formal online appearance to deceive users. For example, the Family Research Council is an anti-gay hate group that will make its own claims about how it publishes ‘just the facts,’ and yet even if you agree with their position, you may not recognize that they are an ideological think tank pushing their positions rather than an official research organization, and they will go out of their way to deceive others into thinking they are receiving unbiased information. 

Researching facts, not content

Similarly, appearances can be deceiving when it comes to the credentials of authors. A chiropractor may try to sell a ‘miracle cure’ for asthma, for instance, and trick people by presenting their title as a doctor prominently with the goal that the audience won’t pick up on their lack of expertise for asthma; an allergist or immunologist would be what to look for. An example of this is Simone Gold, an emergency physician who has led America’s Frontline Doctors, a political group of healthcare workers that oppose the COVID-19 vaccine. However, the problem is that Gold doesn’t have professional knowledge about virology or vaccines in general. She is a physician, and regardless of whether you agree with her or not, she will manipulate audiences into believing that she has expertise on vaccines when she does not. The problem with these groups is that you will never learn from their articles and websites that they are pushing an agenda without professional distinction backing their claims. Instead, you have to spend less time on the page of concern, and more time elsewhere.

Build a balanced news feed

Though it may seem unintuitive, you will learn less the more you focus and pore over an article that you have concerns about. Instead, it’s important to use a process called lateral reading, a tactic used by fact-checkers to learn more about articles and authors. Lateral reading involves performing multiple searches in different tabs about the source you’re looking at, without dwelling too long on a single one. Simply using Google to find more information is helpful, but specific tools can be of great use. For all its reputation paints it to be, Wikipedia is an excellent starting point for lateral reading, as it can lead you to more in-depth sources on a multitude of today’s issues, and only a select group of highly-rated editors can edit the pages for public figures. Additionally, Media Bias Fact Check can help you assess the reliability of different news outlets so that you can build a healthy and balanced news feed.

Many sites publish fact checks, but Snopes is one of the most popular and reliable. The goal of using all of these tools and different searches is to learn about a source, but not from the source’s own words, which will have a bias towards themselves. It’s inevitable that people will disagree, but these ways of knowing better are important to ensure that they disagree for substantive reasons, instead of disagreeing because of internalizing lies and disinformation.

by Rachel Terhune, senior, majoring in sociology