How you can spot disinformation online and on social media

Bad actors want to play with your emotions ahead of November election

  • Russ Walker/PA Post
The winners of the 2020 Society for Environmental Journalists Awards were announced Thursday, and there are two first place awards with Pennsylvania connections. Two reporters at the Bucks County Courier Times (Kyle Bagenstose and Jenny Wagner) won a Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting for their series on PFAS contamination around former military bases. And Nancy Averett won for Outstanding Feature for a story she wrote for Undark Magazine about air pollution from a coke plant in Avalon, Pa. More details on all the SEJ winners here. Congrats to all! —Russ Walker, PA Post editor

Courtesy howtostartablogonline.net via Flickr

Social media was a wonderful evolution of the digital world when it emerged in the 2000s in the form of companies like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. Connecting with old friends or family members, broadcasting your latest thoughts on Penn State football or sharing a new recipe … social media made that easy and fun to do.

But while it was winning us over by connecting us with long-lost members of our high school graduating classes, social media was also being used to share news and, just as importantly, opinions about news. Almost one-fifth of American adults (18%) “say they turn most to social media for political and election news,” according to the Pew Research Center. And what’s worse, Pew found, is that these same adults are less likely to know about topics in the news, especially involving topics like politics.

So right away, we know that people who get their news from social media are less informed than their peers who listen to news on the radio, watch it on TV or read reliable print or online publications.

That makes this audience a prime target for disinformation. If you spend much time on social media these days, you’re likely to see inflammatory posts about the news that are often false and misleading. And we know, thanks to Robert Meuller’s investigation, that foreign powers were using Facebook to try to disrupt the 2016 election.

In 2017, Claire Wardle of the organization First Draft wrote about the dangers posed by false information being shared on social media: “Previous attempts to influence public opinion relied on ‘one-to-many’ broadcast technologies but, social networks allow ‘atoms’ of propaganda to be directly targeted at users who are more likely to accept and share a particular message. Once they inadvertently share a misleading or fabricated article, image, video or meme, the next person who sees it in their social feed probably trusts the original poster, and goes on to share it themselves. These ‘atoms’ then rocket through the information ecosystem at high speed powered by trusted peer-to-peer networks.”

These efforts continue to target voters with false information. Case in point is the coronavirus epidemic. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Informed Democracy and Social Cybersecurity found that much of the information being shared on the virus back in May could be traced to “bots” — aka fake accounts created solely for the purpose of spreading false information.

“Some of it appears to be very orchestrated and coordinated,” CMU expert Kathleen Carley told WESA earlier this year. “A bunch of the ones that are associated with the conspiracy theories, such as this was a CIA weapon, appear to be coordinated.

First Draft on Thursday published a series of case studies showing how false information is being shared in battleground states ahead of the 2020 election. The researchers found “dozens of examples of information disorder playing out via private Facebook groups, text messaging and other platforms. In an echo of national trends, local influencers and elected officials — state representatives, sheriffs and political candidates — play a key role in amplifying and spreading misleading or harmful information about the pandemic and other issues.”

Another tactic, often pursued by corporate or political interests, is creating genuine-sounding “news” sites where literal fake, biased or misleading news is published. The Tow Center for Digital Journalism found that “[i]t is becoming an increasingly common campaign strategy for PACs and single-interest lobbyists to fund websites that borrow credibility from news design to help advance particular agendas. The proliferation of politically funded local news sites across the political spectrum raises questions about how these entities represent themselves to the public, and how they are categorized by search engines and social platforms.” (Here’s a searchable list of questionable sites, including dozens in Pennsylvania).

That means it’s our responsibility to check a crazy news story before you share it. When Uncle Eddy or Cousin Nancy forward you a Facebook post about dogs being registered to vote in Michigan, take a deep breath and then follow Ronald Reagan’s advice: “Trust, but verify” … with a heavy emphasis on verify.

Thursday’s Context included a list of fact-checking sites run by news organizations. To that list, we add the invaluable Snopes.com, which has been debunking rumors since practically the dawn of the World Wide Web.

Some additional news stories and useful tools:

A photo of Mark Van Blargan

The WITF family lost a friend and leader this week. Mark VanBlargan, the chair of WITF’s board, passed away on Monday. Our deepest condolences to his family and loved ones.

  • Gov. Tom Wolf smacked the hornet’s nest on Thursday when he and his Health Department urged schools not to proceed with organized sports this fall. Wolf had said that he would defer to local school districts and the PIAA on the matter, so his remarks came as a surprise. The PIAA, whose governing board will meet today to debate an official response, issued this statement yesterday: “We are tremendously disappointed in this decision. Our member schools have worked diligently to develop health and safety plans to allow students the safe return to interscholastic athletics.” Wolf says his administration is making a recommendation, not issuing a mandate. A spokesman for the GOP state House majority said, “For reasons beyond understanding, the governor waited until practices have already started, equipment has already been purchased, fees have already been paid, and dreams of a return to normalcy have already been formed by athletes and families alike.”

  • Speaking of sports, Penn State is looking at different plans for the fall football season, including the possibility that the team would play in an empty stadium, WPSU reports. Another option would be to allow just 23,000 fans to watch in the huge stadium in hopes of assuring social distancing. But Athletic Director Sandy Barbour made clear that given the coronavirus situation, there’s also a chance that there won’t be a football season this fall. “The virus will determine whether we play or not,” she said.

  • The City of York’s information technology was attacked … but not by anonymous hackers over the Internet. According to the York Daily Record, a man broke into city hall Wednesday night and did extensive damage, including destroying various pieces of technology, with damages estimated at $350,000.

  • Someone used Facebook to release video of a 2018 incident in the Luzerne County Correctional Facility in which an inmate died. According to The Citizens Voice, the 23-minute video shows guards using tasers on Shaheen Mackey, an inmate who is clearly agitated and upset but also already physically restrained. Mackey’s death resulted in a $3 million settlement with his family, but the video’s release is expected to renew calls for action against the guards seen in the video.

  • Isaias, the first named hurricane to sweep over the region earlier this week, could be followed by many more. On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it is “now predicting a far-above-average 19 to 25 named storms — seven to 11 of them to become hurricanes and three to six of those to become major hurricanes with winds of at least 111 mph (178 kph). That’s a few more storms than the agency’s May forecast. The agency increased the chance of an above average hurricane season from 60% to 85%.”

  • You may have seen the great story from the South Pacific earlier this week — three fisherman stranded on an uninhabited island wrote “S.O.S” in the sand to successfully call in rescuers. Believe it or not, there’s a Pennsylvania tie: “A U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker, operating out of Andersen Air Force Base on Guam, was dispatched to try and locate the missing men. Pennsylvania Air National Guardsmen Tech. Sgt. Rodney Joseph and Senior Airman Jeremy Williams, based out of the 171st Air Refueling Wing here in Southwestern Pennsylvania, were on board the flight,” KDKA reports.

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