Avoid Misleading Messages

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To sift through the vast quantities of misleading information presented to us each day, we need to develop the skills that will inform us how to avoid being misled.

We’ve got an information problem.

If you have a message to share, it’s easier than ever to spread it widely and at minimal or no cost. Social media has been a significant contributor to the mass distribution of ideas, as people increasingly rely on their social media feeds for news and current events.

On those platforms, someone plants the seed with a post, and followers or friends willingly repost and spread the ideas far and wide. Even if we are not spreaders ourselves, it is almost impossible to avoid the constant barrage of messaging from advertisers, political groups, special interests, and others with the intent to persuade.

Social media is a unique form of information distribution because articles, posts, and messages come to us in our personal social media feeds. We don’t even have to actively seek them out. It’s fitting that we say messages “go viral,” since the spread of ideas and information is very much like a virus, taking hold and spreading from person to person until it is seemingly everywhere.

While these messages can be positive and trustworthy, there has been a significant increase in misleading or false information, especially on social media. In fact, a February 2021 article in PC Magazine noted that “verified Twitter users shared an all-time-high amount of fake news in 2020,” with a 160% increase in the sharing of false content.

Equally problematic is that the spread of false ideas is steadily evolving from the sharing of misinformation to an intentional dissemination of disinformation. While misinformation is the distribution of false information, it is done without a realization that the information is inaccurate. That said, even if the intent of sharing that information is not to misinform, the impact can have negative consequences, since others will often believe it as truth. In other words, regardless of the intent, the outcome can be the same: the distribution of false or misleading information.

Disinformation is even worse because it is the intentional spread of misleading information, and it is meant to intentionally persuade or sow the belief in false information. This is different from bias or advertising, which are usually less harmful in their intent. Disinformation is more like propaganda or information warfare, since the intent is often malicious. Disinformation can take many forms, including fake news, deep fakes, doctored images, misleading graphs, hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and more.

We’ve got a digital citizenship obligation.

With the propagation of misleading information, it is increasingly important that we empower our students with the skills to separate facts from falsehoods. After all, our students are the future voters and leaders of our country.

Teaching these skills can be tricky in a hyper-partisan environment, where communities are divided in their beliefs and opinions, but it is critical nonetheless. In fact, it’s probably more important than ever because of the current political environment and the increase of filter bubbles.

The first step in addressing this problem is teaching our students to identify types of misleading information. Let’s begin by differentiating between misinformation and disinformation.

  • Misinformation: This refers to the spread of information that is not true without knowing that the information is untrue. This can be harmful, but it is usually unintentional.
  • Disinformation: This is the intentional spread of inaccurate information while being aware that it is untrue. The spread of disinformation is an intentional attempt to misinform others and is often used to shape opinions or hide the truth.

Street art commenting on facial recognition

Because disinformation is significantly more dangerous, let’s take a closer look at some of the most common forms that it can take. It’s especially important that our students can recognize these.

  • Fake News: The definition of fake news continues to morph. It started out as a way to identify news stories that were not true. These stories were often intentionally fabricated to mislead, shape opinion, or draw in people as clickbait. More recently, the term fake news has become more ambiguous and politically loaded. At times, it is used to discredit a news source. Because of its political connotations, some have begun to avoid this term.
  • Clickbait: These are links meant to intrigue you enough with their titles that you click on them. The creators “bait,” or trick, you into “clicking,” thus the term “clickbait.” Generally, these articles are used in an attempt to profit financially, as each click pays the creator of the link a specified amount of money for drawing people to a site with advertising. Not surprisingly, clickbait is often inflammatory, sensational, and false. If the topics can cause an emotional reaction, viewers will be more likely to click the link to find out more.
  • Propaganda: Merriam-Webster defines propaganda as “ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause.” While propaganda can include factual information, that information is often biased in order to persuade. Disinformation is also often included in propaganda.
  • Deepfakes: Merriam-Webster defines deepfake as “an image or recording that has been convincingly altered and manipulated to misrepresent someone as doing or saying something that was not actually done or said.” These might be heavily edited videos or audio clips that take words out of context. Other times, they can be digitally created video or audio that looks and sounds real, but is entirely computer-generated. It is often difficult to distinguish a deepfake from a real media clip. Check out this example on the MIT website.
  • Image Manipulation: This is the use of software to edit an image, so it appears different than when it was taken. This often involves removing or adding elements to the image. It’s common to change the context or message of an image by changing the composition of elements in that image. Like with deepfakes, it’s often difficult to identify a manipulated image from an original.
  • Misleading Data: Statistics can be manipulated in many ways. Some say that you can find a statistic to support any idea if you look hard enough. Statistics can be manipulated by taking them out of context, sharing only the data that supports a point of view, or visually misrepresenting it in a graph or chart, leaving an untrained eye to believe what the chart appears to show, rather than what the numbers actually represent.
  • Hoaxes: A hoax is a deliberate attempt to convince someone that something is true, when in fact, it is untrue. Oftentimes, a hoax includes the use of disinformation to trick or mislead others. Essentially, it’s a big lie.
  • Conspiracy Theories: Conspiracy theories are the belief that greater forces are working together to withhold the truth in order to manipulate a point of view. These can be thought of as secret plots, and they often revolve around the idea that people in power are abusing their power by distributing disinformation.

We Need To Take Action

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the amount of misleading information swirling around in our digital worlds. Even when we are aware of disinformation and are trained to identify it, we can be fooled. Nevertheless, we must take action. In fact, as educators, we have an obligation to act. The cost of ignoring the problem is too great. Here are a few ways that you can get started in your classroom.

5 Ways to Avoid Being Misled

1. Identify misleading information: The first step is to help our students understand what forms of misleading information exist. In this way, we can help them identify that information and begin to sift out the falsehoods from the facts. Checkology provides lessons and resources for teaching these skills to students.

2. Identify bias: The identification of bias is closely related to identifying misleading information, but it looks at it through a narrower lens. We should understand that bias is everywhere, and we will encounter it even in trusted news sources. However, bias can be more nefarious when it is meant to intentionally shape the message and mislead us. Check out the AVID Open Access article, Acknowledge and Identify Bias, to learn more.

3. Pop your filter bubble: Filter bubbles are created when we only see and hear narrow perspectives and ideas, and we become surrounded by like-minded people and information sources. We all find ourselves in some degree of a filter bubble, mixing with like-minded friends or having dissenting views filtered out of our social media feeds. By intentionally seeking out other perspectives and by listening to opposing viewpoints, we can begin to reduce the impact of filter bubbles. Check out the AVID Open Access article, Pop the Filter Bubble, for more ideas and strategies.

4. Identify the forms it can take: When students understand how deepfakes are made or how images are manipulated, it not only raises their awareness, but it also makes them more critical consumers of media. It can be helpful to view examples and non-examples of different media formats. There are many great resources freely available online that you can use as examples. In the “Extend Your Learning” section below, we’ve posted links to several lessons on Common Sense Education to help get you started.

5. Be a credibility detective: This might be the most important action that we can take. While we don’t want a generation of students who have lost faith in information media, a healthy amount of skepticism can be a good thing. We want them to be critical thinkers and to be thoughtful about what they are hearing, viewing, and reading. It’s important to question the information that we consume and to seek out corroborating sources. Of course, this is easier said than done, since it’s possible to find sources that will allegedly verify even a conspiracy theory. Therefore, it’s important to teach our students to be “credibility detectives.” They must learn how to identify what information they can believe and what they should question further. Check out the AVID Open Access article, Create Credibility Detectives in Your Classroom, as it outlines the ABCs of checking for credibility, which you can use with your students to help them become credibility detectives.

If you would like to reinforce these tips with your students, you can make a copy of our poster: 5 Ways to Avoid Being Misled.

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