Over the past few days, as the protests against the brutal death of George Floyd have spread across the country, social media has been an essential tool for keeping up with news in real time, as users post video and live updates. But with this surge in citizen journalism comes a wave of false information, too.
“When the country’s on edge and there’s a lot happening, anything that is unusual or will grab attention will go viral very quickly,” says Syracuse University assistant professor of communications Jennifer Grygiel. “And unfortunately untrue stories can be even more out-there and outlandish and concerning and can go viral faster than the truth.” This means all social media users have a responsibility to keep an eye out for falsities circulating as the truth on Twitter and other platforms, and to think before they share.
“People need to realize their own account is a tool and when you’re sharing content you’re giving your audience to somebody else,” says Darren Linvill, associate professor of communication at Clemson University. “Even if 90 times out of 100 that account is real and genuine, you need to think twice before sharing your audience with them because you’re giving them power by doing that.” Rolling Stone culled together pointers from various misinformation experts to help you differentiate between the truth and fiction on social media.
- Use photo sourcing tools
Over the past few days, a number of photos purporting to capture the aftermath of the protests have gone viral, such as this image of a blaze being set next to the Washington Monument (which was actually a screengrab from the TV show Designated Survivor), or a video claiming to show a car driving through the Mall of America (which was actually recorded last year at a mall in Illinois). Because there is so much footage of the protests that is both shocking and legitimate, people can be easily duped into sharing similar-looking content without verifying its origins. If you’re tempted to share a post containing a shocking or dramatic image, reverse image search tools such as TinEye can help you track the URL to see whether it has appeared anywhere else online. Similarly, look for clues in the images that indicate where and when it’s happening like street signs or other location details, time of day and weather.
- Check the source of the story
On Sunday evening, a story started circulating claiming that Derek Chauvin, the police officer charged with Floyd’s murder, had taken his own life while in prison. The most commonly shared link promoting this claim was from a website called W24N, and it quoted an official from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety announcing Chauvin’s death. But a scan of the Department of Public Safety’s website would reveal that it had made no such announcement, and a quick Google search would have indicated that W24N has been implicated in the dissemination of fake news stories before, such as a false claim that Obama had tested positive for COVID-19. If you’re tempted to share a link but you don’t recognize the source, Googling it only takes a few seconds and will often cast immediate doubt on the legitimacy of the story.
- See who initially promoted the story
Earlier today, the hashtag #dcblackout started trending; the hashtag suggested that there had been widespread communication outages in the city due to authorities blocking people from using their smartphones. Upon closer examination, however, the accounts promoting it were suspect, says Linvill. “I looked at the first several accounts that first used this hashtag and they were brand-new accounts. They are anonymous, they are not tweeting anything about their own lives, and they’re only tweeting about one subject,” he tells Rolling Stone; one of them referenced both #BlackLivesMatter and #MAGA in its bio, an instant red flag. While it’s generally difficult for the average person to tell if a campaign is being promoted by bots, it’s helpful to look for “laser focus on a given polarizing topic, a lack of sharing of any personal anecdotes or real-life examples happening in a person’s life, and profile images and descriptions that sound generic and hacked together,” he says.
- Approach posts about missing people with caution
Following a breaking news event such as a mass shooting or terrorist attack, it’s not uncommon for clout-thirsty individuals to take advantage of the confusion and panic generated by such events to post photos of “relatives” — usually, a brother or cousin — who’s gone missing. Well-meaning people are likely to share such posts because it’s an easy way to signal-boost and help out, but they’re often just a way to gain a large amount of followers in a short amount of time, as was evidenced by a tweet posted by someone claiming to be a missing protester’s brother, which was called out as a hoax by BuzzFeed News.
- If you’re donating, make sure you’re doing so to an accredited organization
In the days following Floyd’s death, the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a grassroots organization that is raising funds for protesters’ bail, got a lot of attention when people started challenging others to match their donations to the organization. At the same time, however, a fraudulent Venmo account in the organization’s name started circulating, prompting the MFF to post a tweet cautioning that the account was fake. If you’re interested in donating to a relief organization for protesters (and you should!), call the organization or visit its website to make sure you’re donating through there and not through an unaffiliated GoFundMe or Venmo account.
- Beware of fake captions designed to go viral
On Monday morning, tweets claiming two police officers had been humiliated when they accidentally arrested an FBI agent caused “FBI” to trend. The video showed a clear instance of racial profiling, where two white cops handcuffed a black man who insisted he wasn’t who they were looking for, then released him hurriedly after they checked his ID in his wallet. The user who posted the video on YouTube and Instagram the day before, however, made it clear it was from 2019, and that his friend in the video was not a federal agent. He was, however, a black man harassed and cuffed by racist cops, a point that almost got lost in the online debate that followed over whether he was or was not FBI. If a video doesn’t appear to show what the caption or Tweet says it does, see if you can find the original source, and make sure you’re sharing it in the correct context.
- Don’t take “official” sources’ word for it
On Friday, Minnesota State Patrol officers arrested a CNN news crew on live television. As officers zip-tied correspondent Omar Jimenez’ hands behind his back, video captured a member of the crew saying, “You are arresting him live on CNN. We told you before that we are with CNN.” Later, the state patrol’s official Twitter account tried to make it sound like the three journalists were released “once they were confirmed to be members of the media,” but anyone who had seen the news footage would know the team had been clear about it.
Government agencies can use social media to circumvent the watchdog press, and because of that, their posts should not be taken at face value. “It’s very important during this time to follow trusted sources, and by trusted sources I mean the free press,” Grygiel says. “When a member of the public decides to follow an account directly it comes with new responsibilities. You become the journalist. You have to fact check it, you have to look at other sources, you have to think about context, you have to play the roles the journalists typically play. If you’re gonna follow a police account, you can’t just consume and digest that tweet. You have to question that tweet.”