The first week of November, people around the globe watched in angst as votes for the 2020 United States presidential election results trickled in. While states tabulated results, US President Donald Trump falsely declared victory on early 4 November (3 November EST).
The announcement came as no surprise to anyone paying attention. The President had been sowing doubt about the election’s integrity for months, calling mail-in voting “bad, dishonest and slow” and the entire election a “fraud”. He also pressured several states to stop counting votes while he still had a lead.
“We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election. We will never let them do it…” he wrote on Twitter that same day. The social media company immediately flagged the tweet as misleading because there has been no evidence of fraud.
State governors, top election officials, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the US Department of Homeland Security have since refuted the claims, calling it the “most secure election in history.”
Yet, Trump and his administration continued to circulate claims – and they’ve spread like wildfire. “Stop the Steal”, a viral Facebook group which has now been removed by Facebook, attracted more than 350,000 members in a single day. The group promoted numerous rallies across the States and distributed misinformation about the election.
“The group was organised around the delegitimization of the election process, and we saw worrying calls for violence from some members of the group,” Facebook said in statement after removing the group on 5 November US time.
The recent US election is just one instance of how disinformation campaigns can sow discord, undermine democratic systems, and potentially cause physical harm.
“Trump is a good example. If you have this powerful politician who wants to communicate with the people, they don’t need to talk to the media anymore. They can just tweet directly [to their followers],” says Dr Masato Kajimoto, a professor at the University of Hong Kong who specialises in news literacy education and misinformation ecosystem research in Asia.
In the past, the public rarely had to fact-check claims themselves, because journalists served as the gatekeepers of information. But now, more people than ever are consuming “news” on social media – and netizens can share posts hundreds of thousands of times regardless if it is true or not.
With the growing popularity of social media comes a more convenient spread of unverified information. Facebook grew more than 400 per cent over the past decade, from almost 518 million users in 2010 to 2.38 billion in 2019, according to Our World in Data.
If this trend continues, it will come down to every member of the public to discern between truth and fiction, facts and falsehoods.
IDENTIFY TRUSTWORTHY SOURCES
Eric Wishart, former editor-in-chief of AFP who’s now responsible for special editorial projects, says there are a few ways to combat disinformation and improve media literacy in one’s personal life.
“It’s like getting in a car and putting on a seatbelt. Anything can come at you, so you’ve got to have a firm base [of reliable sources],” Wishart says.
Those who consume information from established, trustworthy media outlet and wires – such as AFP, BBC or Reuters – can presume that the information has already been vetted and fact-checked, Wishart says.
Readers will also know if and when a reliable media organisation makes a mistake. Unlike bloggers or independent “news” channels on YouTube, responsible news outlets publish corrections and value transparency.
WATCH FOR RED FLAGS
When consuming information online, readers can learn a lot from a publication’s writing style. Kajimoto suggests noting emotional language, promotional writing and exaggerated headlines – these are often telltale signs of misleading information.
Content farms employ similar techniques: click-bait headlines, sensational pictures and emotional language.
Such sites often name-drop online influencers and celebrities as well. When reading a headline like, “Oh, my God, can you believe what Brad Pitt just said about Hong Kong?” with a picture of a female protester in a bikini sitting next to him… that is a red flag.
At this point, readers should wonder: Can I trust this source? Is the publisher known for partisanship, satirical stories, inaccurate reporting or pranks?
A quick Google search can also help to verify a source’s legitimacy. If several established media companies have also reported on the topic, then it is more likely to be true. But if this is the sole source of salacious news, it’s unlikely to hold up to scrutiny.
News consumers must vet photos and videos, too. It’s common for fake news websites and social media campaigns to manipulate images and videos.
For instance, they may create websites that mimic traditional news sites – like ABC or CNN – to trick readers into thinking they are reading real “news”. And with videos, disinformation campaigns may harness digital imaging technology to put words in someone else’s mouth to damage their reputation in what’s known as “deep fakes”.
“I think it has come to a point where any visual information – photos or videos – unless proven truly genuine, might have been manipulated,” warns Kajimoto.
“Internet fixes are so sophisticated now… For visual information, by default, you should think to yourself, ‘This may not be true.’” If you suspect something’s off, Kajimoto suggests using a free reverse-image search programme, like TinEye, which enables users to search for images online and compare different versions.
THINK BEFORE SHARING
Netizens should be careful about what content they choose to circulate online. It’s all too easy to press the “share” or “retweet” button before having read an article or vetted an image. But doing so may only increase fake news and disinformation, further harming the community.
“They could be obsessed with this dopamine rush that they get from social media, from getting all this attention and likes,” says Wishart. “But really, what’s the hurry?” If readers take the time to digest and understand what they are about to share, it may reduce the risk of spreading false and unverified information.
EDUCATE OLDER RELATIVES
Most young adults, teenagers, and children have already learned – or will learn – about media literacy in school. However, Wishart worries about the older generation.
During our interview, the veteran journalist logs onto Facebook. Within a minute, he spots several older acquaintances who posted a video captioned “the Democraps [sic] could do anything”, as well as conspiracies about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Wishart says we have to pay special attention to the older generation. Some do not know how to check, while others do not fully understand that disseminating fake news could cost lives.
Take Covid-19 conspiracy theories and falsehoods, for example, which have contributed to the record-setting number of deaths in the US.
“I think COVID is a game-changer because it does harm. Donald Trump said the pandemic was a hoax; Fox News also said it’s a hoax. So these people just followed them,” says Wishart.
They don’t realise that this is a dangerous situation with real consequences, he adds. But if an individual believes masks don’t work or the virus doesn’t even exist, they could make poor choices, then fall ill or die.
CHECK YOUR BIAS
At times, Kajimoto suggests, people buy into information not because it’s factual, but because it is in line with the reader’s internal biases.
In the US, for example, information about COVID-19 has been heavily politicised. Those who are ardent supporters of President Trump are more likely to trust what he says, regardless of its accuracy. In contrast, those who did not support him tend to be more sceptical.
In both cases, a critical and reflective mindset is vital when sorting through fact and fiction. “Your bias often gives you a very strong motivation to comment, share or hit the like button,” says Kajimoto.
“After all, most people only believe what they want to be true. So don’t just take a second before you share something online, but also question your own bias… That kind of self-reflection is important.”
Your Media Literacy Toolkit
Search an image’s history with this programme, which enables users to sort the results by “most changed”. The site also has a “compare” feature that allows users to compare iterations of the image to check for manipulations.
AFP Factcheck runs stories to debunk viral conspiracies and myths happening around the globe. In light of recent events, it has published articles combatting coronavirus and US election fake news.
Annie lab is a bilingual fact-checking project launched by the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre in collaboration with the Asian Network of News & Information Educators (ANNIE). They research Asia-centric topics and bust myths circulated on social media.
Factcheck Lab is a Chinese fact-checking organisation funded by the Culture & Media Education Foundation, which is part of the Hong Kong government. It focuses on investigating conspiracies and verifying information published by mainland or local media like CCTV, Ta Kung Pao and Sing Tao Daily. Not all media are responsible, and the Factcheck always keeps an eye out and calls them out when necessary.
Kauyim is a Hong Kong-based fact-checking and rumour-vetting organisation. The service aims to verify rumours shared on popular chat programmes, such as WhatsApp, and correct misleading media reports.