Fake news: How to spot misinformation

An illustration of a person examining news articles.
Where can you find accurate news? Life Kit wants to empower you to become a savvy, critical media consumer.
Lindsey Balbierz for NPR

Fake news has consequences.

Back in 2016, before the term was even part of our national vocabulary, it threw the government of Twin Falls, Idaho, into chaos.

Rumors of a government cover-up involving child molestation and Syrian refugees swirled. They soon leaped from the fringes of the Internet to kitchen tables and the mainstream media.

"Members of the local government, the mayor, the city council members, local judges, the county prosecutor, they were basically inundated for months on end with threats," says Caitlin Dickerson, who covered the story for The New York Times. "Violent threats. Very visceral and descriptive threats from all over the world."

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But the outrage was not based on facts. The details were blurred in some cases, completely fabricated in others, depending on the storyteller and their agenda.

It was a grave example of how misinformation can have a terrifying real-world impact. But falsehoods aren't hard to come by in today's information landscape.

Here are five tips to help you spot misinformation. (Or if you would rather listen, check out the Life Kit podcast here.)

1) Exercise skepticism

Take in any new information, whether it's the news or on social media or from a buddy at happy hour, with a bit of doubt. Expect the source to prove their work and show how they came to their conclusion. And try to compare information from a number of different outlets, even if you have a favorite.

2) Understand the misinformation landscape

Misinformation, as a concept, isn't new. But the social media platforms for engaging with it are constantly changing and increasing their influence in the media world. Those platforms have no financial obligation to tell the truth — their business models depend on user engagement. Reducing your dependence on social media will be good for your news judgment (and your sleep).

3) Pay extra attention when reading about emotionally-charged and divisive topics

Misinformation is most effective on hot-button issues and immediate news. Ask yourself: Is this a complicated subject, something that's hitting an emotional trigger? Or is it a breaking news story where the facts aren't yet able to be assembled? If the answer is yes, then you need to be ultra-skeptical.

4) Investigate what you're reading or seeing

What does that skepticism look like in practice? It means asking some questions of what you're reading or seeing: Is the content paid for by a company or politician or other potentially biased source? Is there good evidence? And are the numbers presented in context?

(The News Literacy Project created an app to help people test and strengthen their media literacy skills.)

5) Yelling probably won't solve misinformation

It's important to value the truth, but correcting people is always delicate. If someone in your life is spreading objective falsehoods and you want to help, be humble. Don't assume bad intentions or stupidity, just meet the other person where they are and be curious — think about opening with common ground and a question. Try to have the conversation in person or at least in a private online setting, like an email.

If you want more resources, Media Literacy Now is a good place to start.